Not All Ceremonial Matcha Are Created Equal
"Ceremonial Matcha" is a label that depicts a certain kind of quality in powdered green tea. At the moment, matcha does not have any standards of naming or grading, which has lead to confusion and misleading information. Customers end up with a bitter taste in their mouth after spending a lot of money on what they trusted to be a quality product.
How can you tell if certain matcha is good quality and how much should I expect to pay? One of the tell tale signs of high-quality matcha is the color. The matcha should have a deep green color, almost like fresh moss. If there is any yellow or brown tint to it, then it has not been shaded long enough to develop chlorophyll or has oxidized. Second is the aroma, which should be pungent and smell almost sweet like dark chocolate. The aroma in matcha is the first thing that disappears when matcha is not fresh. Last but not least is the taste of matcha. Matcha should taste sweet with a delicate bitterness and lots of umami like asparagus or green peas.
Since many people buy matcha online these days, tasting and smelling matcha may not be an option, so you will have to look at what information is provided. Vendors that share a lot of details tend to be the most trustworthy and know their product well. When buying matcha online, you should look for the origin, cultivar or varietal, or processing methods. The origin of matcha should be Japan, although it is also made in Vietnam, China, Korea, and even India. The two regions in Japan that produce the highest quality matcha are Uji and Yame. There are other regions close to these areas and can be considered good quality but not the best.
Knowing the cultivar used in matcha is also essential since certain types of tea trees are known to produce a higher amount of amino acids and are the best for making matcha. It is the same as champagne, where the best champagne is made from chardonnay or pinot noir grapes. High-quality matcha is made of Saemidori, Samidori, Asahi, Gokoh, or Uji Hikari cultivars. Each cultivar presents its own set of difficulties with farming and production, and that makes them more expensive then sencha cultivars. Some of these challenges are frost, weakness to molding or disease, small and brittle leaves, and low harvest yields. You will quickly find that most of the Japanese brands do not disclose their secret blend of cultivars and expect you to pay high prices based on their reputation alone. I will say that just because they are a Japanese company does not automatically make their matcha premium quality.
In recent years with the help of the internet and social media, farmers have been able to sell their product directly to consumers resulting in unblended, single farm matcha of very high quality. Blending of matcha cultivars is common practice and serves two purposes. By skillfully blending different varieties, you can create incredibly complex tasting matcha that has the best characteristics of each type of tea tree. The other reason is not so positive, and it is to dilute high-quality cultivars with lower quality to control the cost and increase the quantity available.
The highest quality matcha should only be made using the first spring leaves, shaded for 3-4 weeks, under a canopy made of straw, picked by hand, and matured for about six months before stone grinding. The first leaves contain the most vitamins and amino acids that the plant has been storing since the winter. Shading the plant from the sun boosts the amount of chlorophyll and results in greener and sweeter tea. By using a straw canopy instead of synthetic nylon, you can naturally control the amount of humidity. Japan is a very humid place, and it rains quite a lot in the spring, so being able to control moisture levels is very important so that mold or bacteria doesn't develop and destroy the plants. Synthetic materials can't absorb moisture, and often chemicals have to be used to prevent mold.
Tea leaves that are picked by experienced workers are uniform in size and shape and result in a balanced taste. The leaves are delicately plucked and help to prevent any bitterness. The leaves are then steamed, shaped, and dried into Tencha, which is stored for three to six months to let the taste become deeper and balanced. With modern technology and refrigeration, tencha can be stored without oxygen in a sub-zero freezers for up to two years! Once there is a demand, tencha is taken out of storage and freshly ground using mechanized stone mortars that slowly grind it to a micro-fine powder. Tea is ground into powder using several different methods, but grinding too fast generates heat and destroys some of the taste and aroma. That is why stone ground matcha is considered higher quality.
These are some of the main points to learning and grading matcha. As we have explained, the production of premium matcha is quite limited; thus, prices are higher than teas like sencha. Unfortunately, the cost of matcha has no direct correlation to the quality nor freshness. Your decision to purchase matcha from a vendor should be based on their reputation and the overall quality of all their teas. There should be consistency in quality, especially in Japanese teas.
Through years of experience and established relationships, we are able to bring our selection of matcha that is focused on cultivars and taste. We airship our matcha every six weeks to ensure the freshest tea possible and store it in sub-zero freezers until it is ready to be shipped to you. Our matcha is stamped with freshness dates, six months from the day it is ground. All of our everyday matcha customers consider our matcha to be the best they have ever had.