Around the start of April, the Camellia Sinensis tea plant produces its first new shoots of the season. The tea leaves are then shaded (for up to 4 weeks) using reed screens and rice straw. The shading of the leaves increases the levels of chlorophyll in the plant, giving matcha its brilliant green colour. The shading, which blocks up to 85% of the sunlight, also decreases the bitterness. This is achieved by the increased L-theanine content, decreasing the bitter/astringent tasting catechin. The tea leaves are then picked, steamed, cooled, dried, sorted, and finally ground into a fine powder we call matcha tea.
Matcha Tea Harvesting
Leaves for matcha tea are harvested in the spring, summer and autumn. The earlier the harvest usually means the better the quality of the tea produced. Spring harvested leaves are reserved for the highest grade drinking matcha tea and is the most valued. Using the traditional Japanese colander, Risshun, is the first day of spring, and falls in early February. So, counting from the first day of spring, Risshun, to the 88th day, which is called Hachijuhachiya (88th night) brings us to around May 2nd. About the time all the plants and vegetation begin to spring up. It is also the time for tea leaves to start blooming. Leaves picked during this first flush, the young leaves, are used for the finest quality teas only, including the finest grade matcha tea. Leaves harvested in the summer and autumn are normally used for the production of lower grade tea products, including culinary and latte grade matchas. These later harvested leaves are much bitterer than the ones obtained in spring.
Matcha Tea Processing
Once the leaves are picked and before any processing occurs the tea leaves are referred to as Tencha. It is usual for the tea leaves to begin their processing journey within 24 hours of being picked.
The steps involved in Matcha processing are:
- Steaming: This ensures oxidation (fermentation) stops. Steaming lasts between 30 and 40 seconds, the time and temperature being adjusted to the condition of the leaves. It is one of the most important processing steps and determines the quality of the finished tea.
- Cooling/Drying: Steamed tea leaves are quickly cooled by a strong blast of air. This fast cooling process ensures the vivid green colour, the flavours, the aroma, and nutritional components of the leaves are retained. Blown by a blast of air, the tea leaves soar upward about 6m inside a cooling tunnel, and are then placed into a drier for around 20 minutes.
Matcha Tea Grinding
- Cutting / Sorting: After emerging from the drier, the tea leaves are cut and sorted. Finally, the cut and dry tea leaves are mixed thoroughly to ensure consistent quality and flavour. At this point, before Tencha is ground into Matcha powder, the tea is known as Aracha of Tencha.
- Matcha Grinding: Tencha is then ground into a finely textured powder with a special granite stone mill to produce the final product, Matcha. It can take one hour to grind 40g of top-quality Matcha with a granite stone mill. Ensuring the stone mills don’t get too warm is important to the quality and flavour of the final product. Only the highest quality matcha is ground using this method. Lower grade matchas are ground using an industrial ball mill, more typically used when volume and price take precedent over the ultimate quality of the product.
Ceremonial Grade Matcha Tea
Sipped for centuries in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, ceremonial grade matcha should be the highest quality green tea powder available. This premium grade tea should be a vibrant green colour, with a very delicate taste, no bitterness, and an extremely fine texture. Thanks to its bright green colour, it can easily be recognized from the other tea grades. Ceremonial grade matcha is made from the youngest tea leaves because only the most tender, sweetest leaves, selected with utmost care by hand can be used to ensure the matcha is of the highest quality.
The flavour and aroma of hand-picked tea is much more mellow and smooth than tea trimmed by machine. The tea trees for hand-picked tea are grown differently to machine trimmed tea trees, consequently the tea sprouts of both types of trees grow differently. In the case of tea trees trimmed by machine, tea sprouts grow from the previously trimmed stubble. In contrast, in the case of tea trees picked by hand, tea sprouts shoot from the natural forks in the branches. The flavour and aroma of hand-picked tea is much more mellow and smooth than tea trimmed by machine and the leaves are of a higher quality. In fact all top grade teas, such as hand-picked Gyokuro, hand-picked Sencha, and hand-picked Matcha are grown only in quite small amounts, because there is only one small place in the entire world perfect for farming this special tea – a tiny area of land located in the Uji region of Japan. Therefore, hand-picked tea is very precious.
Issues facing the tea farmer
Issues facing the tea farmer are the length of time it takes to pick the leaves by hand. With a skilled and experienced harvester it is possible to only pick 6kg to 8kg of tea leaves in one day. By the time the leaves are processed etc. the volume of tea produced can be as low as 18% of what has been picked. The higher price of high quality matcha and other hand-picked teas are reflected in the sheer effort required to grow, harvest, process, grind (the leaves should be stone-ground using a granite stone only, paying great attention to the temperature and not allowing the product overheat), and package. It is just not possible to produce really high grade matcha or any high grade tea cheaply.
Only the highest grade Matcha was traditionally used in the tea ceremony. Why? The traditional Japanese tea ceremony used a thick-style tea (koicha [濃茶]), made with a high quantity of matcha powder and just enough water to enable it be consumed as a fluid. If the matcha powder wasn’t of the highest quality the taste would be very bitter.
Food/Culinary Grade Matcha Tea
Culinary Grade matcha is harvested in the summer and autumn and has a stronger taste. It is less expensive than ceremonial grade matcha but can still be a high quality product. The main difference is the taste. It is a more robust flavour than higher grade matchas, being bitterer, and has a slightly less vibrant green colour. If using as a drinking matcha more powder will need to be used and will probably taste better to most with a little sweetener added. Its main purpose though is for use in cooking and baking. Being specifically blended for use with other ingredients in food and drink recipes, its enhanced flavour cannot be overwhelmed by the other flavours. It is often sold as a latte matcha type powder and costs significantly less than the spring harvested high quality matchas.
Although there are many matcha products on the market, claiming ceremonial grade quality, there are different levels and qualities of ceremonial grade matcha. The finest matcha is made from the early spring harvested, hand-picked leaves. Due to the global demand for matcha, which is becoming harder and harder to satisfy, some of the traditional methods employed to produce the high quality matcha used in the tea ceremony is rapidly changing. Although the mechanisation of the harvest and the increased harvesting frequency of the tea bushes had enabled more matcha onto the market, it is still proving difficult to satisfy the global demand. This has led to the appearance of what could only be described as ‘matcha like’ products, difficult to tell from the real thing once reduced to its powdered form. But the harvesting and processing methods used are not conducive to producing a quality product. In fact these lower quality matcha products are manufactured using sencha equipment, producing a powdered tea which is ground from leaf other than tencha, using a ball-mill or grinder machine.
The name which the Japanese associate with these lower quality matcha type products is ‘moga’. For moga, the large brick tencha-oven isn’t used, since the manufacturers who produce moga are mostly sencha farmers, employing low-grade left-overs from the spring harvest, or tea leaf harvested in summer or autumn. So even though the label on your matcha tea claims to be ‘Japanese grade spring harvested ceremonial grade matcha’, it might not actually be the quality you are expecting. Mostly the ‘moga’ is produced from summer or autumn harvested leaves. Some of the farmers producing ‘moga’ don’t even bother to cover/shade the tea plants. This all results in a product which looks nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. It might be slightly less vivid green in colour, so easy to pass off as quality matcha. Until it is tasted! The general rule is; the more expensive the matcha, the higher the quality. It is not possible to produce high quality matcha cheaply in Japan. Producing a high quality matcha powder is very labour intensive. It requires the human eye to select only the freshest buds and leaves to be manufactured in a skilfully blended savoury tea.
There are vendors selling matcha from Japan who claim that their matcha is ceremonial grade, heritage grade, superior grade etc. but are willing to sell it at quiet a low price. They must be either losing money or not honest about their products origin or quality. You can decide which is the more likely. At Matcha Blend Tea we source directly from the tea farmers. There are no middle men involved in the transaction. The price we sell our tea is set by how much we pay for our tea. It is not possible to buy high quality Japanese teas cheaply. Think about this when purchasing your next Japanese tea product. Are you really getting the quality you want? The lower quality matcha, with the bitter taste is used in the kitchen. If you have tried matcha and found it too bitter to consume, don’t be discouraged. Try a high quality matcha. You should notice a significant difference.
Guess which is the quality product?
Want to learn more about why your matcha might not live up to your expectations?
Read these very interesting articles from Tyas Sōsen, a Japanese tea master and genuine expert. Just click on the links below which will open the page in a new tab.
- Matcha – An Initial Encounter
- Matcha – Cultivation
- Matcha – Harvest
- Matcha – The Right Blend
- Matcha – Quality
There are some wonderful resources online to allow people learn more about tea, the varieties available, and the trends happening around the world. Please select the links below to learn more.