Let's talk about matcha!

Updated: Apr 28

Matcha is by far one of the most well known Japanese teas around the globe. And it is one of my favourite Japanese teas as well as flavours.

While the Japanese have been using matcha in sado, chanoyu or Japanese Tea Ceremony for centuries, it is a relatively new product in external markets. Due to changes in tea consumption of Japanese citizens, there has been an active campaign to promote and to export matcha outside Japan. And with excellent results I might say. But what matcha really is and which are its properties?

Technically, matcha can be produced using tea leaves from any tea cultivar, however there are specific cultivars in use for matcha production due to the aroma, taste and properties of their tea leaves . Common matcha cultivars are Gokou, Samidori, Uji Hikari, Okumidori among others.

Matcha is a product from Japan even though it used to be produced in China many centuries ago. No all powdered tea out there is matcha and not all matcha is the same. Nowadays, matcha is being produced in other Asian countries too, however they do not use the same cultivars, neither they process the tea leaves in the same way that Japanese do. Therefore, only matcha from Japan should be taken into account when talking about this type of tea.

Before matcha tea leaves are harvested, tea bushes are kept in the shadow between one and three weeks. There are different ways to shade the tea leaves, this has an impact on the flavour of the final product.

The traditional way of shading the teas bushes, is still in use in some tea growing areas in Japan. It is known as canopy shading and mainly used for the highest grades of matcha and gyokuro. Only grass or straw is used to cover the tea plants, in this way farmers can control in a precise manner how much sunlight is cut off from the tea bushes.

A modern way to shade tea leaves is known as direct covering. A black industrial material is used by farmers to cover the tea leaves. There are other type of materials used depending on what the tea plants need, an increase in temperature for instance. This method is fairly easy to apply, however, the amount of light that is blocked cannot be controlled precisely plus the material is applied directly on top of tea leaves which means some of them could suffer potential damage during the process.

So it is spring, the tea bushes have been prepared during the winter, the first flush is sprouting, tea leaves are shaded for three weeks, then harvested. What happens next?

In order to produce a high quality matcha, the tea leaves must preserve all their properties, this is why they are taken to a tencha processing plant immediately after having been harvested. Some farmers have all the machinery to process tencha themselves whereas other farmers need to contract a third party farmer to produce the tencha for them. The tea leaves go through a specific process in order to become tencha, the material to produce matcha.

  1. Fresh tea leaves are steamed in order to stop fermentation

  2. Moisture is removed from steamed tea leaves using a dedicated process

  3. Steamed tea leaves are cooled down gently

  4. Cooled down tea leaves are put on a triple conveyor inside a brick oven called hoiro to eliminate the remaining moisture

  5. The resulting dried and unsorted leaves are called tencha, they look like tea flakes

  6. Tencha is stored in wooden boxes and kept in a cool environment until is transformed into matcha

During the whole process tencha leaves are kept in a cool and dark environment in order to avoid degradation. When tencha is ready, it can be converted into matcha by grinding the tencha leaves. The way the tencha is ground has a direct impact in the grade of the final product. These are the main ways of grinding tencha leaves to produce matcha:

Stone Mill. The traditional way of grinding tencha manually, involves the use of a stone mill called ishi usu. It takes several hours to produce a small quantity of matcha by using the traditional method. For this reason, this way of grinding tencha is usually reserved for the production of the highest grade of matcha.

Granite Mill. Another traditional way of tencha grinding is by using a granite mill that rotates at a set speed. Usually, several granite mills are lined up since the production rate is low. Each of these mills can produce between 25 to 30 grs per hour, therefore they are also used in the production of high end matcha.

Ceramic Ball Mill. Used in matcha grinding factories, these large mills have ceramic balls inside that grind the matcha leaves while the external container rotates continuously. The mill is loaded with the desired blend of tencha leaves by a machine operator during the evenings and the mill is set to a specific program. The tencha is ground during the night and the resulting matcha is offloaded in the morning by one of the factory workers. The mill is then cleaned in between tencha loads. This sort of milling yields a larger quantity of matcha per hour than the traditional methods.

Bead Mill. This type of mill is a recent development within the tencha grinding industry. It allows continuous feeding and powder granularity control, prevents leaf colour and flavour degradation with an integrated cooling system and produces larger amounts of matcha in less time than other tencha grinders, up to 20 kg per hour. It also allows the final product to be packed straight away, directly from the mill. In this way the quality of the matcha obtained can be controlled more accurately and degradation can be reduced considerably.

In summary, the quality of the matcha is determined by the way the leaves have been grown, when they have been harvested, how they have been processed and grind. There are however some misconceptions about matcha I would like to clarify:

- All grounded green tea out there is matcha. Definitely not. Only the powder resulting from the described process can be considered matcha, the rest is powdered tea. We can get powdered kabusecha, sencha, genmaicha, houjicha...yet these products are not matcha but powdered teas instead. They do not smell or taste the same, neither they have the same properties than matcha does.

- Matcha produced in other countries is the same as Japanese matcha. Not at all. Many of the so called matcha teas produced outside Japan use a complete different set of cultivars. Also the growing, harvesting and processing methods are not the same. The terroir, the fertiliser, the water, all these elements are different. The resulting product has a distant resemblance to the authentic Japanese matcha, their colour, taste, aroma and ability to absorb the water are affected. This is why is extremely important to check where our matcha is coming from. Is not the first time I have gotten something called matcha that tasted odd or had a strong fishy smell. Even in Japan there are different grades for matcha.

- All matcha coming from Japan is of the same grade. Not really. As already mentioned, all depends on when the tea leaves have been harvested and the way the tencha flakes have been processed. The following grades are the most commonly used ones, however since the system has not been standardized, each producer can choose their own way to to grade their matchas.

  1. Ceremonial Grade. The highest quality of Japanese matcha, used in chanoyu to prepare usucha (light tea) or koicha (thick tea), stone or granite milled from the first harvest.

  2. Premium Grade. Still of high quality, used for everyday drinking, granite or ceramic ball milled.

  3. Culinary Grade. Produced using tea leaves from the second harvest, ideal for cooking, baking, beauty products manufacturing. Mostly ceramic ball milled.

- All types of Japanese matcha taste the same. This is not correct since the flavour of the matcha depends among other things on the cultivar used for its production along with its posterior blending and processing. Some of the matcha teas are sweeter than others. The way a matcha is brewed also affects its aroma and taste.

- I can brew Japanese matcha at any temperature I want. Well, technically this is possible yet is not recommended. The ideal temperature to brew Japanese matcha is 80 degrees Celsius. Brewing it a higher temperature will only make its flavour more bitter and it will not be a pleasant experience for your palate.

- All Japanese matcha is bitter. While some types of matcha teas might release a bitter note due to the cultivar used on their production, and despite being enjoyed with a sweet the during chanoyu to balance out its flavour, matcha tea should not be as bitter. In fact, some of the matcha teas out there are on the sweet side. If the matcha you have tasted was way too bitter, this could mean that the temperature of the water used for its brewing was too high, the quality of the matcha was too low or the matcha used was not from Japan.

- Japanese matcha should be stored at a room temperature. Any high quality Japanese green tea should be preserved in a cool environment. In order to prevent its degradation, matcha should be preserved in the freezer whenever possible. Unless you use it far too frequently, then it should be preserved in the cooler but make sure the container is tightly closed.

- It is fine storing matcha in a see through container. This is a big no, no. Matcha should be stored in a hermetic opaque container to keep it away from light, humidity and odours. If you ever see matcha stored in a glass jar at a room temperature, run fast!

- Matcha does not contain caffeine. Actually it does. However, it contains less caffeine than your average cup of coffee and offers an immediate energy boost while helping us to relax. How is this possible? Because matcha contains L-Theanine, an amino acid that delivers a great sense of calmness. It balances out matcha caffeine content while helping us to stay focused and calm. Currently, is one of the best alternatives to coffee in the market. In addition, matcha has a great amount of antioxidants which are known for helping to boost the immune system and to reduce inflammation.

About twelve years ago I tried matcha for the first time. My palate and brain were overjoyed with the strong delicious umami flavour of the matcha and the status of calm alertness I fell into straight away after having drunk a small cup. Since then, I have been a huge fan of Japanese matcha and thanks to this first experience my interest in Japanese teas grew overtime. To the point of becoming a self-proclaimed Japanese Tea Evangelist and a huge Matcha Advocate.

And you? Have you tried matcha yet?

Matcha is happiness in the form of a cup of tea. Drink matcha, stay healthy, be happy, enjoy!

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