Contrary to the popular belief that matcha derives from Japan, matcha originally emerged in China during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) when tea leaves were steamed and formed into tea bricks for storage and trade. From these bricks, tea was prepared by roasting and then pulverizing. The resulting tea powder was then be decocted in hot water and enjoyed with salt added. During the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) this method, with the addition of whisking the powdered tea in a bowl, became popular.
The art of producing, preparing and consuming this powdered tea became a ritual performed by Zen Buddhists in China. In 1191, a Zen monk by the name of Eisai travelled to Japan, introducing matcha. As the popularity of matcha lessened in China during the Ming Dynasty, it was conversely embraced by the Japanese culture. Matcha eventually became an important part of rituals in Zen monasteries in Japan and was elevated to a level of high culture and skill in the Japanese Tea Ceremony, which is still the case today.
What is Matcha and How is it made?
Matcha comes from the same plant that all true teas come from Camellia sinensis, the leaves of which can be made into green tea, oolong tea and black tea. Matcha is true green tea, but its growth style, harvest and production styles are markedly different from those of other green teas.
Camellia Sinensis does have varietals, some of which produce better Matcha than others. The highest grades of matcha come almost exclusively from one of three Japanese varietals (samidori, okumidori and yabukita)
The preparation of matcha starts roughly six weeks before harvest, sometime in late March or early April, and may last for up to 20 days when the tea fields are surrounded by scaffolding and covered to prevent direct sunlight from reaching the trees. Traditionally straw was employed for this but nowadays the tea fields are typically covered with black vinyl sheets. The idea is to slowly and gradually decrease the amount of sunlight, and hence photosynthesis, by covering more and more of the light allowed to shine on the plants. The highest grade matcha is grown in near darkness by the time harvest rolls around. This shade-grown green tea known as Gyrokuro.
As a result of this decreased light, the tea leaves are stimulated to increase chlorophyll levels, turning the leaves a darker shade of green which causes the productions of amino acids. The newest growth is incredibly delicate, with ever softer and ever thinner buds. This increased amino acid content serves to concentrate specific molecules, most of which are glutamates, which give the matcha its intense umami flavour profile. Great Matcha is sweet and mouth watery with no traces of bitterness, because of the high amino acid content.
Gyrokuro is carefully steamed and meticulously dried to start processing the Matcha. Only the smallest, youngest/greenest parts of the plant – the two leaves at the tip of the new shoot – are hand-picked. They are then steamed to preserve the colour and nutrients and to stop the enzymatic action within the leaves, then thoroughly dried in large cages equipped with heated blowers.
Once dry, they are sorted for grade (with the youngest, greenest, most tender leaves earning the highest marks). Then the laborious and immensely time-consuming task of destemming and deveining occurs. The leaves that make it through this rigorous process are called Tencha and, of course, the quality of Tencha varies widely.
Tencha is then kept refrigerated until it’s ready to be ground, using large granite wheels that rotate very slowly and gently, into very fine powder known as matcha. This helps avoid scorching and preserve aroma. It takes more than an hour to grind 30 grams, which is one of the reasons hand-milled matcha costs so much. It is this grinding process from which matcha—抹 茶, literally, “ground tea”—derives its name.
The ground tea is then vacuum packed and refrigerated at low temperatures until it is shipped.
Not all matcha is created equal
There are five key characteristics for superior matcha:
- Superior umami
- Brilliant colour intensity
- Excellent terroir (rare tea)
- Dreamy frothability
- A long, smooth finish
The combined occurrence of these five traits is very rare as most matcha is bitter instead of umami and dull in colour. Mass production – also common – forms weak crema and has little to no finish.
Many teas get harvested several times throughout the year. In contrast, the very best matcha gets harvested just once a year, typically in May.
Now that we know what standards superior matcha should meet we are ready to explore the grades of matcha.
4 Main factors determining the grade of Matcha:
- Location on the tea bush: Where leaves destined for Tencha are picked on the tea bush (Camellia sinensis) is vital. The very top of the bush should have developing leaves that are soft and supple giving the finer texture to the higher grades of matcha. More developed leaves are harder, giving lower grades a sandy texture. The better flavour is a result of the plant sending the majority of its nutrients to the growing leaves
- Treatment before processing: Traditionally sencha leaves are dried outside in the shade and never exposed to direct sunlight. Now drying takes place mostly indoors, producing quality matcha that is vibrantly green.
- Stone grinding: Without the correct equipment and technique, matcha can become “burnt” and suffer degraded quality. Typically, in Japan, matcha is stone-ground to a fine powder through the use of specially designed granite stone mills.
- Oxidation is also a factor in determining grade. Matcha exposed to oxygen may easily become compromised. Oxidized matcha has a distinctive hay-like smell and a dull brownish-green colour.
Matcha can be categorised into three grades:
- Ceremonial grade: This is the highest quality used mainly in tea ceremonies and Buddhist temples. This is stone ground into a powder by granite stone mills. It is high quality but expensive (~$100–140 for 100gm). The unschooled drinker is unlikely to notice a large difference between Ceremonial and Premium grade. Ceremonial is characterized by subtle tones of “Umami”.
- Premium grade: High-quality matcha green tea that contains the full nutritional content and uses tea leaves from the top of the tea plant. Price point (~$50–80 for 100gm). Best for daily consumption and contains the full range of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Is characterized by a fresh, subtle flavour. Usually perfect for both new and everyday matcha drinkers alike
- Cooking/culinary grade: Cheapest of all (~$15–40 for 100g). Suitable for cooking purposes as it does not contain the full health benefits and is slightly bitter due to using leaves lower down on the green tea plant.
In general, matcha is expensive compared to other forms of tea, although its price depends on its quality.
Written By: Danielle Banfield and Kezia Futter
Read about Matcha Part 2: Preparing Matcha