How Is Matcha Quality Determined?
Many people assume matcha is powdered green tea and powdered green tea is matcha.
Many people would be partially right.
Matcha is indeed a type of green tea and it’s definitely a powder. But not all green tea is matcha.
Matcha is grown and processed quite differently from other green teas, resulting in a unique flavor - one that is much richer in umami - and composition. Matcha is highly prized for its specific flavor, vibrant green color, and numerous health benefits, which are attributed to its high concentration of antioxidants and other beneficial compounds.
But just as all matcha is not green tea, all matcha isn’t equal. In determining the quality of a matcha powder, experts consider a variety of factors.
Matcha is typically graded based on its flavor, color, and texture, with ceremonial grade matcha being the highest quality, followed by premium grade, and then culinary grade.
Matcha grades are determined by tea producers and wholesalers, and the process is highly regulated by the Japanese government. In Japan, the production of tea is subject to strict quality control standards, and matcha producers must follow specific guidelines in order to produce tea that meets these standards.
The grading system for matcha is based on several factors, including the size and quality of the tea leaves, the taste and aroma of the tea, and its color. Higher-grade matcha is made from the youngest, most tender leaves and has a bright green color, a smooth texture, and a rich, sweet flavor. Lower-grade matcha is made from older, coarser leaves and has a duller color, a more bitter taste, and a coarser texture.
The grading process is conducted by trained tea experts, who evaluate each batch of matcha based on these criteria. The results of the grading process are recorded and used to determine the final grade of the tea, which is then used to determine its price and marketability.
Matcha Leaf Quality
High-quality matcha is made from shade-grown tea leaves that are hand-picked and processed with care to preserve their flavor and nutritional value. Lower quality matcha may be made from leaves that are grown in full sun and may have a more bitter flavor and less vibrant color.
High-quality matcha should have a smooth, sweet, and slightly grassy flavor, while lower quality matcha may taste bitter and astringent.
High-quality matcha is characterized by its velvety texture and rich, sweet flavor. It is often described as having a naturally sweet, slightly grassy taste with a subtle bitterness, and a creamy, almost nutty aftertaste.
Another comparison can be made to the taste of other types of green tea, such as sencha or gyokuro. While these teas also have a green, vegetal taste, they are generally not as smooth or creamy as matcha, and they tend to have a more pronounced bitterness and astringency. Think of them as almost a bit more floral in taste. More like you’re consuming a plant.
High Quality Matcha Color and Texture
High-quality matcha should have a vibrant green color, while lower quality matcha may appear dull or yellowish. It should have also have fine texture that is smooth and silky, while lower quality matcha may be grainy or clumpy.
Clumping in your matcha is a sure sign of quality issues unless it has been blended with something like oat milk powder or another powder.
Where is the Best Matcha Grown?
The highest quality matcha is grown in Japan, specifically in the region surrounding the city of Uji, in Kyoto Prefecture. The region surrounding Uji has a mild and humid climate, which is ideal for growing high-quality tea.
Additionally, the soil in this region is rich in nutrients and has a high pH, which is ideal for growing tea that is high in antioxidants and other beneficial compounds.
Tea farmers in the Kyoto region have a long tradition of growing and processing tea, and have developed techniques that are specifically designed to produce high-quality matcha. This includes the use of shading techniques to slow the growth of the tea leaves and increase their chlorophyll content, as well as the use of traditional processing methods that preserve the flavor and nutritional value of the tea.
High Quality Matcha Growing Practices
The tea industry in Japan is highly regulated, and matcha produced in this region is subject to strict quality control standards, which ensure that only high-quality tea is produced and sold.
The shading technique used in Kyoto has been used for literal centuries. This technique involves covering the tea plants with shade cloths for several weeks before harvest to slow down the growth of the tea leaves and increase their chlorophyll content.
The history of the shading technique can be traced back to the 12th century, when tea was first introduced to Japan from China. At the time, tea was primarily consumed as a bitter beverage, and it was not until the 16th century that the tea ceremony, known as "cha-no-yu," became popular in Japan. During the tea ceremony, matcha was prepared and consumed in a ritualized manner, and it was soon discovered that shading the tea plants before harvest improved the flavor and nutritional value of the tea.
Over time, the “tsumami” shading technique was refined and perfected, and it became an integral part of the process of producing high-quality matcha. Today, the technique is still used in Kyoto and other regions of Japan, and it remains one of the key factors that sets Japanese matcha apart from other types of green tea.