How to Understand the Various Grades of Matcha
- Holly Helt
As you may know, this luscious green powder, as fine as the smoke of a cigarette (without the cough!) comes in many different varieties and myriad grades: from the cheap and chalky granules made with boiling water and stirred with a spoon to produce a late served in popular coffee shops all the way to the finest, most mesmerizing (and oftentimes elusive) stardust used for tea ceremonies held in purpose-built tea “huts” of the most minimalist of structures, buried deep in ancient Japan.
We recently completed a Kickstarter campaign to launch our new range of Matcha and discovered that a few Matcha sippers in the West demanded to know if the Matcha was “ceremonial” grade.
Rightly so! We should have been clearer!
But the truth is, I’m not a fan of using the term “ceremonial”. It is very overused in the West these days. Everyone’s putting it on their packaging, whether it’s ceremonial grade or not. Whether it’s actually any good or not.
Our supplier, based in Yame, Kyushu, has six different iterations of their ceremonial grade Matcha. We carry two of them as well as a culinary grade both online and in the café.
Picturesque Yame has the perfect climate and soil constitution to produce some of the finest Matcha in Japan. Our farmer is one of the last few remaining who uses an ancient technique (called “honzu”) involving handmade straw mats to cover the plants in spring.
These straw mats not only shade but also filter the rainwater, something the modern method has lost. Shading allows the nutrients to swell in the leaves, hence why Matcha is the superfood it claims to be. Our tea leaves are plucked by hand by delightful giggling ladies, then processed and milled using a granite mill. Just one gram of Matcha takes two hours to mill! This produces a powder finer than the smoke of a cigarette. Imagine that!
Here’s a bit of a secret:
Whether it’s labeled as “ceremonial” or not, most of the best Matcha never actually leaves Japan. It’s created by artisan farmers–tight-knit family businesses that have been producing Matcha for generations. But these small enterprises either don’t know how to or simply don’t want to export their amazing tea. It’s too complicated and the language barrier, as well as the cultural barrier, is daunting.
So you’ve got to go deep into the country, meet these farmers, build relationships, and then maybe, just maybe, they’ll open up to the idea of selling their tea to you.
That’s why we based ourselves in the heart of Japan, in order to be able to take our time, finding the right people, and then establishing trust with them. It can take time (it took us two years!), but boy, when you taste this stuff you know it is worth it!
So, back to “ceremonial”…
It’s all about the context – what you’re using it for.
Sometimes, using a ceremonial grade of Matcha just isn’t the right thing to do. Like when you’re putting it on chocolate chips in granola (YUM!). It isn’t just a cost issue, the flavor needs to bounce through louder. So an ultra premium (or “ceremonial”) grade is often times too smooth and subtle for such usage.
It’s why we use a different grade of Matcha for lattés than we do for straight shots in the café. They’re both ceremonial grade (promise!) but the one used for lattés just has that little bit of extra bite to it, enabling the flavors to shine through the steamed milk. It’s considered a slightly “lower” grade of Matcha but suits our purpose fine.
The Matcha used in our granola, popsicles, smoothies, and other yummies is considered a lower grade known as “culinary” or “ingredient” grade and it’s perfect! It is designed for mixing with other ingredients but is perhaps too bitter and chalky to consume just on its own. When this Matcha blends with other ingredients a balanced harmony of flavors emerges so you can actually taste the Matcha. Using too high of a grade in a recipe could result in a “non-Matcha” taste and the tendency to keep adding more and more Matcha… I’ve been there and done that and learned the hard way so you don’t have to.
So to mill this down to the fine point: the highest grades of Matcha (Ultra Premium Grade in our case) is for consuming a shot or a bowl of Matcha with nothing added to it. Then as you go down the grading scale, in our case Premium grade, you can drink it straight but it is best when combined with milk from a cow, bean, nut or grain… haven’t tried coconut but we probably should! Then the lowest grades are for mixing. Don’t go for the cheapest Matcha if you want to drink it in a shot or bowl.
by Holly Helt
(This post was originally posted on the T-Ching blog)
About Holly Helt
Holly is American and grew up in Japan drinking Japanese tea from age-three. She has studied two methods of tea ceremony, Urasenke and the lesser-known Yabunouchi, which has a direct lineage to Sen-no Rikyu (known as the father of the tea ceremony) ; it's also the school of practice for samurai. In 2012 she founded Chiki Tea - an online retailer of Japanese green teas, all sourced directly from small farms in Japan. Splitting her time between Japan and her home in Texas, Holly strives to bring the best teas from Japan to as many people as she can find to share in her life's passion.