Origins of Matcha
When Zen Buddhism was founded in 12th Century Japan, monks and the ruling-classes began discovering that consuming a frothy broth made from grinding whole tea leaves, gave them numerous benefits including aiding in meditation. And still today, as well as its natural health benefits, matcha is known for its energizing and calming properties, which has made it popular throughout the world. The very best leaves are reserved for making the premium ceremonial grades. Lesser grades have a stronger taste and are better suited to mixing into latte's and smoothies, or in baking.
Where does the best matcha come from?
Originally matcha is a Japanese green tea, so of course, the very best matcha comes from Japan! But there are many cheaper matcha varieties coming from China, Ceylon, Vietnam, and even some from the US too. Typically, these are flavored and formulated in easier to prepare formats. Because of all the processing though, it's highly unlikely they retain much of the goodness and natural health benefits compared to original matcha from Japan. And obviously the taste has completely changed from the original if flavorings are added.
What are the differences in matcha quality?
There are many differences even between Japanese matcha, which can depend on how it is grown and harvested, where it comes from, and how finely it has been ground. These differences affect both the color and the taste, particularly the level of umami (うま味 in Japanese), which Japanese people say is the fifth taste sensation, somewhere in between sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness.
Vibrant green matcha indicates higher quality. The tencha leaves which are ground into matcha, are carefully shaded to produce a sweeter taste and brighter green color. Also, the best leaves are plucked from the top of the stems, and in earlier harvests ( the plants may be harvested 3 or 4 times in a season ). Matcha which is more yellow in color probably comes from later harvests and leaves picked from lower down the stems.
Just like with wine, temperatures and the natural qualities of the ground in which the tea plant has grown can greatly affect the taste of the matcha, particularly the level of umami and sweetness. For example, matcha coming from the warmer, southern island of Kyushu, with soil rich in minerals from volcanic activity, has a natural sweetness than say, one from the famous Uji region near Kyoto in the central area of Japan.
More premium matcha has also been milled to a much finer powder which at the extreme becomes more like smoke than a powder! The coarser matcha usually has a stronger taste, sometimes a bit 'chalky', and is better suited to mixing as an ingredient in cakes, ice-creams, and for making smoothies and latté drinks, where the matcha taste need to overcome the strong milk or cream taste.
How about organic matcha?
Generally, organic matcha is considered lower quality but there are a few producers who have overcome the challenges of organic production to compete with some of the very best ceremonial grade matcha.
How is matcha graded?
There is, surprisingly, no official grading of matcha. Instead, the farmers split their production into various grades depending on the time of harvest and the amount of milling of the tencha leaves, and how much demand they see from different types of customers. The very best grades are usually sold to tea ceremony masters and schools and hence they become known as ceremonial grade ( actually, some really ultra-fine grades are supplied to the royal family and not even offered for sale! ). But do watch out as many matcha brands hijack this term and promote mediocre matcha as a ceremonial grade when it's clearly not up to that standard. The best advice is to look carefully at the company selling the matcha, and decide if you trust their claims, depending on their location, the amount of information they provide about the original of the matcha, and whether they sell only matcha on the internet, or have a good range of loose-leaf teas also. That indicates whether they really know and understand Japanese green tea. There are many drop-shippers out there, who probably never even taste their own matcha, offer only one grade and size, and just have it shipped directly from China or a lower quality producer in Japan. So please be careful!