What Is Matcha?
The Essential Guide to Matcha
We answer the question “what is Matcha green tea?”, and help you discover how to find genuine matcha, how best to store it, and the ways to prepare this vivid green health elixir from Japan
The recent boom in matcha means you now see it everywhere, from ice cream, cakes, and savory dishes, to lattés, smoothies and exotic concoctions like Starbucks’ new Pineapple Matcha Drink. Just peek at Pinterest and Instagram to see the creativity on display in the daily use of this bionic superfood.
But as these new uses for this beautiful vivid green powder flourish, it's all in stark contrast to its traditional consumption by meditating monks and generations of tea connoisseurs in Japan, who whisked it in hot water and drank straight from the bowl, ensuring no loss of the highly subtle flavor notes, textures, and feeling of calm contentment it delivers.
Many people outside of Japan have heard of the tea ceremony and matcha's role in that, but few understand the meaning behind the ritual, the importance of the quality of the matcha, and the complexity associated with its cultivation and processing. Much has been lost in translation when it comes to what matcha really is and all the various claims of health benefits that surround it. Many people are confused by all the different terms and types of matcha now available to buy online and in shops.
We will try to provide some clarity here, though some things may surprise you!
What is Matcha Tea?
In a nutshell, matcha green tea or simply matcha (sometimes spelled maccha), is a very specific and distinct Japanese tea, made from intensively cultivated and processed tea leaves, called tencha, that are micro-milled into a vivid green powder with particles finer than smoke. But be careful please, because not all micro-milled green tea is matcha! You can also find micro-milled sencha known as funmatsucha, or if you go to a sushi restaurant you will almost certainly see konacha (powdered tea), that's usually served at the end of a meal. There's even milled hojicha roasted green tea (also spelled houjicha).
So what's the difference?
Is Matcha Green Tea?
Yes, matcha is a green tea, but first, let's define what constitutes actual TEA.
In order to be considered 'tea', the leaf must come from the camellia sinensis plant. No other plant produces tea and certainly won't have the superfood health benefits of matcha or any other green tea. You might argue that your cup of peppermint tea, which said it was ‘tea’ on the box, is in fact tea, but it’s not...it is an infusion or a tisane.
To further clarify, herbal tea is not a proper tea either, though often mislabeled as such, particularly on cafe and restaurant menus. A herbal tea is made with herbs or other plant extracts. It is not made from camellia sinensis leaves.
But in the case of matcha, it's milled from tencha, which are leaves picked from specific cultivars of the camellia sinensis plant. So it is definitely a tea, as are all Japanese green teas. Let’s explain a bit more about how matcha is produced...
Matcha Cultivation & Taste
How Does Matcha Taste?
Matcha gets its superfood status and incredible health benefits from two distinct processes: the way the tea plant is cultivated and how it is processed. Imagine a tea farm in Yame Kyushu, high up in the misty mountains where the stars shine brightly at night. This is where one of the best matcha production regions rule and from where Chiki Tea matcha hails. Precious matcha demands a perfect place for cultivation. This factor alone dictates so much of the flavor components adorning this nearly luminescent silky green powder. It’s the same with fine wine which imparts particular flavors and subtleties based on a region, the characteristics of its soil, steepness of the hillside and orientation to the sun.
Most people in Japan and elsewhere easily recognize matcha from Uji in Kyoto Prefecture, which is the most famous area due to its history as the birthplace of the tea ceremony, as well as how the region has branded itself. But nowadays, much tea destined to become Uji matcha is actually grown outside of this area, in Nishio, Aichi Prefecture for example, then shipped to Uji to be milled and branded as coming from Uji.
The Yame region is so special not only because of the growing conditions but also its rare and nearly extinct, traditional technique of shading the plants before harvest. Shading is vital to the cultivation because the leaf is altered when it struggles for light, therefore delivering maximum antioxidants and theanine as well as incredible umami and a backend lingering sweetness.
What is Umami?
Umami is the fifth taste sensation
It’s not salty, sweet, sour or savory, nor some combination of these.
It's a unique taste and sensation that happens on the tongue with anything containing natural glutamic acid or glutamates.
Natural glutamates develop when some foods are fermented, aged, cooked or processed ( steamed in the case of matcha and many Japanese green teas).
Other foods containing umami include some cheeses, aged meats, certain mushrooms, miso, dashi, truffles and more...
This shading technique, called honzu, involves the laborious task of hand-weaving straw mats that are placed on a metal structure to cover the plants. These straw huts allow the farmers to walk underneath to monitor the leaves as they approach harvest time.
The tea plants designated for matcha production are always shaded before harvest, at least a month or longer, but that depends on the speed of new growth on the tea plants. The length of shading time can fluctuate during each season, between each farm, and the rainfall to sunshine ratio. So when you read that matcha is shaded for just a month, that’s not exactly true!
This special straw shading provides extra minerals that are carried into the soil by rain that filters through the mats, allowing the plants to drink up these extra minerals and deliver it to your cup via the leaves.
Modern shading methods involve a black netting placed either directly on top of and touching the plants, or draped over a tent-like structure on metal poles that you can walk under: the same structure mentioned above, but without the straw. There are no extra minerals delivered by this method.
The hand-woven straw mats are used in conjunction with the black netting in most cases, where the straw mats are on top of the tent, and the nets are underneath, so they can be rolled up to expose just the straw mats and allow a little sunlight to reach the leaves. Think of this black netting as sunscreen and the straw as a rain filter. The straw mat method is now so rare in Japan that only a handful of farmers still make them because of the labor intensity, coupled with the fact that farmers are now reaching ages of 80 to 90, or more! This honzu technique is mainly used in the Yame and Ogura regions.
Farmers watch the leaves every day to check the speed of growth and will manipulate this speed by uncovering and recovering the plants. This monitoring process is vital to the taste and the nutritional power in the leaf! When the leaf-growth is slowed down, the nutrients swell in the leaves and the taste develops an incredible umami profile. Shading is done in stages and differs slightly from grower to grower but generally speaking, the first week to ten days gives 60-75% coverage and after that, anywhere from 90 to 98% shading. These percentages relate to how much the sun is blocked out. It’s like factor 60 to 98 SPF. This shading delivers a breathtaking tea so full of personality it could practically jump out of your cup!
When straw mats are used for shading, it elevates the entire experience of the tea as well as the price tag. Do everything you can to get your hands on this tea! It is so different in mouthfeel, smoothness and elegance, that you will notice it immediately and taste the difference that straw makes. Simply put, there is no comparison.
Chiki Tea offers three matcha teas from Yame, all shaded using the honzu technique.
What is Tencha?
The second big difference is how the tea leaf is processed after harvest. In fact, and this is BIG, matcha isn’t matcha until it is milled from tencha.
Freshness is one of the most important factors in Japanese tea, especially matcha, so the whole leaves are placed in cold storage refrigeration until they are ready for milling, which is when an order is placed. The HIGHEST QUALITY matcha is milled to order, placed in a small canister flushed with nitrogen to remove any trace of deteriorating oxygen, then sealed with a lid engineered with a rubber gasket to make it airtight. This particular detail ensures the matcha stays as fresh as possible after opening.
In Japan, two of the top tea classifications are cultivated in the exact same way with shading methods and timings: gyokuro and matcha. After the leaves are hand picked, they take two distinctly separate routes: one becomes tencha which gets milled into matcha, and one goes the other way to become gyokuro, the top steeped tea. You may have been misled into thinking that matcha is milled gyokuro. It’s NOT. Matcha is milled tencha. This confusion comes mainly because the leaves which become gyokuro are grown in almost the same way and quite often in the same location as the leaves used to make matcha.
Milling Tencha into Matcha Tea Powder
In order to understand matcha, we first need to get to grips with high grade, shade-grown tencha and gyokuro. While gyokuro uses the finest, most delicate leaves for steeping, tencha uses the best but slightly larger leaves, which could be shaded even longer depending on a host of factors.
The larger leaves are more fibrous which is vital for proper micro-milling into matcha. Think kale v baby leaf lettuce. Some tencha could even be shaded for up to 8 weeks, though this is quite rare. This extra shading also makes the green color much more intense. For matcha to achieve a luxuriously talc-like consistency, the fibrous stems and veins must be removed before milling. It requires fairly robust, flat leaves for milling so there is no rolling in the production process.
The leaves become tencha only after the stems and veins have been removed. The stems are then reserved for high-grade kukicha called shiraore or karigane (see video explanation here). Tencha is more like confetti with flat, broken up, smaller pieces of leaves. Tencha can be steeped but most of it is milled into matcha.
Using a stone mill, usually made of granite, tencha is ground into a micro-powder so fine that it feels like talcum powder and the particle size is finer than the smoke of a cigarette. Particle size does vary, with lower grades having larger particles. On average a mill can only produce about one to two ounces, roughly 30 to 50 grams per two hours. We are talking about 2 to 3 tablespoons per hour!
Watch this video to see a demonstration of our CEO Holly Helt, milling a sample portion at Harada Seichaen.
Japanese Matcha v The Imposters
With the rising demand for this bionic superfood, a number of interesting newcomers and processes are emerging to satisfy the demand. For a start, growers from other countries are getting into the act with low-grade offerings. Much of the cheaper 'green tea powder' mislabeled as authentic matcha, is grown outside of Japan in countries like China, Taiwan, Korea and even South America, where soil conditions and plants are simply inferior. This is where much cheaper matcha comes in. Fancy a Bordeaux from China? That’s happening too!
Another modernization that breaks away from the traditional authentic method is using high-speed mills made of stainless steel. These operate at such a high speed that heat is created during the milling and diminishes the quality of the matcha. Hats off for inventing this but we here at Chiki Tea can’t advocate it. A granite stone mill works slowly to mill the leaves in a very cool, semi-conductor like clean facility to preserve the integrity of the powder. There is simply no substitution for time and detail if you want an authentic, potent Japanese matcha. You get what you pay for.
Another shortcut is in the shading process, whereby mostly non-Japanese growers will shorten the shading time to speed up the production. This yields matcha with far less potency and flavor profiles like umami, and delivers a chalkier texture. Nothing compares to the smoothness of a ceremonial grade matcha from Japan!
Perhaps there is a place for this kind of tea in the market but if you are going to drink it for taste and health benefits, it’s best to stick to the only authentic Japanese matcha out there: always look on the packaging for Made in Japan !
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