Introduction to matcha
Matcha is extremely widespread in our culture today. You find matcha for sale in various shops throughout the country, and see matcha latte on menus in many cafes. It’s also a staple on many international coffeeshop chains. (Whether it is true “matcha” or not is another story)
There is no doubt that matcha is a “superfood” that offers all the health benefits associated with antioxidants (catechins) that keep the body healthy and fight aging. With matcha, you also get an energy and mental boost from its caffeine content, but without the “jitters” and subsequent “crash” you get with other caffeineted beverages like coffee or energy drinks. This is likely due to the synergistic effect of caffeine promoting mental alertness, and the high levels of amino acid L-theanine matcha contains, that has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress.
Most people know matcha as green tea powder, but it is not just any green tea powder. In fact, there is a lot of fake “matcha” on the market that are not really matcha but are just regular powdered green tea. What exactly then, is so special about Matcha that sets it apart from other green tea?To understand this, we have to explain the special ways in which quality matcha is grown, harvested and processed.
1) Shade Grown
3) Tencha and Tencha-ro (Tencha Oven)
4) Slow Ground
1. Shade Grown
Matcha is grown under shaded conditions for 3 to 4 weeks before harvest. Structures are erected to hold the shade over the tea bushes, and the shade material can either be natural straw or black row covers. The 95-98% shade suppresses the conversion of amino acids (which give savoury umami taste) into catechins (source of bitterness and astringency). Another effect is that the tea plant does not mature as fast, and the tea leaves remain soft and supple – perfect for grinding into a fine powder! The lack of sunlight also prompts the plant to produce more chlorophyll in the leaves, which is what gives the tea leaves and therefore matcha its distinctive vibrant green colour.
2. First Harvest / Second Harvest
Traditionally, tea leaves for processing into matcha used to be harvested only once in spring (April/May). As mentioned above, the first spring harvest tea leaves will gives the richest and smoothest taste profile due to the optimal cool weather conditions. But these days, the tea plants are also harvested a second time, usually in June. Due to the increased sunlight and higher temperatures affecting the leaves, the second harvest will not offer the same taste profile – there will be less umami and more astringency and bitterness. Still, shade-grown tea leaves of both the 1st and 2nd harvest are still considered high-quality and premium tea.
3. Tencha and Tencha-ro
(碾茶炉 / Tencha Oven)
The tencha-ro is a special 30m long brick oven that is specially constructed to dry the delicate tea leaves in a balanced way without any damage or loss of quality. The tea leaves undergo this drying process, along with de-stemming and cutting to become Tencha.
Tencha is essentially matcha that has not yet been ground. It looks like small flakes of dried leaves with a a deep green colour. Any stems or veins have been removed and there is very low moisture content. The tencha is stored in a highly controlled environment (refrigeration, nitrogen or low-oxygen environment, etc) and ground fresh in small batches as needed into what we recognise as matcha.
4. Slow Ground
The most traditional way of grinding matcha is by special stone mills. Over a hundred years ago, matcha used to be prepared fresh, using small hand-turned mills before each tea session. But motorised stone mills have been used in Japan since around the 1910s to grind up the tencha. These days, such stone mills revolve at around 50-60 rpm to produce matcha at a slow rate of 30-40 g per hour. The result is a super-fine powder of about 5–10 microns. Note: There are 1000 microns in 1mm. Heat, light and oxygen are the 3 elements to avoid with green teas, especially so with sensitive matcha. By grinding the matcha slowly in a controlled environment, any heat damage from the stone grinding action is minimised.
With improvements in technology, matcha is now also commonly ground in specialised ball mills. This has resulted in higher productivity compared to grinding by stone mill. Many matcha are processed this way nowadays, apart from exclusive high-end matcha, which of course carry a corresponding price-tag to match.
So… is my matcha real?
The most important factors in indicating whether a matcha is “genuine” or not, would be points #1 (shade grown) and #3 (ground from tencha). Many matcha, especially those marketed as “culinary grade” or “processing grade”, are usually not real matcha at all, but vendors get away with it as the term matcha is not regulated by legislation. They do not use shade grown leaves, or the correct way of processing tea leaves into tencha.
These low quality tea powders usually use unshaded autumn harvest leaves or something called “moga” which are leftover tea leaves from the processing of sencha (regular green tea not grown under shade). To the unassuming consumer, the “moga” powder may look almost identical to some matcha. The only way to get genuine matcha is to buy direct from heritage tea houses in Japan, or a tea vendor you trust.
Does it matter if I drink real “matcha?”
With fake “matcha,” you may get health benefits associated with drinking normal green tea, but not the full intensity of nutrients and antioxidants that quality genuine matcha offers. Furthermore, the case for good matcha is so much more than health. A good bowl of matcha is such a delicious experience. Visually, the vivid green is very appealing. Then the scent and taste of good matcha can range from nutty and buttery, to a more seaweed-y, umami broth, along with vegetal notes like spinach or fresh grass. Astringency and bitterness are present in a very controlled elegant manner.
The reason we ourselves drink matcha daily, is not primarily for health reasons. It is the intertwining of the mental and physical benefits matcha offers, with its roots in zen and meditation, that makes it so special to us. To us, making a bowl of matcha is a tea practice we enjoy. Setting aside a few minutes in the day to be mindful and focused in a relaxing way. We hope you also take the time to relax with a bowl of matcha when going about your day.
Please look forward to our next write-ups discussing more about the history of matcha, quality indicators, and more…