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What's the Best Matcha Brand? Ethically-sourced Authentic Japan Matcha

Nicholas Noble | November 07, 2019

Matcha might be the newest addition to the Starbucks® and Dunkin'® (Dunkin' Donuts®) line-up, but the growing popularity doesn’t mean that you’re getting real matcha powder. In fact, it could often mean quite the opposite.

As we’ll discuss here, only a fraction of the producers of fine matcha tea remain active in Japan, as the majority have turned (out-of-force) to the mass production of commercial quality matcha tea, a group of green tea powders of notably lower quality.

Low-quality matcha trades high-yield in place of authentic quality – casting aside the 1,000 years of matcha origin and history of this fine powder tea.

Matcha from Uji, Japan

These low-grades of matcha are bitter, of brownish-green color, and are simply not as enjoyable. More worrisome is that only a select group of elite tea farms remain in areas like Uji, matcha’s birthplace in Japan.

Continue reading to learn more about the 60 remaining matcha tea farms, and what you can do to ensure you’re enjoying matcha which supports these tea-growing families who bear the very survival of this ancient tradition on their shoulders.  

Is Matcha a Dying Tradition? Fearing the Loss of True and Pure Matcha Quality

In case you’re not already familiar with matcha, it’s important to know just how valuable it has been to Japanese culture since its first origins around 1100AD. It was at this time that it was adopted, and quite literally cultivated by Zen Buddhism. 

A Brief History of Matcha

The Buddhist monk Eisai is considered the source behind the world of matcha we know today. His knowledge of green tea’s health benefits was in compliment to his responsibility in also bringing the Rinzai school of meditation to Japan.

Zen Mind Matcha

Together, the influences of matcha and mindfulness have permanently changed the cultural, and even the geographical landscape of Japan. In the millennium since, matcha tea has become a pathway between Zen Mind, ritual ceremony, and daily practice.

Ultimately, matcha has also become a keystone to the foundation behind the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony (which is still practiced during special events in Japan), and particularly in the past century matcha has also become a lifestyle blended of less-formal and even casual –quick-paced– daily tea drinking. 

While the tradition of matcha drinking has broadened into even the busiest of days, consumed in Japan as a daily fuel similar to coffee in America, the cultivation of authentic matcha hasn’t changed a bit.

The same cultivation techniques (shade-cloths, hand-picking, etc) are practiced today as they were centuries ago. Each year though, this can be said of fewer tea farms in Japan as corporate pressures push price point over quality for matcha.

Matcha a Global Energy Drink | Matcha outside of Japan

The growing body of reported health benefits from matcha is at least one way how matcha has both maintained its ancient roots and aided in globally-renowned health and longevity; on that same note is how some accredit matcha with the impressive centenarian population in Japan. 

Matcha for Good Health and Longevity

As a resource of culture, history, and good health originally exclusive to Japan, today matcha is sipped throughout the day across a growing global audience. What’s important is that this trend must not endanger the very tradition itself.

In reflection of its mindful roots, it has left Japan as a perfect means of sharing with one another, invigorating mood, and warding off malaise. But today, as more tea farms in Japan are shying away from those traditional (costlier) cultivation practices, the Camellia sinensis plant is quickly losing its luster.

In its place, those lower qualities which are marketed unknowingly as traditional, and most often, incorrectly as ‘ceremonial grade.’ Instead of heirloom tea plants with unique flavors and composition, the low qualities come from mono-crop matcha, with higher yields and reduced health nutrients.

What will happen to “real matcha” if the few tea farms left are replaced by commercial plantations?

Why Traditional Harvest of Matcha Matters for Quality

It wasn’t long after matcha was first brought to Japan that tea farms began springing from the rolling hills. Soon the area surrounding Uji, just outside of Kyoto, was found as the ideal mix of climate and geography.

Thus, given matcha’s favorable effects on energy and health, and coupled with its central role in tea ceremony, tea farmers were able to shift focus on unique ways to improve upon quality. 

What pesticides are used for matcha?

Matcha growers in this area developed strategies for achieving greater flavor and composition. They crafted specialized soil amendments for each stage of annual growth, and are also credited for the employment of the sophisticated shading techniques, all which are still used today. These same techniques explain why authentic matcha tea farms avoid the use of pesticides, as there is no need for them.

These details are what creates matcha with superior health benefits, and without them, low-quality matcha is truly lackluster in comparison.

If we’re not careful, the danger is that family lineages of tea farming expertise could be lost in place of low-quality matcha production.

As such, the treasured health benefits, known only through real matcha tea, would too be lost.

Authentic Matcha Tea Farms | Choosing a source of Matcha | Fair-trade Matcha

It’s alarming how everyday the few tea farms left still specializing in ‘real matcha’ are closer to losing this fight. In order to keep up against supply and demand, education surrounding what separates premium matcha from low-grade (i.e. industrial quality) matcha is absolutely essential.

Matcha for Food Applications | Pre-sweetened Cafe Matcha?

Typically the industrial matcha is quality enough only for sugary lattes and large-scale processed-food applications. You wouldn’t want to drink it plain as the bitter flavor would overpower the palate.

The big coffee chains are disguising this poor quality powdered green tea as the real deal. And considering these corporate cafes market this matcha under the same umbrella of health benefits that ‘real matcha’ affords, it’s even more deceptive.

Continue reading as we explore how we can work together to ensure the rich history of matcha is kept alive, and what actually separates the health benefits and cognitive-boosting properties of real matcha from the imitation powder.

Health Benefits of Ceremonial Matcha vs. Health Benefits of Culinary Matcha

With that lens, we’re able to better explore the specific differences that can be identified, and particularly felt, between true ‘ceremonial grade matcha’ and that only marketed as such (when in fact low-grade).

The low quality matcha is made through only a fraction of expertise, technique, and traditional knowledge as required to produce authentic matcha tea.

Machinery Matcha vs. Authentic Stone-ground Matcha

Low-quality matcha is also made using machine help and automation, whereas real matcha is always hand-picked and stone-ground

Cheap matcha is also less savory, and many people are losing-out on significant health benefits found only in the premium matcha powder, or giving up on it right away due to a bad first-taste.

Corporate Matcha Distribution

Intentional or not, this issue is further problematized by the demand for poorly sourced, low quality matcha; by not vetting quality, those corporate channels are voting against the few remaining matcha tea fields.

To be clear, most all sources of ready-made matcha in the U.S. (e.g. your local cafe chain: Starbucks® or Dunkin’®) have disguised their choice of quality under sweetened lattes or in ‘exotic’ green tea smoothies — we have a choice to fight back.

How to Drink Bitter Matcha? Is bitter matcha even worth it?

You aren’t alone if you’ve had a bad run-in with matcha. If it was bitter or nauseating, it’s magical to learn what separates that low-grade from the premium authentic qualities.

  1. If the taste is bad, you’re missing out on the health benefits
  2. Poor quality means ancient history, culture, and tradition have been traded for profit 
  3. On the contrary, you're turning down what could be a robust and delicious daily drink

Traditional Matcha Translates to Health Benefits and Flavor, Overall Quality

It’s noteworthy how with the timeline of matcha’s inception in Japan also came an unprecedented expansion of Buddhism; these philosophical changes came to resonate across the world, now understood as catalysts in the Age of Enlightenment. 

Speaking of origins, the strict expectations of quality were largely founded from its original exclusivity to monastics and the elite class. These parties developed a taste for ideal composition, and even more noticeably the greater mental and physical stamina when the tea was especially savory, vibrant green, with little to no bitterness.

  • Savory flavor comes from high L-theanine content, a calming amino-acid and key marker of high quality matcha – also rich in polyphenols 

What is Matcha Used in?

These calming, health-promoting, and energizing effects drew critical acclaim, matcha became elevated as a ceremony in-and-of-itself, while also developed as a pivotal tool in meditation, samurai training, and political discourse.

The demand for the tangible benefits and the more ideal flavor found only in the absolute highest qualities was incentive to what became a specialized science.

  • Yes, there are legitimate chemical distinctions between low-grade matcha and premium ceremonial grade matcha powder.

The Lifetime Commitment to Produce Premium Grade Matcha

In the past 1,000 years it’s notable how this skill set of matcha cultivation has maintained itself. Intergenerational lineages of tea-growing families until this very day represent the stakeholders in the renowned cultivation of authentic matcha tea.

Today this may only be described as an insurmountable knowledge of environmental conditions, types of fertilizer, age of each tea plant, complex shading schedules, and the sheer intuition of reading quality through the most subtle characteristics to create matcha.

Family Matcha Tea Farms

It’s a lifetime commitment, typically a family duty, and each generation has sought to carefully guard the wealth of this traditional knowledge for its value in health, good living, and longevity.

The Growing Scarcity of Matcha Growing Families 

It’s now known that matcha (i.e. the ultimate form of green tea) is host to numerous health benefits. The average person has likely heard that it offers potent antioxidants like EGCG, and is widely accepted to improve metabolism.

The vast majority of trendy claims are rooted in real science, in fact some of the possibilities might surprise you. That said, many go further in calling it a natural detox and by using other marketing language.

It has become clear how these great benefits have become exploited, coffeehouse chains and other retail spots have begun targeting these growing interests, now seemingly added in everything from lattes to baked goods. 

Matcha U.S. Distributors

In fact, use of matcha in the U.S. has increased exponentially; the demand has equated to a lack of the cultural knowledge that traditionally accompanies this beverage, most people in the U.S. have no prior knowledge of range in quality, or those of its more authentic purposes in ritual. 

The international market has taken advantage of this vulnerability, often marketing the lowest cost/poorest quality as ‘ceremonial grade’ — yet ‘true matcha’ cannot be mimicked in flavor or effect by a simple name change.

Health Benefits of Each Grade of Matcha

The range of health benefits from matcha change as you go up in quality, and now we’ll discuss why it’s important to support the few remaining premium matcha tea farms.

But first to recap, so far we’ve learned important historical details surrounding the origin of matcha in Japan, and as well some of the finer details that separate traditional matcha farms from those now serving the growing market for lower qualities. 

The overwhelming message is that traditional quality is struggling to survive, and its preservation relies directly on the continuity of generational knowledge in tea-growing families.

This requires strict adherence of time-tested agricultural science, environmental techniques, and most importantly the lifetime commitment from each grower involved in Japan’s premium matcha. 

How Much Matcha is produced each year? Why Real Matcha is Rare

In light of higher profit margins and corporate interests, this cultural resource has gradually reduced, now less than 60 remaining tea-growing families (and fields) are fighting to keep tradition alive. Almost all others have been forced to participate as suppliers of low-quality due to demand.

The Opportunity Cost of Low-grade Matcha

Perhaps the greatest worry is that the 1,000 year line of health benefits, exclusive to only the very highest qualities, may soon be broken if nothing changes.

Premium matcha is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to health and wellness. It’s even better, that by choosing only the best that Japan has to offer (including loose-leaf green tea).

We can rest more easily as we give our health the quality it needs while keeping this rich tradition alive. Say NO to that low-quality matcha from your corner cafe chain

Guide to Choosing Fair-trade Authentic Matcha Powder

Remember, low-quality green tea powder is often claimed to be matcha, but it isn’t the real deal unless it has the traditional cultivation to back it up. The few remaining matcha tea fields are defined by their intergenerational expertise and family knowledge, dedicated science of cultivation.

Ethical Matcha | Sustainable Matcha Tea Farm and Science

This science includes: environmental conditions, natural fertilizers, land management, and dynamic shading conditions. The science of matcha also relies on careful hand-picking, drying, sorting, and stone-grinding

All this is to say, not all matcha is created equal. Only with the best quality can you feel confident about enjoying its widely reported health benefits

When you source matcha that has a vibrant green color (see matcha color guide), sweet aroma, and a savory and minimally bitter taste, you’re guaranteeing the highest levels of healthy compounds.

Short List of Health Properties of Premium Matcha Powder

  • EGCG — High-quality Japanese matcha contains nature’s greatest abundance of this potent antioxidant, widely reported to improve metabolism, blood-flow, reduce common cold and flu, and investigated for potential anti-tumor properties. 
  • L-theanine — Japan’s best matcha is renowned for its high level of this special amino-acid. Very similar to glutamate, a prominent neurotransmitter, L-theanine reduces stress and improves memory, learning, and growth factors in the brain; it’s scientifically studied for its synergy with caffeine, and is a chief compound responsible for matcha’s use in Zen meditation.
  • Catechin Polyphenols — More than just EGCG, matcha is host to numerous natural compounds, including a variety of polyphenols and catechins which act independently in the body as promoters of health; the high levels of these health-boosters in matcha are thought to contribute towards Japan’s global lead in longevity and disease-prevention
  • Caffeine and other Stimulants — The best qualities of matcha are known to contain more than the average caffeine molecule, including greater levels of similar compounds like theobromine, theophylline, paraxanthine, and others that all share stimulating effects on the central nervous system.

Lead and Heavy Metal Free Matcha

  • Environmental Consciousness —  Unlike the low-quality, fake matcha that is increasingly distributed from origins like China or Kenya, when you choose pure and 100% stone-ground Japanese matcha sourced from multi-generational tea farms, you’re guaranteed to be free of residual environmental toxins, risky fertilizers, and free of heavy-metals

Cheap Matcha vs. Expensive Matcha

Low-quality matcha contains significantly lower levels of all the good health compounds, and potentially unsafe levels of certain contaminants — especially when originating outside of Japan. 

Always look for Japanese-origin matcha. And even on the other hand, the low-qualities coming directly from Japan are largely absent in renowned health benefits.

As more tea fields succumb to the greater demand of low-quality across the globe, this may only continue to progress. Fortunately though, we can be part of the solution by sourcing ethically-grown matcha tea cultivated from Japan and according to tradition.

By fighting to maintain tradition and sourcing the best quality matcha from Japan, we can be sure to support the few remaining premium matcha tea farms.

It’s a win-win as well, because we offer our support to keep what we love alive – and maintaining access to matcha with real health benefits.

What’s the best Matcha Brand?

With each order placed at Matcha.com, we’re able to work together as we protect those 60-remaining authentic matcha tea farms in Japan.

Do your part to help at the same time as optimizing your daily wellness:

 

-Team Matcha.com

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