With countless visits to Japan’s most-prized tea fields, we’ve witnessed first-hand the essential practices that tea-masters use in producing premium quality matcha. The specialized production is a centuries-old skillset that manipulates the growing conditions (soil, fertilizer, sunlight, and shade) in order to encourage an ideal composition of the leaves.
Although Springtime in Japan is the annual harvest season, authentic tea farms spend the remainder of the year carefully planning, tending to the tea plants. And even during that offseason, incredible detail is poured into the health of the plants and optimization of soil health.
How is Ceremonial Matcha Produced?
Each step of authentic production leading up to, and during harvest is critical. Ultimately, each step combines equally towards the end product of superior quality stone-ground, ceremonial matcha.
Below you may learn more about each of the most essential steps along the way:
The foundation of any nutritious vegetable or other crop starts with the soil, and perhaps the most well-cared for soil in the world is found in the matcha-growing hillsides of Uji, Japan. The land there has been carefully maintained with the best natural fertilizers for nearly a millennia.
The Japanese’s traditional knowledge of the environment has also helped protect against industrial contaminants. These areas remain serene and nationally treasured by the people of Japan. Yet with rising demand internationally, portions of this area have been converted to grow USDA Organic matcha.
Certification requires very strict regulations for soil health and transparent processing. Even now, there is Ceremonial Organic matcha, a level of quality previously unattainable with approved fertilizers.
And although all of authentic Japanese matcha is free of contamination, those wary of organic products in their diet are no longer constrained in their selection. Access to premium organic qualities (read more about the differences) of this tea is helping to welcome a wider international audience.
Nevertheless, plots of land that grow lower quality or ‘industrial grade’ matcha are also growing in Japan. Here’s we have a couple tips to identify pure, authentic matcha:
- If you ever visit yourself, try and find a tea-field with a minor presence of insects. That’s a good indicator of clean cultivation practices (i.e. free of pesticides).
To the matcha connoisseur, an important part of cultivation also has to do with the picking of the leaves. Industrial farms use machines to make this process less expensive. But at the cost of quality, taste, and maximum health benefits.
Machines may counteract the clean soil by contributing petrol or metalloid contamination. So, whereas the labor of hand-picking adds to the cost of premium matcha, it’s worth those extra couple bucks to steer clear of industrial methods.
- You can stay safe by aiming for the best, most vibrant green color matcha you can afford.
2. LIGHTING CONDITIONS
An essential part of growing ceremonial quality matcha is to optimize the amount of shade the tea-plants get. The tea-master decides 2-4 weeks before harvest, individually for each plot of tea plants, when to begin the process of ‘pre-harvest shading’
This ancient method is revered to improve matcha’s yield of savory flavor (from the amino-acid L-theanine) and health promoting antioxidants (for example, EGCG). The timeline and intensity of this shading process directly influences the type of matcha produced.
Tea-masters are able to control the humidity and intensity of light using this type of material, triggering the tea-leaves to grow wider, thinner, and deeper an emerald green. And if you’re staring at a vibrant green, sweet smelling cup of matcha, then you know it was shaded correctly using natural fibers.
Typically they are tight-woven, light-filtering shade clothes, a natural fabric material. They have different intensities of light filtering and each plot of tea plants is dynamically shaded by layering them. This level of finely-tuned shading also gives rise to more nutrition, with concentrated vitamin and mineral benefits.
Ultimately, it’s true that keeping things 100% traditional like the shading is a cost of labor, making your premium bowl of matcha a bit more expensive. But, the difference is outstanding! Upon trying them each, many decide to stay with thick tea (i.e. Ceremonial Grade), rather than sipping grades (thin tea) or culinary types (bitter, lower cost, used for baking).
3. FERTILIZATION AND SOIL CARE
Besides the harvest of authentic matcha being incredibly precise and labor-intensive, there’s more techniques involved than meet the eye. During the time before harvest, the soil each plant grows in is also carefully reinforced with the highest quality fertilizers.
The tea-master reads the characteristics that each tea-plant shows in order to calculate what amendments are needed, and how much. Attention is year-round but is given especially before the pre-harvest shading period.
This time is pivotal in the yield and quality of matcha each year, where the change of conditions (light, humidity, nutrition) are deciding factors determining each leaf’s composition. Soil amendments essentially give the tea plants critical fuel in being able to produce savory flavors, healthy compounds, and other desirable changes.
For centuries, the most typical of traditional fertilizers has been nitrogen-rich fish meal. Among great plant foods, sometimes pure nitrogen is added to the soil as well, in order to boost flavor, yield, and the end consistency of the tea powder.
In conjunction with controlled sunlight, a detailed accounting for soil condition is one of the utmost vital factors in developing matcha with high concentrations of healthy compounds. These include potent antioxidants, brain-boosting amino acids, micronutrients, and other nutraceuticals.
In one sense, limited light stops upward growth, as the fertilizer helps the plants fill outward with thinner, yet densely nutritious leaves. When you enjoy high quality matcha tea, the great energy you feel is a direct link to all of that hard work.
4. VARIETALS (A.K.A. CULTIVARS)
With any domesticated crop there are different heirloom varietals (cultivars, strains) that have been bred for different characteristics. All matcha producing plants are a unique group of tea cultivars, much the same as you might have with different types of grapes for wine.
They've been ‘designed’ exclusively for preparation as a powdered whole-leaf. This is an important difference between matcha and green-tea, and the subtleties between them might surprise you. Each varietal has its own aromatics and flavor profile.
Varietals even differ in the level of astringency on the palate. Some, with bitter, yet savory notes; others with total sweet, grassiness. These are a few of the intricacies at play in each sip from your matcha bowl. Further distinguishment involves the chemical composition of the matcha, for example, one cultivar may produce greater levels of amino acids, where another antioxidants.
It’s also common that different varieties are blended (again, very similar to wines) and powdered to form a final matcha powder. Tea leaves may be considered based on a shared soil (e.g. Single-Estate Organic Matcha).
Others may be blended from a single cultivar (such as Master’s Blend Matcha), such as when composition and calming effects are of foremost importance (like Japanese Tea Ceremony). This wide selectability gives tea-masters an opportunity to craft specialty blends and annual reserves; even to gradually develop new cultivars.
The process of blending is noteworthy since it allows for a level of flexibility in achieving great matcha. Crafting varietals together provides increased access to annual supplies, helping premium quality matcha to be enjoyed on a wider scale, each year, across the world!
5. PROCESSING (STONE-GRINDING)
There’s only one traditional and authentic way to process matcha from leaves into a final powder without damaging it’s quality: slow, stone-grinding. Also known as stone-milling.
Any deviation from this time-tested practice can result in negative changes of flavor and nutrient quality. An example would be if a tea facility decided to use a high-power blender instead of a slow, stone-grinder. Machine powered blending creates heat on a microscopic level which can quickly oxidize and ruin matcha green tea.
Industrial powdering is far from the more authentic means. Stone-grinding uses grooved stones rotating with a high torque. Dried leaves are slowly funneled between the stones and gradually extruded. Over the course of about one hour – this process may only powder approximately one ounce (30g) of matcha.
At this point, the powder measures only nanometers. It’s the only available process which maintains quality. Unlike quick powdering machines, stone-grinding preserves nutritional properties, and the biologically active health compounds.
The Bottom Line
If you’re interested in matcha for its taste, the ritual, the health benefits – or all of it – identifying the differences which constitute the highest qualities is of unparalleled value. Familiarizing yourself with the painstaking labor and careful cultivation techniques which go into matcha is one certain way to learn those details.
This information comes at a time when retail coffee chains are increasing their number of matcha offerings, and new people everyday are exposed to this tea without any real guidance. So, as we all further develop our connection with this traditional health beverage, bear in mind the relevance of where your matcha is sourced, how it is grown, and how it’s intended.
In learning to recognize premium ceremonial quality matcha, you’ll be sure to feel a sense of respect and gratitude – perhaps awe – at the craftsmanship that’s poured into producing it. Our tea farm is one of the oldest in Japan, and one of the few still practicing each of those steps involved in traditional cultivation.
At the end of the day, it’s recommended to always source matcha that is 100% stone-ground, matcha which boast a vibrant emerald color, and which is more savory, sweet than astringent or bitter.
These are characteristics you can actually sense, which will ensure your daily ritual is fueling you with the highest possible levels of nutrients and health benefits.
-Team Matcha Kari