We get it. Matcha can be complicated, when we were first introduced to it, it was confusing as well. What’s more, is that in the digital age, where too much information can be as much an issue as not enough, this problem becomes even more complex. In this article we’ll outline simple guidelines to help ensure you have an optimal matcha experience.
The first thing that comes to mind are those large numbers of potential matcha lovers who’ve been turned off by imitation, or improperly stored matcha. Unfortunately, many have also been dissuaded due to consuming good matcha the wrong way. Reason being, authentic Japanese matcha is graded by quality, taste, and purpose. These grades range from ceremonial matcha to culinary or baking matcha, each grade representing a unique flavor profile, and effect, which influences intended uses.
For most, an effective groundwork in navigating the world of matcha stems from an understanding of what goes into its production. For one, all Japanese matcha is the product of an intense labor process, one which involves a dedicated agricultural infrastructure, precision crop-shading, and its own school of harvesting practices. For two, and depending on the grade of matcha being harvested, these intricacies can become even more tedious and time consuming, where only the finest, freshest, and greenest of budding green tea leaves will be handpicked as part of a certain premium grade. This level of attention helps explain the great cost of those higher grades.
An additional consideration before dialing in on the balance of quality and price point, comes from the topic of single-cultivars. Like other domesticated crops, the green tea plant has been developed over centuries to exude certain qualities. In fact, much akin to heirloom grape vines, various cultivars of green tea have been created, some for certain flavors, others for greater antioxidant content. The higher, more costly grades of matcha are produced as a single-cultivar, where the powdered tea originates from leaves only of one strain of tea. On the contrary, those less premium matcha teas are produced as a blend of more than one cultivar. Yet, the differences in quality between single-cultivar matcha and matcha from a cultivar blend are only part of the story.
What else dictates the range in quality?
As mentioned, the level of individual attention each green tea leaf receives varies, so it is important to consider a few of those key reasons. Grades of matcha are drawn apart and categorized by how well individual leaves adhere to differing standards of quality. The costliest matcha is produced using not only a single-cultivar, but also leaves from those plants which are youngest, greenest, and healthiest. Not surprisingly, these leaves are also least abundant, produced only during the laborious pre-harvest shading each year. This usually equates to growth only from the two-week shading window which encourages the tea plant to change the composition of younger leaves to contain more sought after antioxidants and calming compounds. On the contrary, culinary and lower matcha grades are developed from the older, more mature green tea leaves. Differences in color and age of more mature leaves also include heightened bitterness and a lessened amino-acid content, not great for the matcha connoisseur.
Bear in mind. . .
While the terms ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ quality are helpful to denote the many types of matcha, well-produced Japanese matcha is never bad. Simply, not all matcha is intended for drinking, or sipping. Instead, those lower grades are perfectly suited for culinary purposes, where they offer nutritional value, micronutrients, and flavor, all while the bitterness found as a powder is balanced with other ingredients. If you’re part of those unfortunate to have experienced matcha as a yellow-green, bitter drink or latte, you’ve sadly been duped. True drinking matcha is bright green, earthy, umami, and with little to no bitterness. Those reports of dissatisfaction result because people have tasted matcha intended to be reserved only as a 'culinary grade.' For example, our Organic Chef's Choice might come at a lower-cost price point compared to one of our sipping teas like Organic Superior, but you’re highly unlikely to enjoy the former in beverage form.
For some, this lower price point is attractive, and offers an entrance to the health benefits of matcha. However it is intended for use in foods like smoothies, baking, and only very moderately in some lattes. In other words, culinary grades still provide much of the same energy, antioxidants, and other benefits that exist in higher grades, only they’re accompanied by a richer tannin content, making the matcha overly bitter and impractical to consume daily in the pursuit of better health.
So How Do I Choose the right grade of Matcha?
Well, if you’re going down a culinary route, your choices are more straightforward. We offer organic and non-organic culinary matcha, each are in fact excellent qualities for the culinary tier as it is. In some rare cases, you might require a drinking grade for culinary applications like cream-filled or top-dusted matcha pastries.
If you're exclusively looking for a true sipping matcha to enjoy plain or with a light amount of milk or sweetener, you next need to learn that sipping matcha is broken into thick (koicha) and thin (usucha) tea. Thick tea represents the very best tasting, and highest quality matcha available. It is consumed (traditionally) without additional flavors or blending, standing wonderfully alone, with a profoundly fresh and delicate umami flavor. Thick matcha tea, such as our Master’s Blend or Ceremonial Grade, offers the true-to-taste matcha experience which has been passed down for nearly a millennia in Japan, known best for its use in Japanese tea ceremony.
In terms of usucha, or thin tea, our Morning Ritual and Organic Superior are excellent examples. These teas are very bright green and finely powdered, soft to the touch, and buttery when pressed between your fingers. Each of our grades of drinking matcha are comparable in health benefits and antioxidant value, also too, sharing in a similar caffeine content. While usucha teas are not selected for use in Japanese tea ceremony, they are wonderful to drink alone or in a yummy latte or golden milk. Towards the end of our usucha teas, we offer First Harvest and Summer Reserve, representing together a common ground, to many, in the balance of cost, flavor, effect, and health.
Next time you order matcha, make sure you know how you'd like to prepare it. A word of caution, be wary of low priced "ceremonial" grade matcha. If it seems too good to be true, it is typically imitation matcha coming from China (along with heavy-metal risks) or the product of second, or even third flush harvests (older, less fresh, and way more bitter). As if that wasn't bad enough, deficiencies in quality also indicate a lack of the many health promoting properties found in good matcha. An easy rule of thumb is to look out for yellowish colors and bitterly unpleasant taste. Don't be one of those folks who’ve unfortunately stumbled into the wrong matcha and get turned off -- get the good stuff and your taste buds will reward you with some matcha bliss.