From matcha lattes to ice cream and mochi, matcha green tea has become a familiar face in recent years. For many of us, it’s a new and exotic flavor. But in Japan, where it originates, this special ingredient has been around for a very long time. Its long history has given matcha farmers a chance to perfect their methods to make tea of the absolute highest quality. This is known as ceremonial grade matcha.February 08, 2021 9:27 am October 14, 2020 8:00 pm
The tea leaves which will eventually become matcha powder grow on the rolling hills surrounding Kyoto and in the Aichi province of Japan.
The rippling shape of the lines of tea shrubs matches the undulating landscape, which flows on into the distance in a vibrant shade of green. It’s hard to imagine a place where you could feel closer to the power of nature.
But matcha is special for more than simply the beauty of its cultivation.
It has has an elaborate cultural history which involves unique preparation methods, drinking rituals and different grades suited to different occasions. It’s a fascinating story, which we’ll get into below.
But first, let’s start with the basics: what matcha tea actually is, and how the very finest version of it is produced.
What is matcha?
Matcha is a kind of green tea. It’s famous for its distinctive flavor and impressive health benefits.
Believe it or not, almost every single type of tea (be it green, black, white, oolong, matcha or others) comes from just one plant: a shrub called Camellia sinensis.
It’s an evergreen with characteristic oval-shaped, slightly serrated leaves. Most teas are made from the leaves. However, you can also make ‘twig tea’ from the boughs of the plant.
The difference between types of tea comes from the way the leaves are processed. There are five possible steps to tea processing: plucking, withering, rolling, oxidizing and firing. Some teas go through all of these steps, while others might only go through one or two.
Black tea, for example, goes through all of the five steps and is fully oxidized. This gives black tea its dark color and characteristic flavor.
Green tea is typically only plucked (i.e. picked from the plant), withered (to remove moisture) and rolled (to wring out any leftover liquid).
Matcha, however, is a class apart. To make it, the farmer must take care at every step of the process, from growing the plant through to grinding the leaves.
How is matcha made?
First of all, the Camellia sinensis plant must be carefully grown and tended.
Come springtime, in preparation for plucking, matcha growers shade their plants with bamboo reed mats for up to two months. The purpose of this is to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the leaves. As a result, the leaves produce more chlorophyll, and develop a vibrant green color.
In early May, the harvest begins, on the 88th day after the first day of spring. The leaves, too delicate to be handled by machinery, are plucked by hand. They are very briefly steamed to help them retain their color, and then gently dried, usually by hand tossing. This must be done within 20 hours of plucking.
At this point, the tea is known as ‘tencha’.
Next, the growers grade and clean the tencha. All twigs and woody bits are removed, and then the stems and veins of the leaves themselves are taken away. Only now can the tencha be stone-ground into matcha.
Some farms still use the traditional hand-operated stone mills that their ancestors would have used centuries ago. Others, meanwhile, have modernized slightly and use machine-operated mills.(1)
Nevertheless, matcha requires a very slow and careful grinding process. If ground too quickly, the friction of the stone mill would produce heat which would alter the flavor and aroma of the matcha. It can take up to an hour to stone-grind just 30g of matcha tea. This process gives matcha its name, which literally means ‘ground tea’.(2)
Ceremonial grade matcha
Clearly, making any kind of matcha is a very labour-intensive process, which goes some way to explaining why it is so prized. But just as with other types of tea, there is a lot of variety in its quality. For this reason, we separate matcha into grades.
Ceremonial grade matcha is the highest grade of matcha.
It is made from the youngest and best quality leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. It is also graded based on the end product, which should have a noticeably vibrant green color, superior flavor and an excellent terroir.
As in wine-making, a terroir is essentially the environment in which the plant is grown. Soil quality, climate and other plants growing in the area can all affect the terroir.
'Ceremonial grade matcha is also recognisable by its exceptional flavor. Unlike other green teas, or even matcha of a lesser quality, ceremonial grade matcha tastes fresh, creamy and even slightly sweet, without any hint of astringency.'
It’s the most expensive and the purest form of matcha, and is used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies (more on that below). Because of the demands of growing and processing the plant, it can only be produced in Japan. We source our Organic Ceremonial Grade Matcha from just outside Kyoto.
To properly appreciate the amazing quality and flavor of ceremonial grade matcha, many believe that one should drink it simply with water rather than mixing it with other flavors. And never fear: a few paragraphs down, we’ll tell you all about how to prepare it. But first, let’s talk about the other grades of matcha you might come across.
Premium Grade Matcha
A step down from ceremonial grade matcha is ‘premium grade’. This grade makes use of the ‘next best’ leaves of the plant, but goes through a similar process and produces a matcha of very high quality.
Like ceremonial matcha, it is sweet and almost grassy in flavor, without any astringency. The color should still be a vibrant green. When compared side by side, however, the ceremonial grade will outdo the premium grade in terms of color. This is because the youngest leaves contain the highest levels of chlorophyll.
It should not, however, be dull-looking or dark in color. This would indicate poor quality.
Culinary Grade Matcha
Despite being the cheapest available form of matcha, culinary grade matcha is still a very high-quality tea. It is simply made from slightly lower-quality leaves than the premium or ceremonial grade teas.
If you compare it to the other two grades, you may notice a slightly duller color. You might also find hints of astringency creeping into the flavor profile.
While you can drink this type of matcha, it’s called ‘culinary grade’ because it’s typically used in the enormous variety of matcha-flavored dishes that are popular around the world.
Because it naturally tastes a bit more astringent and punchy, it’s perfect for pairing with other flavors and textures.
Culinary grade matcha is fantastic to use in baking. It pairs beautifully with white or dark chocolate, and is great in a shake or a smoothie. Some people even add it to noodle dough!
In the end, then, the grade of matcha you choose will depend on what you intend to use it for. If you love it as a cooking ingredient, try culinary grade. If you want the authentic matcha experience, go for ceremonial grade.
The Japanese Tea Ceremony
As we mentioned earlier, matcha has a special place in Japanese culture as the star of the traditional tea ceremony.
To fully experience matcha and all its cultural and historical significance, you should attend one of these elegant and unique ceremonies.
However, if you don’t have any plans to be in Japan in the near future, here’s a guide to the traditional tea ceremony so you can hold one at home.
While ritual tea drinking actually began in China, the Japanese ceremony dates back to the Kakamura period (1192-1333 AD). Zen monks drank it to help them stay awake during long meditation sessions.
However, it was during the 15th century that it became the tea ceremony we know today: an elegant affair where friends would gather to discuss lofty topics. These might include art, calligraphy or even the tea utensils themselves, which were often gorgeous artworks or antiques in their own right.(3)
Hold your own Tea Ceremony
The traditional Japanese tea ceremony is both fascinating and complicated, so we’ve captured below a slightly simpler version which lends itself to modern convenience!
First, find a dedicated area to hold the ceremony in.
Traditionally, it would take place in a separate tea house (cha-shitsu), but for those of us who don’t happen to have one, it can also take place in a special room of the house. While the tea ceremony usually makes use of a tatami floor or mats, you could sub in cushions or yoga mats for ease.
Next, set up your tokonoma. In the original ceremony, this would be an alcove containing a hanging scroll or beautiful flower arrangement. In the modern day, you could easily substitute your own flowers, or perhaps an interesting piece of wall art to provoke appreciation and discussion!
Now, it’s time to choose your utensils. Bearing in mind that your guests will (hopefully) admire and comment upon your exquisite utensils, choose your best stuff. Many hosts would choose utensils which they believed would be in harmony with their guests, so bear in mind their tastes and preferences.(3) Side note: in the traditional ceremony, matcha is traditionally drunk from a special bowl, rather than a cup with a handle.
For the authentic experience, you’ll also need a few special pieces of equipment: a bamboo whisk (chasen), a bamboo spoon (chasuku) and a ceramic matcha bowl (chawan).
With the preparation behind you, it’s time to invite your guests into your cha-shitsu. Naturally, they will ask lots of questions about your tokonoma, so be prepared to answer those with interesting details!
The last step prior to the actual tea-making involves serving sweets or wagashi. These could be anything from mochi or adzuki bean paste to sweetened rice cakes. The idea is that the sweet provides a nice balance against the slightly bitter flavor of the tea.
How to prepare Ceremonial Grade Matcha
Finally, it’s time to prepare the matcha.
In a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, the host serves his or her guests two types of matcha.. A thick version of matcha, also called koicha matcha, comes first. Koicha is served in one larger bowl from which each guest takes a few sips before passing round to their neighbour. This gives everyone a chance to admire the utensils employed in making the tea.
To make koicha matcha, place four chasuku spoonfuls (about two teaspoons) of ceremonial grade matcha into your ceramic bowl along with 50ml of hot water and whisk with your bamboo chasen. The most effective way to do this is to whisk repeatedly in the shape of a ‘W’.
The final consistency should be somewhere between a paste and a thick liquid or syrup. You may want to sift the matcha powder first to make sure there are no lumps in the final drink.
Pass this round to your guests. Once everyone has enjoyed their koicha matcha, the ‘formal’ part of the ceremony is complete, and you and your guests can relax into a chattier mood. If you like, you can serve a few sweets again to rebalance your guests’ palates.
Next, it’s time to prepare the second type of matcha, called usucha. This is the kind of matcha we’re more used to seeing in the Western world, and is much thinner than koicha.
To make usucha, add two chasuku spoonfuls (one teaspoon) to your ceramic bowl, followed by 70ml of hot water. Whisk using the same ‘W’ motion as previously. You’ll notice that the matcha gains a layer of froth at the top – keep going! The froth, according to many, is the best part.
Serve this to your guests in individual cups and finish up the ceremony by giving them more time to chat and discuss your utensils and decorations.
Drinking matcha without the ceremony
While there’s no replacement for attending a real Japanese tea ceremony, we love the idea of setting one up at home. But unfortunately, you don’t always have a cha-shitsu in your rented flat, or a chasen hiding away in the cupboard.
The good news is that you can still enjoy drinking matcha, even without the accompanying ceremony.
Outside of tea ceremonies, most people prefer to drink usucha, so simply use the same instructions as above to prepare a delicious drink whenever you like.
Just remember to always look for the highest quality ceremonial matcha, which should have a bright green color, light and fine texture, and a fresh, grassy flavor with no astringency.
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