All tea begins with the plant Camellia Sinensis, whether it is green, white or black. Green when harvested, if not steamed within hours the leaves will oxidise and turn black. This is the black tea we are all used to in our daily cuppa.
But matcha goes beyond simple green tea. An art form perfected by the Japanese over thousands of years, it has a unique method of growing, harvesting, and production.
There are many different grades of matcha powder, which we will explain in this article.
What is matcha powder?
Matcha powder is a traditional green tea powder from Japan. Like fine wine or a good cheese, matcha is a product of its terroir. This is the environment in which it is produced and each element such as the soil and the climate will make a difference to the final flavour. There are various regions in Japan that are renowned for the quality of their matcha, just as there are areas of France renowned for producing excellent wine.
How is matcha powder made?
Tea for high grade matcha is grown in the shade, on specialist plantations. April is the beginning of the growing season, and there may be up to four harvests in a season. The first harvest, known also as a flush, is considered to produce the highest grade tea. Once the first green shoots appear, the tea plants are kept under gradually increasing shade in order to reduce the rate of photosynthesis. This concentrates the green pigment chlorophyll and increases theamine, the amino acid that gives matcha tea its soft sweet flavour.
The first flush begins in May. The young leaves are chosen and picked by hand. In any type of tea growing, this first harvest will have more nuance of flavour as it grows more slowly in the cooler weather. As the weather gets warmer over the season, the rate of growth speeds up and flavour changes. The green leaves are steamed as soon after harvest as possible to retain the vibrant green of the chlorophyll. At this stage, green tea would be rolled and left to dry but the delicate leaves for matcha are air-dried in a machine.
Finally the leaves are picked clean of stem and veins before grinding. Matcha tea is ground in a granite stone mill. It turns with a considered slowness designed to create as little friction as possible so as to retain all the delicate flavour notes of the final matcha powder.
There may be up to four harvests in a season, which ends in late autumn.
What does matcha taste like?
Matcha tea should be rich, aromatic and sweet with a grassy, vegetal taste from the chlorophyll. Higher grade tea will be less astringent than the lower grades, with minimal bitterness.
How to tell if matcha is good quality
There is a difference between high quality matcha powder and high grade matcha powder. The different grades of matcha are blended for different purposes, so culinary grade matcha powder from a reputable source is still a high quality product. Matcha, by definition is an artisan product of time and tradition. Yet, some will be of a higher quality than others.
A good quality ceremonial grade matcha powder will be…
Soluble, with a texture like fine baby powder.
Smooth and sweet with no astringency.
Grown and produced in Japan.
A vibrant green colour, yet this is not always a reliable benchmark.
How to choose matcha
Firstly make sure that your matcha is grown and produced in Japan. There is no labelling convention as such, and you could well be buying green tea powder which is not the same thing.
Buy according to your budget and what you need it for. First flush ceremonial grade matcha powder is best used for whisking in water. Slightly less expensive second flush ceremonial grade matcha powder can be whisked in water but will be slightly more bitter. You could use this in lattes and smoothies too as the more robust flavours blend well with milk. Keep the culinary grade matcha powder for cooking; the flavours are designed well to go with other ingredients.
Ceremonial grade matcha powder should be silky soft. Like baby powder. Lower grades will be less finely ground.
Different grades of matcha will have different levels of nutrients. The first flush matcha powder will have the most nutritional benefit, yet the lower grades are still all powerful superfoods.
What is ceremonial grade matcha?
Ceremonial grade matcha powder is the highest grade of matcha, blended purely for whisking in water and drinking as is. Used for centuries by monks and emperors to aid meditation, this is the stuff of the tea ceremony. The flavours are subtle and complex, delicate notes to be savoured.
Not all ceremonial grade matcha powder is first flush, but if it is it will be labelled as such. Our supreme matcha powder is first flush organic matcha powder.
Our imperial grade matcha is ceremonial grade second harvest. Slightly less delicate, it can be used for whisking or in your morning matcha latte.
Culinary grade matcha powder
Culinary grade matcha powder is blended to stand up to other ingredients. So that the flavours can come through ingredients such as fats, or cacao, and not be lost. Often used in lattes and smoothies too, this grade of matcha powder is less smooth and has more bitter and astringent tones. If you had a matcha latte or tea that you did not like, it may have been made with a lower grade of culinary grade matcha powder.
This is made from the the third or fourth flush (the later harvests) or a mix of both. The leaves are often picked mechanically and the grind can be coarser so it requires more whisking to dissolve.
There are several categories of culinary grade matcha powder.
Premium grade matcha powder is very fine and blends well. It is perfect for milky drinks as well as baking and cooking.
Cafe grade is less delicate with a strong flavour.
Ingredient grade is produced to match well with milk and dairy. It is stronger and thicker.
Kitchen grade is the economy blend of matcha powder. It is less delicate than the rest, and more astringent.
Culinary grade matcha powder is not an inferior product. It is simply a question of using it for the right purpose. This is what you will use to make your matcha brownies or matcha ice cream. It is the perfect matcha powder for baking.
We hope that has helped begin to explain a little about the different grades of matcha powder. Take a look at all of our organic matcha powder, or head over to the online store for more wholesale organic food.
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