?what is matcha
How to Assess the Quality of Matcha
Like fine wine, matcha comes in a broad quality spectrum. While it is not typically easy to determine the matcha quality simply by looking at the label alone, there are four main “sensory cues” one can use to assess the quality of matcha: color, texture, aromas, and taste
Color: Higher grades of matcha should have a deep, electric, blue-ish green color as opposed to light, camouflage, yellowish-grey color. This is due to the fact that high-quality matcha is ground from the youngest ‘virgin’ leaves of shade-grown tea trees rich in chlorophyll, which gives it a hallucinogenic blue-ish green hue. Lower-quality matcha, on the other hand, come from the older tea leaves on the lower part of the tea plants that are lighter and more yellowish in color. In fact, Japanese tea producers typically categorize the color of matcha into either ‘pine-tree’ green (blueish green) or ‘bamboo’ green (yellowish green), for the higher and lower grades of matcha respectively.
Texture: Fine matcha should have an ultra-fine texture similar to a talcum powder or a mascara, with an average particle size of around 10m micron. The matcha particle size and shape is primarily determined by two factors: the quality of the leaves and the grinding method. Higher grades of matcha utilize the younger leaves that are extremely thin and soft; hence they break down into an ultra-fine powder upon grinding. Lower grades of matcha utilize the older, harsher leaves that do not break down easily into fine particle sizes and have a tendency to remain ‘grainier’ and less smooth in the palate. It is also common for fine matcha producers to grind their matcha using a traditional granite stone grinder. This method produces particles of matcha that are rounder in shape, producing a much smoother mouthfeel compared to matcha that are ground using other methods (e.g. metallic ball grinder).
Aromas: The major influencer of our taste perception, in fact, lies in the nose. The aromas of fine matcha should be fresh, sweet, buttery, and inviting to the nose. Crème-de-la-crème grade matcha is often marked by its refreshing green ‘oika’ (覆い香) aroma characteristic of shaded grown tea. Upon opening a new tin of fine matcha, the nose should be met with scents of freshly blended baby green vegetables and microgreens. Lower-quality matcha can give off unpleasant grassy, dusty, and hay-like aromas, or even worse, nothing at all.
Taste: The final cue lies in your palate. When brewed correctly, superior matcha should taste sweet, and not bitter. While inferior matcha can taste unpleasantly bitter and astringent and lie flat in the palate, superior matcha should delight your taste buds with sweet, vegetal notes. Highest grades of matcha such as our Misaki™ or Matsu™ have the complexity of the amino acid structure, producing a natural sweetness without any added sweeteners. They contain a great deal of sweet-savoury ‘umami’ — a defining characteristic of high-quality matcha. Similar to a perfectly pulled espresso, fine matcha should have a full, robust body, with a smooth mouthfeel, and a long, smooth finish that can rev on in your palate for minutes
Just as there is no shortage of bad wine and bad coffee in the world, the markets are full of poor-quality matcha. We hope that with a set of sensory cues presented above, you will be able to better evaluate the quality of matcha and make an informed purchasing decision going forward
History of Matcha
As the most consumed beverage in the world after water, tea has a long and complex history that spans multiple cultures over thousands of years. Matcha has evolved through a fascinating journey that first began in China, and continued via the spread of Zen Buddhism to Japan before it was later assimilated as the centrepiece of the Japanese tea ceremony. Now it has attained global popularity to become one of most unique and highly-prized delicacies of the 21st century.
In its infancy, matcha was in fact vastly different to what we now know. Chinese Zen (Chan) monks in the early 600’s in Tang-Dynasty China simply prepared matcha by roasting and pulverising the tea leaves, and then brewing the resulting by-product in hot water before adding a pinch of salt. Song-Dynasty China saw the development of matcha being prepared from steam-dried leaves, then whipped up with hot water in a large bowl. This process soon became a key part of Zen Buddhist monks’ daily ritual as they realised the meditational benefits of matcha, which provided them with sustained energy and a level of mental acuity that they had never experienced previously.
This ritual of preparing and consuming the powdered tea was eventually brought to Japan in 1191 by an influential Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, Eisai Myoan. Eisai wrote the first treatise on tea, Kissa Youjyouki, which famously described matcha as a precious medicine, the ‘elixir of the immortals’, encouraging the Japanese to take on this tea-drinking habit for its health benefits.
Viewed more as a medicine than a delicacy, matcha in the early days was marked by its bitter flavour profile. It was not until much later, during the 15th-16th centuries that Japanese tea growers discovered by accident that shading the tea plants 20-30 days before harvest created a mellow, umami-sweet taste in the tea leaves. With time, the technique of cultivating matcha was further refined, and by the beginning of the 19th century, skilled tea farmers were able to produce matcha with a smooth and mellow flavour profile similar to that of the high-quality matcha of today.
Matcha used to be one of Japan’s best-kept secrets. However, the popularity of matcha has never been more widespread than it is today. Had the tea not been so well received by Zen Buddhism in Japan hundreds of years ago, we might not be able to savour the delicious ceremonial delicacy we call matcha in our modern world today.