What is this fine green powder, you ask?
Matcha is a finely ground, talc-like powder originating from Kyoto, Japan, the birthplace of Japanese green tea. During the Kamakura Shogun period, matcha was a rarity and was thus considered a symbol of luxury. Over the years, matcha has become increasingly popular in the western world, particularly for its health benefits like a boosted metabolism, increased energy, and better concentration. Since matcha is a powder, it is prepared differently from plain tea leaves or tea bags. Traditionally, a teaspoon amount of matcha powder is poured into a bowl and mixed with water or milk using a bamboo whisk.
How is matcha produced?
SHADING TEA LEAVES
The first part of the matcha production is the shading of tea leaves before harvest. The shading is done during spring, several weeks before harvesting. As shoots spring up, the tea plants are shielded by a perforated cover to mitigate direct sun rays. The purpose of this is to protect the young, budding leaves and encourage them to produce more chlorophyll. The shading process also darkens the leaves and promotes the production of theanine and caffeine. If you intend to make matcha, shading takes about three weeks.
The tea leaves are then harvested in early May. The most exceptional tea buds are carefully hand-picked before being processed. Steaming and air-drying the leaves halt the process of oxidation and enhances the green colour. At some processing facilities, the steamed leaves are air-dried through a tall, netted blow-dryer or a refrigerated leaf-sprayer and then conveyed to a drying oven. The oven continues to dehydrate the leaves as much as possible, diminishing them to over ten percent of their original size.
PACKAGING & STORING
After the leaves are dried, they are finely chopped and separated from their veins and stems. The laminas (the fleshy part of the leaf) that remains is known as Tencha Aracha. The finished tencha is packaged and stored in a refrigerator at 5 degrees until Autumn. Once the tencha matures, it is then stone-ground with a high-grade stone mill to become matcha. The rotating millstones can only grind at low speeds, so only a small amount of matcha powder can be processed each hour.
What are matcha grades?
Ceremonial grade is the finest grade of matcha, satisfactory for a koicha/thick tea in tea ceremonies and Buddhist temples. It is usually stone-ground by granite stone mills. Since the best matcha is required for koicha, some tea cultivators reserve the teas that are most valued and difficult to produce. Some companies measure their ceremonial grade by the number of harvests, the age of the plants, and whether it was hand or machine-picked.
Premium grade is high-quality as well, but sold at a lower priced point than ceremonial. This grade is recommended for daily intake, from matcha lattes to lunch-time tea. Although the colour may be less vibrant than the ceremonial grade, premium still boasts great flavour and will give you a healthy dosage of antioxidants and vitamins.
This grade of matcha is only notorious due to badly-processed matcha being labeled as culinary. If you've ever been given yellow, pungent-tasting, oxidized matcha, it isn't matcha at all. Culinary grade may be lower quality than ceremonial and premium, but it is still high-quality. Culinary is sufficient enough to be used in baked dishes like cakes and cookies where it will be complimented by other ingredients. However, for drinks like teas and lattes, ceremonial or premium is recommended.
The type and production process of green tea leaves delivers various grades of colour, texture, sweetness, and astringency in matcha powders. The differences in grades can affect the outcome of a recipe so it helps to be aware of them.
Bad matcha/Poorly-processed green tea powder is:
Not produced from tencha tea leaves
Not from shade-grown or barely shade-grown leaves
Looks more yellow than green