Due to a lack of information, I thought that all matcha was created the same, and that companies were just trying to get more money out of me, promising different ‘grades’. Boy was I wrong.
If you haven’t tried matcha before or you are new to the world, this guide will provide you with everything you need to know and more.
What is matcha?
Matcha is the most premium variety of shade-grown Japanese green tea leaves that are stone ground into a fine powder. It is special because the green tea plants are shade-grown for up to four weeks before harvest, and then the stems and veins are removed. When the Camellia sinensis plant is shade-grown, it produces more L-theanine and caffeine.
For centuries, monks have enjoyed matcha to support well-being and concentration during meditation, and samurai warriors before battle to help them stay calm and alert.
The different types of grades
Typically considered in the western part of the world, matcha is being marketed according to grades which indicates the quality.
The grades are as follows (from highest to lowest): ceremonial, premium and cooking/culinary grade.
Many factors contribute to the quality of matcha, which include: the region it's grown, geographical conditions, the part of leaf used, the variety of the tea bush, skill of the tea farmers, stone-milling and oxidation. This is why there is such a wide-spectrum of prices, as no matcha is the same. And you really do get what you pay for.
The types of leaves used
The location of the leaves on the tea bush is one of the many factors which determines the grade. The very top leaves of the bush tend to have a very high nutritional value, which gives it that vibrant green colour. These leaves are referred to as ‘baby leaves’. They yield the highest grades of matcha (ceremonial).
More developed leaves are harder and found lower on the tea bush. They yield lower grade matcha (premium, cooking/culinary), and provide a gritty/sandy texture. Typically, they contain a lot less nutrients.
Ceremonial grade matcha is only grown once a year from the Spring 1st harvest, around the end of April. Whereas, premium and culinary grade matcha will come from the second and third harvest multiple times per year.
The grinding process
Without the correct equipment and technique, matcha can easily suffer degraded quality. Ceremonial grade matcha is traditionally stone-ground into a fine powder using granite stone mills, taking up to 1 hour to grind only 30g of matcha.
Stone-milling ensures delicate nutrients are kept in-tact, and not lost through the process.
Premium and culinary grade matcha are generally pulverised using a large machine, which causes the matcha to lose delicate nutrients.
Some brands label their matcha as ‘ceremonial’, when in fact it’s not. The points below should help you distinguish this.
These consist of first harvest baby leaves, that have been shade grown for up to 4 weeks and then traditionally stone-milled. This results in a fine textured powder, that is deep vibrant green in colour. The taste is very smooth and non-bitter, smells slightly sweet and has great mix-ability. Typically, the greener it is, the higher the nutritional value.
Shade growing increases the production of chlorophyll, the pigment that absorbs sunlight. This improves the taste and aroma of the resulting tea. Exposure to direct sunlight breaks down amino acids in the leaves, converting them to catechins. Protecting tea plants from the sun helps maintain the amino acid content.
The whole process is very labour intense, which is why true ceremonial grade matcha can be more expensive.
Premium and culinary
These consist of second harvest leaves that have been pulverised in a large machine. Generally duller in colour (slightly brownish), bitter tasting, slightly gritty, can smell like hay and mix-ability can be an issue. It lacks important nutrients, as lower quality leaves are used and delicate nutrients are lost due to oxidation and processing methods.
Cooking/culinary grades are the same but generally more yellowish in colour.
Find out where the matcha is grown
Lead contamination is a concern. When traditional green tea is steeped, about 90% of the lead stays in the leaf, which is discarded. With matcha, since the whole leaf is consumed, you’re ingesting everything inside of it. If the tea leaves were high in the lead, then the matcha becomes highly contaminated.
Why is this a concern? Excessive exposure to lead can cause reduced brain function and motor skills. It’s the most common contaminant in urban soils.
The USDA limitation is just 2mcg of lead per gram when brewed. Researchers found that 32% of Chinese blends exceeded the limit. In comparison, 0% of the tea leaves from Japan exceeded the limit.
Ensure that your matcha is always from Japan, and ask for a certificate of heavy metal testing. This means that they independently lab test their matcha to ensure there are no traces of lead, or any other contaminants.
Why purchase organic matcha?
Unlike organic fruits and vegetables, organic matcha is extremely difficult to produce. Not only must the matcha meet strict quality standards, but it must also meet all requirements of the 3 major organic regulating bodies.
A lack of certification and care for the matcha itself means that they can be filled with negative substances such as fillers - to enhance growth, taste, texture and smell. Alarming, some have been found to contain Maltodextrin, a dangerous product which increases weight artificially.
Grown with the use of pesticides can also be an issue. A Greenpeace study found that, shockingly, 14 of the 18 samples of green tea used in research were found contaminated with pesticides, which European Union (EU) considers hazardous to your health.
If you can, always purchase organic matcha. This will ensure that the supply chain is heavily monitored, and therefore, safe to consume - as they will have to surpass organic certification standards. This is very important because countries such as China and India both have high levels of legal and illegal pesticides in agricultural products.