Producing matcha tea is a process which requires skilled labor at each stage. The tea plants must be cared for, properly shaded, and then processed in specific methods. Thereafter, a tea master will sample processed tea leaves (tencha) to assess quality and flavor. Once the tea master is confident of its quality and flavor, tea leaves of different tea plants will be mixed in specific proportions, creating a tea ‘blend’ . The tea ‘blend’ is then ground to become matcha.
Can all tea plants be used to produce matcha?
All tea plants can be made into matcha. Matcha is produced from Camellia Sinensis, the same plant used for most other types of tea. However, are a great many varieties within the species. These are called cultivars, short for cultivated varieties. Some cultivars, such as the yabukita and okumidori cultivars, are tough and frost-resistant. This makes them suitable for cultivation in many areas of Japan and a large range of Japanese teas are produced using these common cultivars. Other cultivars, such as saemidori, asahi and gokoh, are better suited for shaded growth. These are ideal for making matchaand gyokuro because the leaves often have a lighter, sweeter taste.
New cultivars are discovered by crossbreeding. One newer cultivar that shows great promise is the seimei cultivar. When made into matcha powder, it has a brilliant green colour, a creamy texture and a very nutty sweet taste. The seimei cultivar was discovered in 2017 and shows great commercial promise. However, it has not yet entered mass production for consumers. We are fortunate that one of the growers we worked have supplied us with a small production batch of matcha made from the 2019 harvest of a single origin seimei cultivar plot. This matcha is our 2019 Chiran Harvest Ceremonial Matcha, it is one of our favourites.
An eight year wait for the harvest
It takes at least 5 years to grow a tea plant before it is ready for harvest. It is quite a long time. In fact, the tiny tea bushes seen in the photo below are already about 2 years old.
Tea plants are pruned frequently as they grow to prevent plants from growing too tall. The farmers spread the lateral branches out so that tea leaves grow over a larger area. The spread allows for easy picking during harvest seasons.
As the tea plant reaches maturity in the fifth year, farmers can now begin harvesting. However, farmers usually wait until the eight year before offering the leaves plucked from the tea plant for commercial sale. This is because the flavors of the tea leaves tend to be inconsistent between the fifth and eight year.
Shading – the most critical part of the making matcha
Shading the tea plant from sunlight is easily the most critical part of the matcha production process. It greatly affects the taste of the final matcha powder and takes great skill and knowledge to do correctly. With less sunlight for photosynthesis, the tea plant begins various chemical reactions that increase the production of various amino acids. These amino acids contribute to the sweet, umami flavors in matcha, and is also responsible for some of the desirable compounds in matcha like L-theanine.
The shading process is conducted 4-6 weeks leading up to the harvest. Up to 90% of sunlight is blocked when the tea plants are shaded . Farmers must maintain a balance of allowing just enough sunlight so that the tea plant survives, yet also create the conditions needed for tea plants to continue producing amino-acids. This balance must be continuously maintained, and requires regular monitoring and tweaking. The experience of each farmer is crucial to ensure that the shading process is done correctly. The farmers that we work with are thankfully, very experienced. Many come from families that have been growing tea for generations.
Traditionally, farmers would spread bamboo straw over a bamboo frame constructed directly over the tea leaves. Some farmers still swear by this method, but most others have switched to a black plastic mesh cloth draped over a steel frame. Some other farmers will experiment and use combinations of multiple layers or materials to produce unique tasting matcha tea. It all really depends on the matcha taste and flavor profiles that the farmers hope to achieve.
Harvesting the leaves
Tea plants are harvested around May each year. The exact timing really depends on the cultivar being grown. This is the “First Harvest” or “First Flush” that most tea companies talk about to demonstrate the quality of their product. The first harvest is thought to be best because the tea leaves contain all the nutrients accumulated over the growing period. Much of the premium loose-leaf tea coming out of Japan is made up of the first harvest tea. The later harvests are mostly used to produce tea for tea bags and bottled tea. Larger tea companies may harvest the same field up to 3 times in a year (Spring, Summer and Autumn). For top quality matcha, some farmers will opt to only harvest tea plants once per year to ensure that their produce is consistently the best it can be.
In Japan, tea is harvested mostly by machine, though hand picking is still quite common in smaller tea fields and particularly in Uji. Some people believe that handpicked tea leaves resulting in superior tasting tea. These people are willing to pay a large premium for matcha made from handpicked leaves.
In the Kyoto region, where the tea fields are smaller, farmers usually use a handheld device that is raked over the tea plants. This is useful where the terrain is uneven, and the plots are carved into a hillside. It is essentially a large lawn trimmer with a bag.
In places like Shizuoka and Kagoshima where tea farming is conducted on a larger scale, you tend to see huge expansive tea fields. The farmers here use machines known as “self-propelled tea harvesters”. These are essentially large ride-on mowers. When the tea fields get as large as they do in Kagoshima, such machines are a necessity.
We have tried a large variety of Japanese teas made using both machine-harvested and handpicked leaves. While hand pick tea is usually very good, we are not so sure that the huge price premium for matcha made from hand picked leaves is necessarily worth it for everyone. Personally, we believe that regardless of how the tea is harvested, the subsequent factory processing and blending plays an equally important role. For most people who drink matcha casually, the difference may not even be noticeable.
Enter the tea factory
A factory will perhaps never convey the same romance as the wide- open tea fields, but it is still a crucial step in the process. A matcha production line involves 3 key steps. First, raw tea leaves area processed into crude tea (aracha). Second, processing aracha into processed tea (tencha). Third, storing and grinding the tencha into matcha powder when it is ready for sale. Take note that in its tencha form, matcha can be kept refrigerated for up to a few years without losing quality or taste.
Tea leaves into aracha
The freshly harvested leaves aretransported into large loading bays. Here, the tea leaves are washed several times before being steamed. The steaming process stops tea leaves from oxidizing and ensures that the leaves retain their color and amino acid profile. This stage is unique to Japanese teas. Other cultures tend to allow the tea leaves to oxidize before processing. Once the tea leaves are steamed, they are blown through huge nets to cool them down. They are then sent to a large oven to be dried further
These processes aim to reduce the moisture levels in the tea leaves. This way the tea leaves can be stored for a longer period after processing. When the steaming and drying processes are completed, the tea leaves are passed through machines that separate the stalks from the tea leaf. The stalks are considered a waste product, so the process is repeated several times to separate all of the stalks. When this step is completed, we have aracha, also known as crude tea.
Aracha into tencha
Aracha will be sent to a second set of machinery for further refinement. These crude tea leaves pass through several rounds of sifting to remove smaller impurities (like smaller stems and leaf veins). The tea leaves are then cut into smaller pieces. At this point, aracha (crude tea) has become tencha (processed tea). Now, a tea master can sample the tencha to appraise its quality. He (or she) will blend different tencha together to create desirable flavors. Specific proportions of tencha will be mixed according to the tea masters’ subsequent instructions and stored away.
Tencha into matcha
Tencha is kept in cold rooms until it is required to be made into matcha. This is simply because storing tencha is usually easier than matcha. It also allows the matcha to be fresh when ordered by customers. Traditionally, tencha is placed onto a stone mill and ground into matcha powder by hand. This is an incredibly labour intensive process, so the Japanese now rely on machine-powered stone mills to grind the tencha into matcha. Unfortunately, this is still a lengthy process, as going too fast will generate too much friction and heat, eventually damaging and ruining the matcha. Even with an automated stone mill, it will take up to an hour to produce just 40 grams of matcha.
Larger producers will use jet mills or ball mills instead. These are much more efficient machines, though some people believe that it results in a different, less desirable texture. Once again, the method used to grind tencha into matcha powder is something that some people feel strongly about.
In our experience, the most advanced jet mill machines can grind to micron sizes comparable to stone mills. The important question to ask is whether the texture of the matcha feels soft and airy, like talcum powder. That is the sign of great texture. Between the modern milling machines and the traditional stone mill, only experienced serious matcha fans would be able to tell. Beyond a certain point, your experience with the matcha is more affected by how you prepare the matcha, and not by how it was ground. Regardless, any matcha produced must meet a final inspection and quality control standards before it is packed and sealed. Most matcha companies will only grind the matcha when it is ordered by customers. This allows us to receive fresh matcha even from outside Japan. Naoki Matcha practices this method as well. We only grind our tencha into matcha tea and ship on demand, which is why some of our items (unfortunately) run out of stock occasionally.
An interesting fact about the processes outlined above is that they have been refined over centuries. In fact, some of the companies that invented the processes or machines are still manufacturing and selling matcha and other types of tea.
Matcha tea may be seen as a health product overseas, but in Japan, it is the continuation of hundreds of years of history and culture.