photo credit: 05 Tea
Matcha is made from the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis, this is the same plant that produces all true teas. These plants produce leaves which can be made into green, oolong, white and black tea through different methods of production. Matcha however has a very unique way of production.
There are different varietals of Camellia Sinensis plants that produce differing quality levels or grades of Matcha. The highest grade of Matcha comes almost always from one of three Japanese varietals called samidori, okumidori and yabukita.
Growing the Plants Destined for Matcha
Only the highest quality matchas are harvested once a year as a first flush. The fresh young leaves are hand picked from the Camellia Sinensis plant in spring typically in May. Roughly six weeks before harvest in March or early April the tea fields are gradually covered up to decrease the amount of light reaching the plant. A traditional covering called Tana covers the plants with woven straw mats or more modern style with black vinyl sheets a few feet above the tea plants. These mats are added one layer at a time each week with subsequent layers being placed on top of the previous ones. This is a slow and gradual process decreasing the amount of light until about 90% of the light is blocked.
Some farmers harvest a second flush (also called 2nd harvest) and sometimes even a third flush.
What does Shading do?
The sun deprived plants then increase their production of chlorophyll to assist in photosynthesis due to the lack of sunlight entering the tea field. The boost in chlorophyll is what give the plants leaves the vibrant jade green colour for premium matcha. Another effect of the shade grown plants is the amino acids aren’t broken down from direct sunlight resulting in leaves with a more natural sweetness in flavour and aroma with little to no bitterness. One key amino acid that is preserved is L-Theanine. L-Theanine is responsible for helping in cognitive function, increasing the mind’s ability to focus and its effects are similar to adaptogens whereas it aids the regulation of stress.
Harvesting and Production
When the leaves are ready to be harvested, only the finest tea buds are picked - usually the youngest and greenest small top leaves. Once harvesting is complete the leaves are immediately taken to be steamed, preventing any oxidation to occur. After the steaming process the next step is to dry the leaves. Drying the leaves can be done by air-drying in a vertical wind tunnel. The leaves then need to be sorted in categories. This is an extremely important step as the leaves are evaluated for taste, colour and texture.
The next step is the laborious and time-consuming task of destemming and deveining. The stems and veins are removed from the leaf by means of electrostatic cleaning, and what remains of the leaf is now called Tencha. Tencha is almost exclusively used for matcha production. The Tencha is now ready to be processed into smaller pieces in preparation for grinding.
The final step in processing is the grinding of the Tencha into a micro-fine powder that becomes Matcha. Grinding is conducted in a temperature and humidity controlled room. The grinding stones called Ishiusu are hand-carved and have been used in matcha production for centuries and they are only maintained by skilled stone mill carvers. The grinding process is so slow that its can take up to an hour to produce 30 grams of matcha! That's just one tin of our Ceremonial Matcha!
The slow grinding process is also what coaxes out the flavour and uniquely sweet smell. Even today with all the available technology the granite stone mill is still the best way to grind the Tencha into Matcha as only granite can preserve the colour, flavour and nutritional components of the tea to its upmost quality.
Not all match is processed in an old world traditional style. Some tencha leaves are ground in high powered, heat generating mixers or blenders which can lower its quality. As with the different methods of production there will be varying degrees of quality matcha produced, always ask about where you Matcha comes from, how its produced and what grade it is! Keep in mind that different production styles don't necessarily make bad matcha (but sometimes it does!). What it definitely allows for is varying price levels so that everyone can enjoy a cup of matcha.
Matcha is an amazing drink I hope you all enjoy it as much as we do!