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Matcha is a green tea powder made from shade-grown grounded Camellia Sinensis tea leaves called tencha. Tencha is a type of green tea that is used to make matcha which gives matcha green tea powder its umami flavor and high caffeine content. The Camellia sinensis plant is used for other common types of tea such as black tea, white tea, oolong, and other green teas. However, what makes matcha unique from different types of teas is that authentic matcha powder is grown and produced in Japan. With an 800-year-old history of cultivation and traditions, many authentic matcha producers still practice those traditions today. In this article, we will take you through how Japanese matcha green tea powder is made, starting from the farm.
While the production of matcha green tea is a slow and extremely skilled labor process, the traditions and practices that are still used today are truly an art of their own. The Camellia Sinensis plant alone takes about 4 – 8 years for young seedlings to reach full maturity. One of the most important processes of producing high-quality matcha is the shading process. This typically happens 3 – 4 weeks before harvest, however, it does depend on the tea farm and their region of Japan. By shading the leaves and protecting them from direct sunlight, it changes the flavor and the natural balance of caffeine and natural sugar. Less sunlight increases the plants’ production of amino acids, aiding in various sweet and umami flavors.
After shading, the tea plants are ready for harvest. Known as hachiju-hachiya (八十八夜) or 88 nights, this term refers to the 88th day after the first day of spring. This time marker is essential for Japanese tea farmers because it indicates the best time to harvest tea–two to three weeks from when hachiju-hachiya begins. This typically falls around mid-April to mid-May each year depending on the tea farm. Machines are mostly used to harvest tea, however, on some smaller tea farms, handpicking is more common. The first harvest of tea produces the finest quality of tea which has the best flavor as well as vibrant green color. This fine matcha green tea powder is then used for ceremonial grade matcha.
After the leaves are harvested, they are washed and steamed. The steaming stops the leaves from oxidating and helps the tea keep high levels of amino acids. This process is what makes Japanese tea unique from how other teas are produced. Tea leaves are then cooled down and brought to ovens for further drying. At this point, the tea leaves are known as aracha (荒茶) or unrefined tea. When aracha is unrefined, tea leaves have only been harvested, washed, and then dried. At this stage, the tea leaves have not yet gone through an important step of sorting yet.
You may wonder, why is sorting tea leaves important? After the steaming and drying process, the aracha begins its journey of sorting for further refinement. Sorting ensures that all impurities and dust are removed from the tea leaves. This allows the tea leaves to have similar color, size, and uniformity. Tea leaves are passed through multiple sorters and sifters to remove stems and leaf veins. Leaves are also cut into smaller pieces. At this stage, the aracha is refined into tencha (碾茶). Tencha refers to the tea leaves before it is grounded into fine matcha green tea powder. All high-quality matcha is made from tencha of the first harvest as it has the most vibrant color, richest flavors, and nutrients. Other grades of matcha, such as culinary are typically made with older tea leaves that have not been shaded as long.
Matcha Otome is a ceremonial grade green tea powder that has a fresh aroma and rich, savory notes of sweet grass with slight astringency. From the prestigious Uji region in Kyoto, this matcha is excellent as is or in drinks such as matcha lattes, smoothies and cocktails.
Finally, the last step for matcha green tea production is grinding the tea leaves into powder. Tencha is placed on machine-powered mills and grounded into a fine powder. This is where the term matcha (抹茶) comes from as it refers to “powdered green tea”. Traditionally, matcha green tea was ground by hand, using stone mills. This labor-intensive process not only took longer, but too much friction could cause the matcha to be ruined. Nowadays, various automated machines are used. After tencha is grounded into matcha, it is packaged and ready for shipment.
The process of creating fine and high-quality matcha reminds us that it is an art of its own. The growing and production process and how Japanese green tea matcha powder is made is extensive and time-consuming but any missed steps can impact the taste, color, nutritional value, and quality. Each step is essential to create delicious tasting matcha for us to enjoy every day.
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