Perhaps Japan’s most iconic tea, matcha (抹茶) is a finely-ground powder produced by grinding tencha in a stone mill. In addition to being Japan’s most famous tea, it is also its oldest, and one of the oldest types of tea production in the world, dating back to Song Dynasty China (960-1279) where powdered tea was whisked with hot water into a thick, foamy drink. This practice was brought to Japan along with some tea seeds by Buddhist monks and after the development of shading in the mid-1500s, modern matcha was born.
Although the exact methods of production have changed, the basic steps remain the same: shade, pick, steam, and dry to produce tencha (碾茶); then sort and grind this tencha into matcha. In this two part series, we’ll take a look at how modern matcha is made and how each step along the way can have its unique impact on the final product’s quality and taste.
Most articles that deal with matcha production start with the harvest, but the process begins long before then. Before any tea can be made, the plants must first be grown, nourished, and harvested. In fact, a good deal of the tea’s final flavour is already determined by the raw material, meaning that the quality of the soil, climate, and tea plants are paramount to producing high grade matcha.
As with a good vineyard, the terroir — the soil, location, and climate — of a tea field plays a huge part in determining the quality and taste of tea grown there. For centuries it has been known that the best tea comes from fields in relatively cool, high elevation climes, on hills and mountain sides, with fog and well-drained acidic soil. The altitude and lower temperature decrease the need for pesticides, and also slow the plants growth, which increases the nutrient density in the leaves, resulting in better tea. Additionally, the mountain/hill and fog provide natural shade from harsh sunlight.
While these locations produce the best quality tea, they have their drawbacks: the sloped terrain and higher elevation mean they are harder and more expensive to manage and harvest, resulting in a reduced yield.
Conversely, low-lying, flat lands which are less desirable from a quality perspective are much easier to work and harvest mechanically, making them suitable for mass-produced low and medium grade teas.
In Japan, most tea plants are not grown from seeds, but rather propagated by cuttings. These cuttings are genetically identical and come in hundreds of types known as cultivars. Although all true tea comes from the two subspecies of Camellia Sinensis — sinensis and assamica — there are hundreds of different cultivars and hybrid cultivars of these two subspecies. By virtue of being genetically identical, tea plants of the same cultivar have the same taste and growing characteristics. When choosing which cultivar to grow in a tea field, producers take into account aspects such as taste, budding time, yield, and resistance to cold, pests, and disease.
Today, roughly 97% of tea plants grown in Japan are cultivars, with only 3% being seed grown (zairai - 在来). The most popular cultivar is Yabukita, which makes up 75% of all tea grown in Japan and is the standard against which all other cultivars are judged.
While Yabukita can be used to produce matcha, it generally results in a poor quality tea. Certain cultivars were bred specifically to produce tencha/matcha and gyokuro. These cultivars, such as Samidori, Asahi, Gokou, and Uji-hikari, respond well to shading, and generally have thin and flat leaves for easier processing as tencha.
When you look at pictures of tea fields in Japan, you may notice that most of the tea plants have been trimmed and pruned into neat rows of hedges, with a flat or rounded top. These ‘tea hedges’ are the most common way to grow tea in Japan as their even surface makes them suitable for mechanical harvesting, as all of the new shoots will grow an even distance from top of the hedge and can be cut off easily. This style of tailoring and shaping the tea bushes is called une-shitate (畝仕立て - ridged tailoring).
While une-shitate can produce very good teas, the highest quality are grown without this extreme shaping or pruning, meaning that the plants grow more vertically, and are distinct individual bushes, rather than a uniform hedge. This traditional, more natural way of managing tea plants is fittingly called shizen-shitate (自然仕立て - natural tailoring). Because of their naturally uneven shape, these plants must be harvested by hand. They also tend to be picked only once a year and have fewer buds per bush, which means that there are more nutrients packed into each new shoot, producing a better tea.
The shape of the tea bushes also affects which methods can be used to shade them.
An often overlooked aspect of tea quality is the fertilisation of the tea plants, which gives them the necessary nutrients to produce desired flavour and aromatic compounds. While most tea producers use a combination of synthetic and organic fertilisers, strictly organic cultivation is increasing in popularity. Tea plants are generally fertilised year-round, with the most important being the last fertilisation a few weeks before harvest.
Shading is the key process that results in matcha’s vibrant green colour and deep umami flavour. Shading the tea plants from the sun forces them to produce more chloroplasts and chlorophyll to harvest more sunlight, causing the leaves to develop a deep, vibrant green colour. These extra chloroplasts switch from producing bitter-tasting catechins which typically protect the leaves from excessive sun, and instead make sweet and savoury amino acids such as L-theanine along with aromatic compounds such as benzaldehyde which result in the unique ‘shaded aroma’ or ooika (覆い香).
Tea plants that are to be processed as matcha are shaded for at least 3 weeks, but some producers extend this to over 40 days. There are three primary shading techniques listed here in increasing order of quality, cost, and labour:
- Jikakabuse (直冠せ): Direct Shading, the simplest and cheapest shading method. Black synthetic cloth is draped directly over the plants, blocking out around 70% of the sunlight. A second layer can be added to increase the shading to around 95%. Putting the shading material directly on the tea requires that the plants be machine-trimmed to have an even surface. Most commonly used for shaded sencha and kabusecha, but occasionally used for matcha.
- Kanreisha (寒冷紗): Shelf-style with Synthetic Cloth, the most common shading method. Here, the black fabric is held in a canopy, or shelf, built over the tea bushes. This allows greater air and moisture circulation and also lets the plants grow more freely. Many shelf-shaded teas are grown untrimmed as shizen-shitate (自然仕立て - naturally-tailored) bushes, meaning that the bushes grow naturally and unshaped, which produces higher quality tea, but also makes them unsuitable for machine-harvesting, requiring these teas to be picked by hand.
- Honzu (本簀): Shelf-style with Reeds and Straw Mats, the most traditional shading method. Dating back at least over 400 years, the Honzu method uses the same shelf system as kanreisha but uses a screen of reeds as the first layer of shading instead of synthetic fabric. Though considerably more labour intensive and expensive to construct, the reed screen allows for even more air and moisture to circulate around the plants producing higher-quality, more complex teas. Additional layers of shading are added by placing straw mats on top of the reed screen.
To learn more about shading, its history, and its science, check out our two-part blog series on this uniquely Japanese practice.
Although all true matcha is ichibancha (一番茶) or the first pick of the year, deciding exactly when to pick the first new spring shoots can have a huge impact on the tea. There are many factors that affect when the tea sprouts or ‘flushes’, including latitude, weather, cultivar, etc. For example, late-budding cultivars such as Okumidori sprout after Yabukita, and tea plants in the south of Japan, such as Kagoshima, are ready to pick in early April, while those further north in Kyōto may not be ready until late April or early May.
Tencha is usually picked a little later than sencha or gyokuro in order to allow the buds to become smaller and the leaves to grow larger. The preference for larger leaves is due to the fact that they will be deveined during processing, and larger, flatter leaves have a greater ‘leaf meat’ to stem ratio, and are easier and more efficient to devein. Removing the vein from the leaf makes it easier to grind into matcha.
With those factors taken into consideration, producers must also decide if they want to prioritise quality or yield. Generally speaking, after a certain point, the quality of the new shoots will begin to decline while the yield will continue to increase as the plants grow. Pick earlier and you prioritise quality and sacrifice yield; pick later and you get more tea, but with a reduced quality.
Determining the right time to harvest is a matter of skill and experience, with producers relying on the softness and feel of the tea leaves as their best guide. Traditionally, tea picked on the 88th night of spring (which starts at Lunar New Year), called hachijū-hachiya (八十八夜) was said to be of the highest quality.
Traditionally, top-quality sencha or gyokuro uses a 1 bud and 2 leaves (一芯二葉 - ishhin niyō), or a 1 bud and 3 leaves (一芯三葉 - ishhin sanyō) picking.
For matcha, however, a larger or more open pick of 1 bud and 4-5 leaves is often preferred, as the larger lower leaves are more suitable for deveining and grinding.
There are two main categories of tea harvest method: manual and machine. Each method has its own strengths and drawbacks, along with various sub-styles.
Hand-picking (手摘み - tezumi) is of course the oldest and most traditional method of harvesting tea. Before the 1960s, all matcha was hand-picked. Today, however, it is reserved for higher-grade teas as it is very expensive, labour-intensive, and low yield. A skilled tea picker can harvest 10-15kg of tea per day, while a single two-person handheld mechanical harvester can pick 700-1000kg a day. Though it is still uncommon, matcha and gyokuro are hand-picked more often than sencha.
Hand picking produces the highest quality for a multitude of reasons: it can be used on shizen-shitate plants; pickers can be more selective about which leaves to pick and can leave out damaged or hard leaves, leaves are kept intact due to gentler picking, and the picking standard can be met exactly.
There are a few hand-picking techniques, but most pickers use orizumi (折り摘み - bending pick) where the stem below the last desired leaf is bent and snapped off without cutting it with the fingernails. Another less popular method is shigoki-zumi (しごき摘み) in which the lowers leaves are stripped off and the top leaves and bud are picked off in one pulling motion.
A bridge between hand picking and machine picking were tea shears, which were specialised scissors with an attached bag which boosted productivity tenfold. While they still exist, they are very rarely used.
While the larger riding-style tractor harvesters are the most efficient when it comes to picking tea, yielding 4-5,000 kg of tea per day, they are typically not used to pick tencha for matcha of an usucha or koicha grade, and are reserved for cheaper grades.
Most drinking matcha is picked using a two-person handheld picking machine, which is hovered over the une-shitate tea bushes and cuts the shoots at a set height. This height roughly determines the picking amount. While it is almost 100 times faster and more efficient than hand-picking, the picking is of a lower quality as some leaves will be cut, and some damaged, old, or otherwise unwanted leaves can be picked.
After harvest, the leaves go straight to processing, which we will cover in part 2 of this series.