With matcha’s ever-growing popularity, it has never been easier to buy matcha outside of Japan. However, this explosion in availability did not come with a wave of matcha education and knowledge. As such, when a budding matcha enthusiast goes out to buy some tea, they are unwittingly tossed into a sea of confusion — surrounded by branding and labels but without the means to discern which tea is worth buying.
To help ease this, I’ve put together a rudimentary list of things to keep in mind when in the market for some frothy green tea. This is all information designed to help you decide whether or not a tea is worth buying assuming you don’t have the opportunity to try it.
StorageFirstly, if you’re buying matcha at a store and it isn’t refrigerated, it likely hasn’t been stored well, especially in a larger shop like a grocery store. Matcha degrades at room temperature and when unopened, should be stored refrigerated to keep it fresh for longer. Some tea shops will have matcha out for display but will keep their cans in a fridge until someone buys them.
PackagingMatcha typically comes in two types of packaging: a can or a bag. Generally, cans hold smaller quantities, typically 20-40g, of higher-grade tea and bags hold larger quantities. If the bag holds more than 50-100g of tea, it is likely that the tea is of a quality more suitable for lattes or cooking than drinking straight. Because matcha can deteriorate quickly once opened, it is preferable to buy matcha in a quantity that you will drink within a few months at most.
Matcha cans come in a few different styles, but all of them should be opaque. Matcha sold in clear glass cans/jars is susceptible to degradation by light, which can dramatically lower the flavour and shelf life of a tea, and is indicative of a company that does not know how to properly handle or store matcha.
Inside the tin should be a sealed foil bag or a sealed pull-top inner lid. Both of these are good, airtight storage solutions.
Like wine, matcha labels come in a variety of styles, and within each style, both the information that is provided and the information that is left out can tell you a lot about the tea inside.
Firstly, make sure you’re buying from a tea company. Yeah, I know, we’re a tea company—we’re biased. But hear me out. Lifestyle companies, influencers, health stores, and coffee companies are typically not tea professionals. Without the technical knowledge to appraise, judge, and properly handle matcha, there’s no way to ensure its quality. Typically, matcha sold through these outlets passes through many hands before it ends up in yours, meaning that there is a greater gap, both in time and in trust, between you and the producer who ground the matcha.
Tea companies, especially those that focus on Japanese teas, tend to work much closer with producers and have the experience and facilities to store matcha properly. This means that there are fewer steps between the tea being ground and it being in your bowl, resulting in fresher, tastier tea.
Matcha names can fall roughly into three categories: descriptive, poetic, and generic
- Descriptive names usually list the location, cultivar, or other information about the matcha. For example, our Yame Kuradashi Saemidori matcha lists the origin (Yame), a key feature (kuradashi aging), and the cultivar (saemidori). Additionally, this information tells you that this is a single cultivar/single origin tea, cluing you in to the style and quality of the matcha. These styles of names are typically used by specialty tea companies and are usually a green flag as they show that the company is knowledgeable about tea production. Single cultivar is not inherently better than blended matcha, despite what some companies might have you believe. It is merely a different style of matcha production. To learn more about the differences between single origin and blended teas, you can read our pros and cons breakdown here.
- Poetic names can be a Japanese word or phrase that evokes feelings or imagery the producer feels compliments the tea. Traditional matcha names are usually longer phrases, often in the form ___-no-___, such as our Uta-no-Mori or Kiku-no-Sono. A lot of the super traditional names end in no-mukashi or no-shiro, which, depending on the producer, could indicate when it was picked or if it’s intended for usucha or koicha. This type of name typically indicates a very traditional style of matcha that is blended for use in a tea ceremony, meaning it is either high-grade or extremely high-grade tea. Some matcha have more modern poetic names that are one word, like our Komiya or Kanoyama. While often also used for blended matcha, they can also be applied to single cultivar teas, as is the case with our Kanoyama and Umezuki. Poetic names are often a sign that a company has deep ties to Japanese tradition, or at least has knowledge of and respect for traditional matcha culture. As such, these styles of names, especially the longer ___-no-___ style names from established producers, are a green flag for me.
- Generic names are what I’m calling things like ‘Premium Matcha’, ‘Everyday Matcha’, ‘Superior Matcha’, ‘Culinary Matcha’, 'Ceremonial Matcha' etc. With perhaps the exception of ‘culinary’, these types of names are usually used by companies that don’t specialise in matcha or are trying to appeal to people who are new to matcha and might be intimidated or confused by descriptive or poetic names. ‘Culinary’ aside, these names don’t tell you much about the tea’s style or quality, as words like ‘premium’ and ‘ceremonial’ are completely unregulated and inconsistent between brands. This style of naming also does not tell you if the tea is single cultivar or blended. Though this isn’t necessarily linked to quality, as noted above, it might be a stylistic difference you’d want to know. The term ‘culinary’ however, can be quite useful even though it is also unregulated. Culinary matcha quality can vary wildly between brands, but the use of this term means that the company has decided that the tea is not suitable for drinking straight, but is better for cooking and lattes.
Additional InfoIn addition to the company’s name and the name of the tea, a can or bag of matcha will usually tell you a little more about the tea. Because cans are small and have limited space, some of this information may be available on the company’s website instead of on the label. It is important to note that there is quite a big difference in how matcha is labelled by established Japanese matcha producers and how it is labelled by Western tea companies who source from these producers but are targeting a non-Japanese market. We’ll mostly be looking at the latter as that is what you’re most likely to encounter outside of Japan.
Things to avoid:Before looking at useful information, let’s go over some red flag terminology. Any matcha labelled with supposed health benefits or miraculous skin glowing claims should immediately raise your suspicion. Of course, any tea that has been adulterated with additives, such as sugar, mushrooms, or flavourings is also best avoided. If you want to add things to your tea, feel free to do so, but know that when companies sell pre-blended mixes, they are often using low-quality ingredients, especially when it comes to matcha.
Origin, and by extension terroir, plays a huge part in determining matcha quality and so it is a good sign when a brand includes it on the tea’s label or product description. Classically, the prime spot for matcha production is Uji, Kyoto, and the surrounding areas, such as Wazuka, Ujitawara, Shirakawa, etc. Additionally, matcha from Nishio, Aichi and Yame, Fukuoka are highly regarded.
As demand for matcha has increased, these smaller, traditional matcha-growing regions cannot keep up. As such, it is common now to see matcha coming from various regions in Kagoshima Prefecture (such as Kirishima) as well as from regions in Shizuoka Prefecture. These locations have also been at the forefront of growing organic matcha. Matcha from these regions can vary significantly in quality—some are amazing and others are best used in making cookies. Including this origin information, however, is still a green flag as it shows transparency from the brand.
The more specific the origin info, the better. Kyoto or Kagoshima, for example, are prefecture names which encompass vast swaths of tea growing land. Uji and Kirishima narrow that down to certain towns or regions. For single origin teas, this can be taken even further to naming the farm and farmers who grew, harvested, and processed the tea. Putting names and faces behind a given tea shines the light on the true heroes of the tea industry and connects tea drinkers more closely to them. Some famers, like Kiyoharu Tsuji and Toshio Terakawa, are legendary celebrities in the matcha world, so seeing their names on teas lets you know that the source material is top tier.
In the case of blended teas, the farms and farmers whose teas end up in the final blend can vary quite often, so it is usually easier to name the blenders and producers who craft and finalise the matcha blends. Some of the most famous commercial matcha blenders include Yamamasa Koyamaen, Marukyu Koyamaen, Hoshinoen, and Ippodo. These names are very well known in the matcha world, with some of these companies being around for multiple centuries. Apart from these, there are plenty of smaller tencha blenders that produce excellent teas, such as Ujien Seicha, and our partner, Rishouen.
Notes about Traditional Labelling
Older, more established matcha producers in Japan (such as Ippodo, Marukyu Koyamaen, or Hoshinoen Seicha) will typically not present information about origin or cultivar on their poetically named teas for a number of reasons. This does not mean that the tea is low-quality or untrustworthy, but rather reflects a different matcha culture. Regarding origin, it is assumed that the consumer knows where these producers are based. For example, Marukyu Koyamaen is in Kyoto, and Hoshinoen is in Yame, and both source tencha (the unground form of matcha) from their surrounding areas.
Cultivar, on the other hand, is not something that matcha drinkers have historically been concerned about, much in the same way that you likely never think about what orange cultivars are in your orange juice, as long as it tastes good and is consistent. Knowing, or even caring about what cultivar or cultivars a matcha is made from is a very recent trend. Knowledge of the region and what cultivars are grown there can give you clues as to what may be in a particular blend, but one of the key features of blends is that their ingredient teas will vary from year to year in order to keep the flavour consistent.
Of course, judging a matcha by its labels can only take you so far. At the end of the day, the only way to know if the tea is any good is to drink it. Only then can you evaluate its quality and decide if it was worth the price. With some experience, you’ll be able to get a good idea of matcha’s wide variety of flavours and styles, as well as a keen sense in detecting off and stale notes from old, low quality, or poorly stored tea.