One of the questions we get asked frequently is “Which Matcha is the highest grade”? I believe this question is based on the assumption that “the highest grade is the healthiest.” Is it true? In order to answer this question, we need to see what elements are considered to define the “grade” of Matcha and if the elements are the qualities you desire.
What Does a Professional Tea Master Look for when Deciding Matcha Grade?
There are no definitive quantification standards to ‘grade’ Matcha. How to call the green tea powder is up to the marketer. Consequently, we see letters, numbers, and many terms are used on the market, such as:
Many of these terms were created when Matcha was introduced to the Western market. In Japan, where Matcha (shade-grown powdered green tea) was born, the following 3 terms are used traditionally to categorize the grade of Matcha:
Cha-kai-you, or Matcha for tea ceremony,
Renshu-you, or Matcha suitable for practice during tea ceremony classes, and
Ryori-you, or Matcha used for cooking.
You might have also heard of the terms “Usu-cha (oo-soo-cha)” and “Koi-cha (koy-cha)”. Both are used for Matcha suitable for the tea ceremony.
There are so many different names, but the basic idea of the “grade” signifies only one thing: the amount of Umami. Usu-cha and Koi-cha are not exceptions.
Umami is the first thing that professionals consider to decide the grade of Matcha, as the other qualities of Matcha, such as color, nutritional values, caffeine amount, and astringency, are explained in the relationship with Umami.
What is Umami?
“Umami” was first identified by Japanese scientist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda. While enjoying a bowl of kelp broth called kombu dashi, he noticed that the savory flavor was distinct from the four basic tastes of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. He named this additional taste ‘umami,’ which literally means ‘essence of deliciousness’ in Japanese.” ~“5 facts about Umami” Ajinomoto.com
How is Umami made?
L-Theanine is a unique amino acid present in green tea. It elicits umami and affects the taste of tea considerably. L-theanine exists naturally in Camellia Sinensis, the plant from which all types of tea (green, oolong, and black teas) are made. When the tea leaf is exposed to sunlight, photosynthesis converts L-theanine to Catechins, prominent antioxidants in green tea.
What increases Umami?
Catechins are ‘astringent’ and Umami is ‘savory and sweet.’ In order to preserve Umami or L-theanine in the tea leaf, the plant is covered before harvest, for about 3-4 weeks.
The length of the shading period affects the amount of Umami in tea leaves. A longer shading period creates higher Umami content (and less Catechins) in the tea leaf.
What else is increased along with Umami?
The shading period also affects other qualities of Matcha: color and caffeine content.
The longer the shading period is, the greener the tea leaf becomes. Due to the deprivation of sunlight, the plant increases the amount of chlorophyll to catch up with the slowed photosynthesis.
The longer the shading period is, the higher the caffeine content becomes. We still don’t know why but this is what mother nature does to the tea leaf.
How about “First Flush”, “Buds” or “Young Leaves”?
This rule of nature applies to the young leaf as well. The young leaf or buds contain higher amounts of Umami and Caffeine, as they haven’t been exposed to the sunlight.
“Matcha Grade” means “Umami Grade”
Now you know “Matcha Grade” really is “Umami Grade,” and “the highest quality Matcha” means the Matcha offers a lot of Umami, not Catechins. Choose the higher quality Matcha, or Matcha with more Umami (and less Catechins), when you would like to enjoy the Umami taste, higher energy from Caffeine, and/or the gorgeous bright green color for visual effect. Now you know better–do not get confused between the “highest grade” Matcha and the potency of Catechins.
What you might miss when using Umami for ‘quality’
Japanese Matcha farmers are skilled and experienced, and also well supported by abundant scientific agricultural research. The Japanese farmers’ expertise is the reason why Japanese Matcha is considered better quality than the products from other countries. Another reason is no or minimal amount of lead contamination is found in Japanese tea leaves. Learn about the lead contamination in this video.
Matcha has been used for tea ceremonies for centuries in Japan. “Better Matcha” means “Matcha with higher Umami.” The desire to achieve a “higher amount of Umami” used to be the driving force of tea science in Japan, and chemical aids, including fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, have been used for many decades.
Shading slows down the growth of the leaf, and the plant becomes more vulnerable to diseases and pests. The artificial substances are surely helpful to make a higher dose of Umami despite the natural challenges, but they are toxic and not allowed for use in organic farming.
So, ‘Umami’ may not represent the purity of Matcha or if it was grown without chemical. In my opinion, “purity” and “organic” should come first to determine the quality of Matcha but in reality, it’s not the case. The intense Umami someone is raving about online could be just an outcome of artificial manipulation using chemical fertilizers. A cafe or restaurant may be serving Matcha high in Umami. If purity is important to you, you might want to ask if their Matcha is certified organic. And, if you are drinking Matcha for health reasons, you might want to ask how much sugar they put in the cup you just purchased. Be vigilant and make sure you choose only the products you can be sure are pure and certified organic.
Remember the soil quality
The healthiest, mineral-rich soil makes the complex flavor in tea leaves. Consider where the product came from when you choose your product. Watch the one-minute video below–you’ll see how significant the difference could be.
To read their story, click the image below:
How about the stone-ground method?
Stoneground is a traditional way to mill the tea leaf. It is a slow process but makes the particles complete round, which makes a smooth, creamy mouth-feel of the tea. The modern factory uses “bead-mill,’ which uses small balls or beads to crush the leaf into powder. It’s a fast and cost-effective method, but the particles are not round.
Our Matcha offers you the best balance for each class because of the skills, devotion, and love the farmers put in their plants. Choose with confidence no matter which type of Matcha you choose. Even if you choose the one with the least Umami in our selections, the flavor is balanced and pleasant.
The other brands say, “Choose ‘culinary grade when you need the bitter, stronger flavor to stand out when you mix Matcha with something else, such as a latte. And choose ‘ceremonial grade’ to drink it as a straight cup of tea.” We believe the good quality ‘culinary grade’ should still offer a pleasant balanced flavor in its own way. And you may prefer it to other “grades.”
Here’s the complete list of pure Matcha we have in the order of the amount of Catechins. First on the list has the highest Catechins for Matcha. All of them are Japanese and certified organic. All of them are stone-ground, except for “MATCHA, green tea for modern warriors,” which uses the bead-mill method.
Our Matcha selections are all certified organic and grown in Japan.
MATCHA, green tea for modern warriors available in 45g tin, 100g pouch, and 1lb bag
A good balance in astringency and Umami with the highest Catechin level in our Matcha selections.
SAE MATCHA available in 40g pouch
This product offers a complex, rich Umami.
UJI MATCHA available in 20g tin and 100g pouch
This product offers the highest Umami–complete round, smooth sweetness.
Disclaimer: Benefits may vary from person to person. Please consult with a health professional before use of products. The above statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. All content in this newsletter is for informational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any diseases.
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