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As you know, I’m a tea fanatic. Not only do I love to experience the flavors, blends and culture of tea, but I also reaped its health benefits – which I credit for healing my body and saving my life.
So when I noticed matcha green tea exploding all over wellness blogs, Instagram and amongst health obsessed millennials, I realized it was time to do a deep dive into the world of matcha and give this type of tea more attention than I ever did before.
My main question was, “Is this just hype and a passing fad?” In the process of answering this question, I traveled to the matcha producing regions of Japan and China, visited and collaborated with the highest ranking tea-masters in Japan, and tasted many of the best matchas ever made to educate my palate and my body’s response to them.
This was a deep cultural dive where valuable knowledge was unearthed and lasting friendships were made. What follows is everything you need to know about how to identify high quality premium matcha from all the others on the market. I’m going to share everything I learned from the world’s leading tea-masters and tea farmers so you can take advantage of this super unique type of tea.
But if you just can’t wait, here’s a teaser for the health benefits of drinking matcha:
- Supports heart health
- Supports brain health
- Supports healthy metabolism
- Improves mood and mental focus
- Assists in detoxification
- Prevents cell damage
Ready to learn more? Let’s go!
So what makes matcha special when compared with other green teas? Several things, actually.
The matcha process begins while the green tea leaves are still growing. The plants are shaded prior to harvesting to increase chlorophyll and amino acid content, and improve the appearance and flavor of the tea. This is why matcha is such a brilliant green color! Once the leaves are harvested, steamed, dried and blended, they are ground up into a very fine powder that you ultimately mix into hot or cold water.
The result? You’re actually drinking the entire tea leaf! Compare this with traditional green tea, where you’re drinking the dissolvable elements that leaves have infused into water.
Wondering what it tastes like? Most people find it to have a very strong, grassy flavor, similar to wheatgrass or even spinach; but in truth, premium matchas have balanced flavors with layers of unfolding creaminess, umami, fresh cut grass and roasted notes.
There are claims that matcha contain more catechins (the famed green tea antioxidant) than other teas. On a leaf to leaf basis, this is simply not true.
Matcha is cultivated to maximize amino acid content (like l-theanine, aka nature’s Xanax) to give it strong umami flavor. To maximize amino acid content, matcha producing tea trees are shaded prior to harvest to prevent photosynthesis, a process which converts amino acids to catechins. (1)
In other words, the more amino acids you retain, the less catechin is produced and vice versa. This has also been verified to me by teamasters who specialize in matcha.
Therefore, it is physically impossible to produce a tea that has both exceptionally high levels of l-theanine and exceptionally high levels of catechins, something that just about every matcha purveyor claims. Something has to give in this equation.
Whether the catechins you consume are more bioavailable when you ingest them in whole leaf or water soluble form is another question.
Data shows that 90-95% of the tea polyphenols we consume travel intact all the way through our digestive tract till they reach our colon. So tea polyphenols are actually not very bioavailable at all, regardless of form. In the colon, they are metabolized by our gut microbiota and converted into beneficial metabolites that are amazing for our health. Whether you get your catechins whole or in water soluble form probably makes no difference whatsoever.
While we are huge fans of matcha, in order to help you develop a true appreciation for this remarkable health tonic, we have to debunk the myths and distill facts from noise. (2)
Few of us want to spend more money on a product that doesn’t actually give us the benefits we expect, right? High quality matcha is on the pricier side, but there are tangible benefits to drinking a higher quality version. In fact, here are 5.
- The holy grail for great matcha is umami flavor*. Umami flavor is the result of amino acid content. So if you’re tasting a lot of umami, you know you are getting a potent dose of amino acids, like l-theanine (aka nature’s Xanax).
- The best matchas are made from the first flush or the first pick of leaves in the year during the Spring. This is when plants have been resting all winter and produce the most nutrient dense and flavorful leaves filled with chlorophyll, l-theanine and catechins. Lower grade matchas are harvested in the Summer and Fall when plants are fatigued and leaves are less nutrient dense.
- Higher quality matcha is grown with less pesticides and fertilizers, even if they are not organic. The last thing you want is to be increasing your toxicity with something you thought was good for you.
- Better grinding techniques used to produce high quality matcha generates less heat, which preserves more nutrients and antioxidants.
- Higher quality matchas also just taste better – they are less bitter and grassy. And if you enjoy the taste of something, you’re more likely to keep drinking it regularly, right?
*Umami, for the uninitiated, is the savory flavor of chicken broth, parmesan cheese, miso and soy sauce. This is the gold standard of ‘ceremonial grade’ matcha that teamasters strive for.
Like with any superfood that suddenly becomes trendy, you might find yourself overwhelmed by the selections of matcha powder. I want to arm you with the knowledge you need to discern whether a matcha is actually of good quality.
There are three main parameters by which you can judge a matcha’s quality: flavor, color and appearance of froth.
To the tea masters, the holy grail of matcha is achieving maximum umami flavor. Umami is known as the fifth flavor. It’s what chicken soup, parmesan cheese, soy sauce, shitake mushrooms share in flavor.
High levels of umami is not a natural occurrence in tea and a great deal is done to manipulate tea plants to produce it (more on that later). One of the reasons we drink tea is because it’s high in catechins (green tea antioxidants), but catechins actually taste bitter. In premium matcha, umami counterbalances bitterness to create a harmony of creamy, savory, grassy and roasted flavors that has helped it gain worldwide appeal.
And it’s about more than just taste. It’s actually amino acids (like l-theanine) that are responsible for the umami flavor. So when we increase umami flavor, it’s not just to decrease bitterness, but also to increase the calm inducing and meditative qualities of matcha.
Highly regarded tea cultivators use a very specific method for increasing umami: shading the tea leaves prior to harvest to prevent photosynthesis while overfeeding the plants with nutrients like fish (true fact). This enables tea plants to produce and retain a higher level of amino acids, which in turn increases umami flavor.
Since amino acids are converted into catechins during the natural growth process, higher amino acid = lower catechin content. Therefore, contrary to common misconception, the catechin content in matcha is lower than traditional green tea.
There’s actually a way to discern the quality of a matcha before tasting it, and that is by simply looking at its color. What you want is a beautiful bright and vibrant green. If your matcha is on the yellow side, that means it’s of a lesser quality, and likely made from leaves harvested later in the year instead of during the Spring. Matcha from China also tends to paler in color due to the tea varietals used.
You see, the highest quality teas always come from “first flush” or the first harvest in the spring. These leaves are the most potent in flavor and antioxidants. Second flush usually happens in summer, and third flush in fall. The later the harvest, the yellower the color and the less nutritious the tea. Culinary grade matchas are made from these later harvests.
3. Appearance of Froth
The traditional method of drinking matcha involves whisking it with a bamboo whisk in order to create a frothy foam. This part of the process is incredibly important during traditional Japanese tea ceremony, and the appearance of the froth matters a great deal. If the bubbles are large and irregular, this means the matcha powder is coarsely ground and of a lesser quality. The highest quality matcha, on the other hand, is finely ground and creates foam of tiny, uniform bubbles when whisked with skill.
There are five very important steps involved in the making of a great matcha: cultivation, shading, feeding, blending and grinding.
You can’t produce a good matcha unless you start with good soil practices. It sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget. The saying ‘you are what you eat (or drink)’ applies to us and these tea trees. The better their diet, the stronger the plant. Ideally, you’d want to find tea from plants that were farmed ecologically and organically. The next step down would be to find plants that were only treated with a low amount of pesticides, and at the bottom of the heap is tea from plants that are sprayed with industrial herbicides and pesticides. If you ever have a chance to visit a tea garden, check the leaves for signs of insects. Signs that the leaves have been munched on are good!
The second part of cultivation is machine vs hand picked leaves. It’s much easier to sift out inferior leaves if picking by hand, while a machine indiscriminately collects all leaves in its path. This ultimately determines what ends up in your cup.
Another critical component of growing matcha is the shading of the plants. Several weeks before harvest, tea plants are shaded in order to maximize production of amino acids and the resulting umami flavor.
The type of shading used can affect the quality of the matcha that winds up in your cup. Some matcha plants are shaded with a plastic tarp. This is not quite ideal, as the plastic doesn’t allow air to circulate, causing undesired levels of heat and humidity. Tea plants are very sensitive to temperature and humidity, and if the conditions become too warm and dry, amino acid content decreases.
The best option for shading matcha plants is to use a screen made of natural plant fiber. This type of shading allows for air circulation, which means optimal temperature and humidity levels. However, shading tea plants with natural straw screens is also incredibly labor-intensive and expensive.
While the matcha plants are being shaded, there is one more very important thing happening – forced feeding. Did you know that the highest quality matchas are fed fish? It’s true.
One of the secrets of achieving highly sought after umami flavor is to put fish in the soil of tea plants. Which type matters too! We met a 10th degree tea-master (the highest possible level) who swears by bonito. He excitedly explained that making the best matcha is like making foie gras or goose liver. You overfeed the plants and stuff them with nutrients while shading them to prevent growth. The result? Nutrient packed, umami exploding flavors in the cup and a super zen experience from the l-theanine.
Matchas are either made up of single cultivars (rare) or a blend of them. “Cultivars” refers to cultivated varieties and is the result of selective breeding of tea plants for different characteristics. Cultivars each have their own flavor profiles and way of responding to different seasons.
Leaves from different cultivars are combined in the same way grapes of different varietals are combined to create some wines. This is where the unsurpassed knowledge, experience and palate of a teamaster is critical. A teamaster routinely drinks up to 600 spoonfuls of matcha a day during harvest season to assess teas and train their palates!
The traditional method for turning tea leaves into matcha powder is to use a stone mill. Large granite wheels are slowly and carefully turned to avoid generating too much heat. How a matcha is ground can affect the flavor and nutrient quality. If you grind matcha too fast, the heat generated will destroy both the flavor and nutrients in it.
As you’d imagine, this a slow and laborious process, which has led to the rise of automated stone mills and other types of machine grinding. Improper equipment can lead to overheating and even scorching of the matcha powder, which compromises quality. But other more sophisticated machine grinders like ones that use ceramic balls in a drum rotating at low speed are capable of producing very high quality matcha at a far more affordable cost. The goal of grinding is to produce small, uniform particles of matcha while generating minimal heat.
So why should you drink matcha? It contains higher levels of amino acids and therefore l-theanine than any other tea. L-theanine (aka nature’s Xanax) puts you in a calm and meditative state.
So matcha provides you with the type of calm energy revered by Zen monks for their meditation practice. This type of energy is ideal if you’re involved in creative work or need to do big picture strategic thinking.
1. Support Heart Health
Even if you assume your heart is healthy, it can never hurt to make sure you’re taking preventative steps, right?
It’s the powerful antioxidants found in green tea, especially EGCG, that have shown to be helpful in maintaining healthy arteries. (6)
2. Support Brain Health
Yes, even your brain health can be boosted by drinking green tea.
Studies have shown that consuming matcha every day for 3 months can support healthy cognitive function. (7)
In another study on healthy adults, those who were given matcha demonstrated better performance in reaction time, memory, and attention when compared with a group given a placebo. (8)
3. Support Healthy Metabolism
Green tea in general has a long history of association with supporting a healthy digestive and metabolic system, which has been linked to weight loss. (9) It turns out that matcha may help you lose weight by: (1) increasing your metabolism and (2) helping you burn more fat.
A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that drinking matcha regularly can result in an increase in the body’s rate of thermogenesis (the rate at which you burn calories) from 8-10% to 35-43%! (10) That same study also showed the possibility of a significant reduction in body fat from drinking matcha. (11)
In one study, women drank a cup of matcha before a 30-minute brisk walk. Scientists learned than consuming the matcha led to an increase in how much fat was broken down to be used as energy during the walk. (12) Kind of cool, right?
4. Improve Mood and Mental Focus
If you’re not familiar with l-theanine, you’re going to want to read this, because it’s something that can improve everyone’s life! It’s a rare amino acid that only exists in tea and actually helps your brain generate alpha activity, which is a calm and meditative state – the opposite of stress. The effects of drinking matcha is commonly described as “relaxed alertness,” because caffeine helps the brain focus and stay alert while l-theanine helps it relax. (13)
Have you ever noticed that caffeine in tea doesn’t give you the same jitters as the caffeine in coffee? L-theanine is the answer to this mystery. It acts as an compliment to caffeine, balancing any of the jitters or anxiety you might typically feel, while still providing you with calm energy. (14)
While all green tea contains L-theanine, the levels found in matcha are unmatched. While most green teas have 4 milligrams of l-theanine per serving, matcha has 20 milligrams! (15) So the calming and focusing effect that green tea can give you is seriously compounded in your cup of matcha.
Fun fact: Samurai warriors drank matcha tea before going into battle because it would energize and focus them. And one of matcha’s earliest uses was an aid to the meditation practice of Japanese monks. Drinking matcha would help them sit alert and calm for hours on end. Even if you’re not going into battle or meditating, so many of our tasks in life could benefit from calm alertness, right?
5. Assist in Detoxification
The amount of toxins assaulting us from all sides is unprecedented in today’s world. From pollution in the air to chemical preservatives and pesticides in our food supply and toxic dyes in our shampoos and clothes, it’s getting harder to avoid toxins. Since few of us have the option of moving into a pristine wilderness, one of the best things we can do is consume things that will help our poor overworked organs detoxify our body.
Chlorophyll, the chemical responsible for the lovely green color in plants, is a proven aid in detoxification. (16) It helps flush away heavy metals, toxins and chemicals from the body. Because matcha tea leaves are shaded before harvest, they accrue higher levels of chlorophyll than other green teas, making matcha the superior choice for detoxification.
6. Prevent Cell Damage
There’s a lot of talk about all the antioxidants found in tea, and most of us know that antioxidants are good for us. But why? In a nutshell, antioxidants are like a clean up crew that remove free radicals which damage cells. So increasing your consumption of antioxidants has been linked to benefits ranging from supporting your immune system to boosting your body’s natural anti-inflammatory response (17)
Specifically with regard to tea, studies have shown that drinking matcha regularly reduces damage caused by free radicals. (18) This has anti-aging implications, plus it’s really good news for building a stronger immune system!
Since your cup of matcha contains entire tea leaves, you’re going to get about three times the amount of caffeine that you would from steeped tea. It’s also roughly the equivalent of the caffeine in a cup of coffee – making matcha an excellent choice for anyone trying to break a coffee habit.
And it’s a better kind of caffeine high! Is that even possible? Turns out not all caffeine is created equal. The caffeine in tea binds to antioxidants forming a larger compound which slows its absorption rate and results in a time-release effect. Calming l-theanine also counterbalances the energizing effects of caffeine. So, no jitters or headaches and definitely no caffeine crash!
Matcha is matcha, right? While there technically is only one “type” of matcha, there are in fact many different grades of matcha powder, and the taste and benefits can vary greatly depending on the grade.
Surprisingly, there are no clear guidelines for what constitutes ceremonial vs culinary grade matcha, which is why we had to create our own (more on that later).
There are two primary grades of matcha: ceremonial grade and culinary grade.
Ceremonial grade matcha is the highest quality you can get. It’s called “ceremonial” for a reason: for more than eight centuries, matcha has been used in the sacred ritual of tea ceremony in Japan. Tea ceremony is one of the most important pillars of traditional Japanese culture, rigorously protected and upheld in all aspects.
Ceremonial grade matcha is typically made from first flush tea leaves, though many teamakers will cheat and blend in second flush leaves, and that’s about it. The other determinants of quality – machine or stone ground, natural or plastic shading, hand or machine harvested, organic or conventional – surprisingly is up to interpretation. The important parameters are subjective and based on taste, color and froth.
Because of the labor and time typically involved, ceremonial grade matcha is more expensive. You’ll know you’re getting what you paid for when the resulting tea is brilliant green with strong umami flavor. Because you can’t get these qualities without taking the right stops to produce your matcha (unless you add spinach powder) which believe it or not, some purveyors do.
Culinary grade matcha is split into 5 categories: Premium grade, Cafe grade, Ingredient grade, Classic grade, Kitchen grade again with no clear guidelines or regulations as to what belongs in which grade.
The name “matcha” literally means “powdered tea.” And the process of turning tea leaves into a powder is not new! Matcha was the primary method tea was consumed in China during the Tang Dynasty (600-900AD).
In the 1100s, there was a huge transfer of knowledge and culture from China to Japan (including Zen Buddhism) and that’s how matcha made its way across the ocean. Matcha and Zen Buddhism flourished together and the two became inseparable.
By the 1500s, matcha took hold as part of formal Japanese tea ceremony that was intended to celebrate stillness and simplicity and grew in popularity in Japan even as it eventually lost its appeal in China.
Want to be really authentic about your matcha drinking? Matcha was intended to be drank out of a bowl or chawan that you hold in both hands, as opposed to a mug or teacup. Bottoms up!
In spite of the importance of tea ceremony, there are no clear regulations regarding what constitutes ceremonial grade matcha with teamakers and tea brands setting their own standards. This can lead to problems with exported matcha.
That’s why we have created a new framework of premium vs everyday matcha based on 8 of the most important criteria shared with us by the Japan’s leading teamasters, upon which we added 2 of our own.
- First second or third flush
- Natural or plastic shading
- Hand or machine harvested
- Stone or machine ground
- Foam appearance
- Japanese or Chinese in origin
- Organic or conventional cultivation
- Toxin screened for heavy metals, mold, pesticides and radioactive isotopes
Created in collaboration with the leading 9th and 10th degree teamasters in Japan.
The Matcha Scorecard will teach you trade secrets for how to grade your matcha so you never get fooled by the words ‘ceremonial grade’ again.
Share this with anyone you know who is a matcha drinker. It could save their health!
A word about price: Quality matcha is a premium product. Because of the way leaves are grown, shaded, harvested and processed, the quality of the matcha will be reflected in the price. A high quality matcha can only be harvested once a year! So if you find matcha for cheap, it’s probably because the leaves are of a lesser quality and weren’t properly processed – which means far fewer health benefits.
In Japan, plots of farmland are located very close to each other. When one farm decides to use chemical fertilizers or pesticides, wind will cause traces of these chemicals to drift to adjacent farms. That’s why the volume of organic tea produced in Japan is extremely low compared to China.
Buyers of Ceremonial Grade Matcha in Japan Don’t Care If It’s Organic
Just because a matcha is labeled as ‘ceremonial grade’ doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the healthiest matcha for you. There are no clearly defined standards or guidelines for what constitutes ‘ceremonial grade.’ Even more surprising to a lot of people is that the highest quality ceremonial grade matcha is never organic.
That’s right – the most expensive ceremonial matchas on the market come from conventionally grown tea plants using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, albeit in controlled amounts.
Schools for traditional tea ceremony in Japan do not prioritize organic farming methods or other innovations. Their mandate is to rigorously uphold tradition and the individuals who head these institutions are typically chosen based on seniority. Not an ideal context for challenging the health risks of conventional matcha.
What is more important to traditional tea ceremony is that matcha has a brilliant color with umami flavor and is finely ground to produce small sized foam bubbles.
So if you care about drinking tea for health benefits that is free of pesticides, expensive ceremonial grade matcha is not always the best fit.
Organic Japanese matcha does exist. But by volume, the majority of organic matcha either comes directly from China, or is actually Chinese tea exported to Japan for grinding, then imported into the US as ‘Japanese matcha.’
Because China has a greater land mass, organic tea farms are more prevalent and therefore organic tea is more available and affordable.
But the conditions for growth are not the same as Japanese tea regions, nor do Chinese tea gardens use the same cultivars as Japanese ones. You can tell whether a matcha is from China because of its yellower color.
If you care about where your tea comes from, or you don’t want to be misled about the origin of your matcha, keep this in mind.
Ready to try some matcha? Awesome! Whether you’re going to a grocery store, health food store or online, you’re going to be faced with dozens of options. First of all, read the ingredients. If a matcha contains sugar, creamers, or stabilizers like maltodextrin, stay away. You’ll be amazed at how many premium matchas in supermarkets contain maltodextrin, especially ones that are flavored. Such products are little more than a combination of chemicals and additives blended with low quality matcha to sound good, sold under the pretense of being better-for-you.
There are two distinct ways of preparing matcha. The first, “usucha,” is a weaker and standard way of drinking it. The second, “koicha,” is a thick and strong version prepared especially for tea ceremony.
Regardless of which version you choose to prepare, the most important first step is to sift the matcha powder into a bowl, in order to avoid clumping. Next, place 1 teaspoon of sifted matcha into your bowl to make usucha, and 2 teaspoons to make koicha. Then, pour 70ml of water into your bowl of usucha, or 50ml into your bowl of koicha. Use water that is hot, but not yet boiling. (Using water that is too hot, say above 170F, will kill all the awesome plant nutrients and antioxidants!)
The hotter the water, the more caffeine and catechins as well as bitterness, will be extracted from the brew. While lower temperature water extracts more amino acids resulting in stronger umami flavor.
From here, both types of matcha are whisked in the same manner. This is traditionally done with a chasen, a bamboo whisk. You start by slowly running the whisk along the bottom of the bowl to pick up the powder. Then quickly whisk only the upper half of the bowl, never touching the bottom. In order to achieve the ideal matcha foam, you don’t want to whisk in a circular motion. Instead, move the whisk around the bowl in a “W” motion using the tip of the whisk bristles until you’ve created a nice frothy lather.
For the best flavor, you want to enjoy your bowl of matcha within about 3 minutes. Any longer than that and the froth will disappear and the matcha powder will start to collect at the bottom of the bowl.
Due to its caffeine content, matcha is ideally consumed in the morning or afternoon. According to Chinese medicine, matcha is considered to be a cooling food. (Compare this to ginger, which is warming.) This means that people with sensitive stomachs might experience discomfort when drinking matcha on an empty stomach. If you are one of these people, just make sure you wait until after you’ve had breakfast or lunch to drink your matcha!
Matcha comes from the same plant that originates all green and black teas: the camellia sinensis bush. The highest grade matcha comes only from plants grown in Japan. One reason for this is that Japanese farmers have been cultivating tea leaves for matcha for over 900 years, preserving and refining their techniques and breeds or cultivars over time.
Matcha is only cultivated in a few specific regions of Japan, believed to be ideal in temperature and precipitation for the plants to flourish. There are three main regions recognized for their ability to produce matcha.
Historically, matcha connoisseurs have long believed that the best matcha comes specifically from Uji. Uji is near Kyoto, which was an old capital of Japan.
The region of Yame has recently begun to make a name for itself in matcha production. While they are comparably newer to the matcha-making world, they have long been known for their ability to produce the world’s best gyokuro, which is the highest grade of Japanese green tea. Gyokuro has a similar flavor profile to matcha, so the region’s experience has lent itself well to making matcha.
Kirishima is in the southernmost tip of Japan, also home to Japan’s first national park. Also a newer entrant into the making of matcha, this region has recently become more sought after, because it is the area of Japan that is the furthest from industrial pollution and radioactivity.
While enthusiasm for matcha is palpable, this fascinating genre of green tea really does deliver its potent punch of active ingredients like l-theanine, chlorophyll and catechins as well as a delightful drinking experience amidst a rich cultural backdrop.
As with all medicinal plants, your health will benefit most from consuming a pure source of matcha free from environmental toxins. In addition, a diversity of plant polyphenols including flavonols in black tea, catechins in green tea and the panoply of active ingredients in herbal teas forms the foundation for incredible health.
Just as the saying goes about vegetables to “eat the rainbow” so too does “drink the rainbow” apply for teas!
Written by Simon Cheng, Founder Pique Tea