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Why is it more difficult to find high-grade organic matcha as opposed to organic leaf tea?

Posted by Tyas Sōsen on

While there is a good variety of organically well-produced delicious green, oolong and black teas out there, it doesn't cease to surprise me how very few actually delicious organic matcha teas are available on the market. The majority is what I would call no more than simply pulverised green tea as its taste is plain bitter, and its aroma is non existent.

But even the variations that are qualitatively high and enjoyable -- as perhaps a refreshing frothy bowl of thin tea -- rarely lend itself to consumption in a bowl of 'true' thick tea. Yes, I assess the quality of matcha by its applicability in either a bowl of thin tea, or its suitability for a bowl of thick tea. 

Since for the preparation of a bowl of thick tea, a much larger amount of powder is used, which is blended into a paste employing only a little bit of hot water, it is absolutely necessary to prepare this beverage with only the most delicious, youngest, freshest leaves. In other words, only the most qualitatively high matcha teas are suitable for thick tea.

So, why is it that most 'organic' matcha teas turn out to be bitter and unsuitable for thick tea? And, I continue to stress 'thick tea' because it is thick tea that is 'tea proper' or real-tea. Thick tea marks the height of a formal tea occasion, and it is how matcha was drunk in the past. 

Let's turn back to the question. Should we simply accept the answer that is most often heard among members of the tea industry? "It is just impossible to match the quality of a non-organically grown matcha, using only organic methods." I don't think so. This response is merely a show of ignorance and laziness. 

1) Before non-natural methods were introduced some 60 years ago, all tea production has been 'organic' (or even more than organic: absolutely natural) for over a thousand years. And people then too drank thick tea.

2) Machines and chemicals have made it easier to produce tea, and have helped producers to speed up production, raise more crops, and spend less time working their fields.

I think the answer is that it isn't "impossible" to make a delicious high-quality natural matcha; but rather just economically not viable due the amount of labor it requires to produce just a bit of tea.

Some requirements for a high-quality matcha:

1) Shading

Matcha is produced from tencha tea leaf. Matcha is considered to be qualitatively high when it is rich in amino acids, which make the tea sweet and full of umami flavor. Amino acids are produced in the roots of the bush when there are a lot of nitrates in the soil. These amino acids are then transported to the leaves of the plant, where they, upon coming in contact with sunlight, change into catechines due to photosynthesis.

To prevent amino acids from transferring into catechin, it is common practice to shade the tea bushes, since this limits the amount of sunlight that can reach the tea plants, and decreases the photosynthesis that can occur, maintaining amino acids and polyphenols. 

In the past, a shelf-type roof was constructed over the rows of bushes, which was covered with reed-blinds. These blinds would reduce sunlight by around 70%. To further cut-out sunlight, straw was spread out over the blinds, which could be shifted around and adjusted to reduce the amount of sunlight to approximately 90%. This allowed the farmers to gradually darken the tea garden, and leave enough light for the buds' initial growth, and limit it further towards the later half of their thickening.

Reed and straw have over time become replaced by two layers of cheesecloth that can be stretched over the tea gardens like curtains. The same principle as the traditional methods are more or less maintained. But another method of directly applying cheesecloth is being used more often in recent days. Especially small matcha farmers can't bring up the finances to erect permanent structures over their tea gardens, or just aren't focussed on the production of teas for a ceremonial setting at all.

Direct application of covers makes it difficult to regulate the amount of shading, and commonly lets a higher amount of sunlight pass through, impairing the control and tweaking capacity of the farmer. I believe that if the effort can be made to employ traditional shading methods on an organic farm, and shading is regulated more strictly, it will be possible to produce a tea that is not in the least bitter, and will have an enjoyable flavor and fragrance.

2) Hand-picking

More organic tea producers have shifted to harvest by machines, while only manufacturers who do use chemical products, maintain traditional hand-picking methods for the creation of premium and competition grade tencha. 

Fear is what is holding manufacturers back from attempting organic methods for the creation of that highly culturally revered product, matcha. Why? Because the industry itself is unappreciative and unsupportive of the product. And because the industry isn't, the consumer isn't. Should a producer revert his manufacturing to organic, he becomes an outcast. He won't be able to sell his tea in the tea auction; most wholesalers won't buy his tea, and he will have to build a customer base from scratch. These are legit fears, and it is understandable that the producers who do create organic matcha products, focus on a mediocre, average product that is accepted by a wide variety of consumers. Otherwise it just wouldn't be economically feasible.

Moreover, while for a top-grade matcha it is of vital importance that the leaf is hand-picked, since it are only the freshest, newest buds that contain least catechin that can be employed to craft a sweet savory matcha, it is impossible to carefully choose which leaves to pick using mechanised harvester machines. Therefore, the amount of tea that can be produced, first takes an immense amount of laborers to gather, and secondly, is extremely limited in quantity when produced.

So, in response to my initial question:

"Why it is more difficult to find high-grade organic matcha as opposed to organic leaf tea."

It is economically not viable for a manufacturer to single-handedly conduct his production, and simultaneously cultivate a new customer base. The industry is not supportive of organic methods, and the market in Japan for such products is absolutely limited.

Moreover, since top-grade matcha suitable for thick tea is, on the domestic market, only in demand with practitioners of Japan's traditional Rite of Tea; a consumer group (and perhaps the only buyers of thick-tea grade matcha) dominated by large tea brands as Fukujuen, Ippodo, Marukyu Koyamaen, etc.; there is hardly any demand for premium organic matcha. 

Then how about the international market? I'll answer that with a rhetoric question. Is there enough understanding about matcha in the West for people to be able to tell thick tea and thin tea apart? 


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2 comments

  • Sincere thanks for your article. You clearly and simply state the complexity of the issue.
    I’ve been a devotee of both Chinese and Japanese style teas for some time, I dearly love the Japanese ceremony, but have always found the impact on my soul to be far deeper with ‘living teas’ from China, than any super duper high grade matcha, regardless if it was thin or thick grade tea. That was until I found an actual single-estate, organic matcha from Kagoshima, grown and manufactured by farmers who truly care about their tea. How that tea integrates my physical, emotional and spiritual bodies is delicious. The power and purity of that tea has opened new possibilities for me within chanoyu. I’m starting to understand more of what the old fellas were on about, now that I’m drinking exceptionally high quality tea, that isn’t from soils polluted with chemicals.
    ‘Conventional’ matcha had always seemed a little murky, opaque and impenetrable, it’s lessons in flavour and feeling were blurred to the point of being indiscernible. My pleasure in chanoyu came almost entirely from the rite itself, rather than the tea which is supposed to be at the centre of it.

    It’s a long road ahead both in Japan and outside to educate the tea crowd enough to demand top-notch, organic matcha, but it’s defiantly one worth travelling.
    I know it’s a pipe dream for my lifetime, but I can only imagine what this tea would be like if the estate had the resources to hand-pick!

    On the length of the road- I had been selling high quality, genuinely ceremonial matcha as well as a lower ‘keiko’ grade tea along with my training in chanoyu for 4 years before I could honestly tell the difference between thin and thick grade tea. (There are so many factors that go into flavour profile and drinking experience beyond tea quality- the water used, tea age, the emotional state of the person preparing the tea as well as the person drinking it! It takes a long time to develop a pallet that can discern all of these factors)

    Hannah Dupree on
  • My answer to your rethorical question: not yet. But this is a question of training the consumer, not unlike to what happened in wine (or oolong, to come closer to home). Demand for really high-quality teas is not naturally there in countries like Belgium, so it has to be developed by pioneers, both from the sales side and from the press side. The second is one of the targets of my blog, but the road is still long.

    Erik De keersmaecker on

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