Matcha is one of the more unique teas out on the market today. Matcha is a Japanese green tea, ultimately derived from gyokuro. The most important use of matcha is in the Japanese tea ceremony, which I am thoroughly unqualified to explain. Though the tea ceremony is certainly interesting, my greater concern is with the tea itself.
As matcha is different than most teas, it requires extra care and specialized equipment. In the next two or three articles I will briefly explain the how matcha is produced, how to select your own, how to store your matcha, and how to prepare matcha for your own casual enjoyment. Who knows, I might even do a review at the end.
It all starts with gyokuro. Gyokuro is a Japanese green tea, grown under roughly 90% shade for 14-20 days before harvest, typically in the Uji and Yame regions. This produces a sweeter, richer tea. Without this shading step, the end product would be powdered sencha, not matcha, and it would have a much stronger bitter flavor.
After harvest, the leaves are steamed and then dried. While leaves destined to become gyokuro would now undergo repeated rolling and drying steps, leaves for matcha (known as tencha) are not rolled but are still dried. After drying, the leaves are de-stemmed and de-veined, so that only the most tender parts of the leaves enter the next stage of production.
Next, tencha is ground into an extremely fine powder. Traditionally, this is done with stone mills. Immediately after grinding, the finished matcha is packaged in airtight mylar bags and/or containers to preserve it for as long as possible.
There's a nice video of the process here.
As you have likely guessed, not all matcha is created equal. As far as you and I are concerned, the various categories of matcha quality can be broken down like this:
For non-cooking purposes, we will be interested in ceremonial grade matcha. Food grade matcha can be used in matcha lattes and what not, but it's not very good by itself.
Ceremonial grade matcha is often described as falling into one of two categories; "thin" or usucha matcha, and "thick" or koicha matcha. Technically, these terms refer to two forms of the drinkable tea (more on this later), but for now, just remember that koicha matcha powder, if honestly labeled, is usually of superior quality than usucha matcha powder. There is no technical difference between the two kinds of matcha powder other than quality (it is similar to words like "premium" and "select"), so take such descriptions with a grain of salt.
Choosing and Purchasing Matcha:
So, how does one choose a good matcha over the internet? The typical rules of finding an honest vendor and being skeptical about the "high price = high quality" trend apply just as they always do. The one additional piece of advice I can offer is that color is important. With matcha, the ideal color is *bright* green. Dull color is likely a sign of stale or low quality matcha, so in general, the brighter the better. Of course, photoshop magic can deal with a dull looking matcha, which takes us right back to finding a vendor you can trust...
Anyway, a few trustworthy vendors I've heard good things about or personally ordered from are O-Cha.com, Hibiki-an, and Zencha.net. These should get you started, and you can branch out from there.
Stay tuned for Matcha Madness: Part II...
O-Cha.com, "Green Tea Processing"
Hibiki-an, "Four Seasons of Green Tea"