Continuing our educational Matcha posts of 2013, we would like to highlight another important aspect of Matcha production. In our previous post we gave a rough overview of how Aiya’s Matcha goes from the tea fields of Nishio to your cup. The one part of the process that we did not elaborate on so as to look at in further detail this week is the process of Blending.
Why is Blending Necessary?
When plants like carrots or broccoli are harvested, the entire plant is uprooted and sold; the next crop will be grown from new seeds. Tea, on the other hand, is unique in that the same plant will be grown, cultivated, and selectively harvested for upwards of 30 years. Throughout the course of its time in service, the leaves a tea plant will produce have some natural variation in color (some leaves are greener while other can be more yellowish), flavor (sweetness vs astringency), and even leaf size and tenderness. To offset this natural variation something needs to be done.
A more familiar example to help grasp this concept is grapes used to make wine – the same vines produce grapes each season. Each harvest and each particular grape has its own unique variation and flavor profile. While some may taste relatively the same, if one were to blindly make this years vintage in the exact same way as last year’s vintage without sampling the grapes, blending them properly, and making sure the flavor customers expect of that brand is on point, no two bottles would taste anywhere near the same and there would be no product consistency. The person whose job it is to taste these variations and make sure a consistent, high quality product is made year in and year out is called a sommelier.
Just like the wine industry, the tea industry (and especially the Matcha industry) uses the expertise of sommeliers. An expert sommelier makes sure that each cup of Matcha tastes the same and is up to only the highest quality. To do so, they undertake a number of steps that we are going to outline here.
Step 1: Sensory Testing
Once Tencha is received at the plant and going to be ground into Matcha, it goes through a number of tests and analyses to make sure when it is actually ground and then whisked into tea, it is only pure and high quality. These tests guarantee that the flavor is also always as one expects.
The first step to achieve consistency is sensory testing. Essentially the sommelier will look at, feel, and smell the Tencha before it is even added to water or steeped in any way. The color, feel, and aroma of Tencha can tell an experienced sommelier a great deal about how the finished product will turn out. Skill such as this and being able to recognize a great deal about the tea without even tasting it requires years and years of experience.
Step 2: Brewing Tencha to Taste
After performing visual and olfactory tests of the Tencha, the sommelier brews it with some hot water to get an idea of how these particular leaves are going to taste when mixed with water. Different notes, flavors, and tones come out of tea when it is brewed.
After allowing it to brew, the sommeliers pours it out. They then taste it, swirling the tea around in their mouths. If you have ever seen people taste tea, it may have seemed strange to see them slurp or swirl the tea around before swallowing it. To use the wine analogy again, adding oxygen to the tea and swirling it around in your mouth makes it easier for your taste buds to detect more of what is going on in the tea. This is why the mouths of different wine glasses have varying widths – oxygenation helps our perception of flavor. (This is also a key reason why properly whisking and aerating your Matcha is extremely important!)
Step 3: Tasting the Matcha
After having run the different batches of Tencha through his/her experienced palate, a sommelier decides in what amounts to blend the batches of Tencha together for grinding, sending it off to the Matcha grinders to make a test Matcha batch.
As soon as it is ground and received back, the Matcha goes through the same steps the Tencha went through – visual, olfactory, and taste tests.
After this round of tasting is completed, the sommeliers compare their impressions and feelings to come up with a final decision on the blend that will become the Matcha Aiya sells around the world. At this point the correct amounts of Tencha are mixed together and sent off to be ground and then packed.