For our first Matcha education blog post of 2013, we would like to take you on a journey of how Matcha is made. In this post, we will touch on the unique ways the tea leaves are grown and harvested, as well as go over the age old process used to make this fine, delicate powder. This journey from seed to scoop will help to further highlight the care and effort Aiya and its farmers go through to bring only the finest, richest Matcha to the world.
Like all other teas, Matcha is derived from the leaf of the camellia sinensis plant. With a few exceptions (namely rooibos), almost every tea one would recognize as “tea” is derived from this plant. What makes Matcha unique is the way it is cultivated and refined.
Cultivation: Hand Picked Care
The tea plants whose leaves will become black or standard green tea are grown in the open air with direct exposure to sunlight from the moment the seed is planted, to the time the leaves are picked. In the case of the leaves destined to become Matcha however, the famers erect a skeleton-like framework (see photos below) around the plants during the last month before harvest. This is the first step of Matcha cultivation that sets it apart from all other teas.
Once the framework is in its place, a layer of covering is placed on top of it every week for the month before harvest (see photos below). The purpose of the covering is to mitigate the amount of sunlight that reaches the plants, called shade growing, so that even on the brightest of days, it remains relatively dark within the fields. At the end of the month, approximately 90% of the sun is blocked.
Deprived of the sunlight it was once used to, the plants begin to overproduce chlorophyll to continue photosynthesis in lack of light. This increases and maintains the amino acid levels within the leaf – the source of Matcha’s natural sweetness. Additionally, the surface of the leaves broaden, making them more delicate and tender. This simple process of blocking sunlight helps the plants transform into a completely different leaf, resulting in finer leaves for a finer tea.
The simple process of blocking sunlight to the plant helps to make for a drastically different leaf!
When it comes time to harvest, the high quality leaves are generally all hand-picked, though lower/cheaper grades of Matcha may be machine picked to save time and cost. The placement of one’s hand and the physical method of plucking at a downward angle are very important in harvest; this is to protect the delicate leaves from being prematurely torn and damaged.
Once picked, the leaves are collected, sifted with a vibrating belt to remove any unwanted materials, and then lightly steamed to stop the leaf from naturally decomposing. Tea leaves in this state are called Aracha.
Refining: Only the Cream of the Crop
After the cultivation process, the lightly steamed tea leaves are further refined to separate the meat of the leaf from the veins, stems, and other undesired parts. This is achieved by a system of air blowers – the heavier stems fall first while the lighter meaty parts fly further. In this form, the separated meaty parts of the leaves are packed and sent off to be ground into Matcha. Tea in this state is called Tencha.
(Note: No part of the leaf is wasted; the parts that do not become Matcha are used to make other Japanese teas such as Kukicha or Konacha.)
When the Tencha leaves arrive at the main plant, they are cold stored and kept as is until an order for Matcha is received. Once ordered, the Tencha leaves are placed into granite grinders. Granite grinders have been used to make Matcha for hundreds of years, and only skilled artisans are able to create, shape, and maintain these grinders. This is because carving the grooves into the grinders, as well as the day to day maintenance of these precise machines requires great patience and years of experience. In modern day Japan, for example, there are about only 10 artisans of sufficient skill to work with a stone grinder.
There are two reasons why granite was chosen as the perfect material for a Matcha grinder. First, the granite is able to grind the leaves down to a very fine powder. Second, granite possesses the ability to spin and rub against itself without producing much heat from friction. This allows the Matcha to be ground down without any added friction heat, which would negatively affect the Matcha. Nothing else gets the job done quite like granite. The grinder, though reliable and extremely effective, is not a quick machine—it takes approximately one hour to grind down a single 30g tin of Matcha.
After the Matcha is ground, it is sifted for a final time to ensure that there are no unwanted items in the batch. Once sifted, the Matcha is packed by hand into each tin for shipment and sale.
Finally, after all the care, effort, and attention that is put into each and every leaf, the Matcha is sent out to be enjoyed in all different parts of the world.