For our first educational Matcha blog post of 2013, we would like to take you on the journey of how Matcha is made. In this post we will touch on the unique ways in which the tea leaves destined to become Matcha are grown and harvested as well as the hundreds of years old process they go through to make fine, delicate Matcha powder. This journey from seed to scoop will help to further highlight all 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), practically 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
Most tea plants whose leaves are going to 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 leaves destined to become Matcha, however, the last month before harvest the farmers erect a skeleton-like framework around the plants. This is the first unique way Matcha is cultivated that sets it apart from all other teas.
Once the framework is in place, one layer of covering is placed onto it each week. The covering mitigates the amount of sunlight that reaches the plants so even on a very bright day, it remains relatively dark within the fields. In the end, approximately 90% of the overall sunlight is blocked.
Deprived of as much sunlight as it was once used to, the plant begins to over produce chlorophyll to continue photosynthesis despite the lack of light. This increases and maintains the amino acid levels within the leaf – the source of Matcha’s natural sweetness. Additionally, the leaves open up more, making them broader, more delicate, and tender. Finer leaves made for a finer tea.
The simple process of blocking sunlight to the plant helps to make a drastically different leaf!
When it comes time to harvest, leaves destined to become high quality Matcha are generally all hand picked. (Lower grade or cheaper Matchas may be machine picked to save cost.) The physical method by which the leaves are plucked down to angle and placement of one’s hand is also important so as to not prematurely tear the delicate leaf or otherwise damage the plant the farmer has gone to great lengths to cultivate.
Once picked, the leaves are collected together, sifted by a vibrating belt to remove any unwanted materials, and then lightly steamed so as 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 are received at the main plant they are cold stored and kept as is until an order for Matcha has been 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 very skilled artisans are able to create, shape, and maintain these grinders. The carving of the grooves into the grinder as well as the day to day maintenance of such precise machines requires great patience and years of experience. In modern day Japan, for example, there are only around 10 artisans of sufficient skill to work with a stone grinder.
Granite is the perfect material to make a Matcha grinder out of because it is able to spin and rub against itself without producing much heat from friction. (Other materials, even if they were able to get a grind as fine as granite, would negatively affect the Matcha from the effect added heat would have on the leaves.) The grinder, however, is not a quick machine – it is steady and reliable. It takes a single grinder approximately one hour to grind 30 grams (1 tin) of Matcha.
After being ground, the now Matcha is sifted to make sure that only Matcha is sent on to the next step of the process. Once it is sifted, workers pack the Matcha by hand into each and every tin for shipment and sale.
Finally, after all the care, effort, and attention to detail put into each plant, pick, and leaf, the Matcha is sent around the world to be enjoyed.