It’s no secret that Matcha is still a relatively new concept to most of the Western nations. Because of this, people sometimes end up unknowingly purchasing a low quality Matcha, only to have a bad first experience. In Japan, Matcha has a rich history of over 800 years and is an established part of the culture. It is not uncommon for the average Japanese individual to be able to discern the difference between high and low quality Matcha, or even between Matcha and imitation Matcha or Sencha powder. This blog post is intended to provide consumers the same understanding of the difference between a high quality Matcha and a low quality Matcha.
First off, let us begin by explaining the difference between a “drinking grade” Matcha and an “ingredient grade” Matcha. A drinking grade Matcha should have a nice, smooth finish with little to no bitterness. This type of Matcha is to be enjoyed traditional style – whisked with just water. If you were to cook with this grade or mix it with other ingredients to make a latte or smoothie, the Matcha flavor would become easily masked. On the other hand, ingredient grade Matcha has more of the bitter, astringent taste that is usually associated with green tea. When mixed with other ingredients such as milk, flour, or sugar, the ingredient grade Matcha allows all flavors to be nicely balanced out, while still getting a nice green tea flavor.
The first step in discerning high quality Matcha from a low quality Matcha is the price. Matcha is an expensive tea, which reflects the laborious efforts involved in the cultivation, harvest, and manufacturing process that goes into producing Matcha. The average price point for a drinking grade Matcha could be anywhere around $25-$30 per 30g tin (1 oz). Matcha with a much lower price point usually shows that the contents are actually of a low quality Matcha. We have seen one too many companies passing off a low quality Matcha as a drinking grade. This is harmful to the reputation of Matcha because often times, people who try a low quality Matcha for the first time may associate this bitter, low grade taste to all Matcha, sometimes permanently skewing their opinion.
The second indicator is appearance. Matcha should have a nice, vibrant green color; a color that is often described as a jade green. Lower grades of Matcha tend to have more of a yellowish/brownish hue. What gives Matcha that nice vibrant green color is the natural chlorophyll in the leaf that is overproduced during the shade growing process. Typically, the leaves used for an ingredient grade Matcha are older leaves that may have been exposed to sunlight for a longer period of time.
Following the color as an indicator is smell. A high quality Matcha should have a sweet, vegetal smell that is also slightly pungent. The sweet smell of the Matcha is thanks to the amino acid L-theanine, another beneficial result of the shade growing process. Open air grown teas loses a lot of their amino acids as they are converted to catechins, meaning the unique smell provided by L-theanine is indicative of the cultivation and quality of Matcha.
One of the more important factors in discerning between Matcha quality, however, is its taste. The amino acids in a good quality Matcha not only provide its sweet smell, but also give it a naturally sweet taste. Ingredient grade Matchas and open air green teas have more of a bitter, astringent taste due to the lack of amino acids. Some even describe Matcha as having an umami taste (5th taste). Umami is a relatively new flavor that has been coined and described as savory- alongside the original four tastes of sour, bitter, sweet, and salty.
The next thing to judge is the feel of the Matcha. A high quality Matcha is very fine and silky; it is similar to the feel of eye shadow or baby powder. The particle size is only 5-10 microns, however, making it actually finer than baby powder. A lower quality Matcha will have bigger particle sizes that result in a coarser feel when rubbed between your fingers. Another way to test the quality is to pour a little bit of each grade onto a white piece of paper. Then, using your finger, smear the Matcha across the page. A higher quality Matcha should leave a long, clean line with little to no breaks. Lower quality Matcha will leave a shorter line, often leaving gaps and breaks.
Lastly, one final test for quality can be done when making a traditional bowl of Matcha. When whisking a bowl of high-quality Matcha, you should be able to easily create a layer of creamy froth on top. It is harder to create the micro foam layer with a low quality Matcha, often resulting in big air bubbles or no frothy layer at all.
Below are a few photos directly comparing Aiya’s Ceremonial Matcha with a low quality Matcha. It’s disappointing to say that these low quality varieties are readily available at your local stores as a comparable alternative to a ceremonial grade. We hope that by educating our consumers, more and more people will be able to discern the difference between high quality Matcha and low quality Matcha for themselves, and appreciate the tea as much as their Japanese counterparts do.