Let’s face it, Matcha is still a relatively new product when speaking about western nations. In Japan Matcha has been around for over 800 years so their culture is steeped in tradition (pun intended). For the most part Japanese people can discern the difference between high quality Matcha versus a low quality Matcha, and in some cases when there is imitation Matcha or Sencha powder. However, people not surrounded by Matcha in their daily lives like Japan do not have the luxury of knowing when they have a quality Matcha in front of them, or if it’s really a low quality Matcha. The purposes of this writing is to educate the average consumer of Matcha on how to understand the difference between a high quality Matcha that should be used for drinking traditional Matcha tea compared to a low quality Matcha that is more suited as being used in cooking or as an ingredient.
First off I should explain that there is a difference in what we call a “drinking grade” Matcha and an “ingredient grade” Matcha. What I mean by drinking grade is usually a higher grade of Matcha that is naturally sweet. This grade of Matcha usually has a nice smooth finish with little to no bitterness. This type of Matcha is to best be enjoyed when drinking traditional style Matcha with just water. The reason being is that if you were to cook with such a grade, or mix it with other ingredients to make a latte or smoothie, then the flavor will be easily masked. Ingredient grade Matcha on the other hand has the bitter astringent taste that is more associated with green teas. The reason for this is so that when mixed with other ingredients the flavors will balance out and you can still get that nice green tea taste.
Now the first indicator discerning high quality Matcha as opposed to a low quality Matcha is the price. Matcha is an expensive tea do to the laborious effort involved in the cultivating, harvesting and manufacturing process that goes into producing Matcha. The typical price for a drinking grade Matcha is going to be anywhere around $27-$30 per 30gram size tin or 1 ounce. If you happen to see anything cheaper then that then it is probably because it is a low grade Matcha. Some companies try to pass off a low quality Matcha as something that should be used for drinking straight traditional tea, when it really shouldn’t be. This is damaging to the reputation of Matcha because often times when people have tried a bitter low grade of Matcha they have a bad experience and think all Matcha taste terrible and bitter.
The next indicator would simply be sight. Matcha should have a nice vibrant green color, a color that has been described as a jade green. Lower grades of Matcha tend to have more of a yellowish/brownish hue to their appearance. What gives Matcha that nice vibrant green color is the natural chlorophyll that comes from the shade growing process. Typically ingredient grade Matcha use older leaves that may have been exposed to sunlight longer.
Following the color of Matcha would be the smell of it. A high quality Matcha is going to have a nice sweet vegetal smell that is pungent. The sweet smell from the Matcha actually comes from the amino acids in the tea. Matcha has high amounts of L-Theanine that comes from a result of being shade grown. Open air grown tea loses a lot of their amino acids as they are lost and converted into catechins.
This leads to taste. The amino acids in a high quality Matcha not only give it a nice sweet smell, but it also is attributed for providing Matcha with its nice natural sweet taste. Ingredient grade Matcha and other open air green tea have a bitter astringent taste due to the lack of amino acids. Some even describe Matcha as having an umami taste (5th taste). For those unfamiliar with umami it is a new flavor that has been coined. The original four tastes are sour, bitter, sweet, and salty. Umami is suppose to be the fifth taste which is savory.
The next thing to look at is the feel of Matcha. High quality Matcha is very fine and silky similar to the feel of eye shadow because its particle size is only 5-10 microns meaning that it is as fine as baby powder. Lower quality Matcha is going to have a bigger particle size which results in a more coarse feel when rubbed in between your figures. One test to also compare two difference Matcha grades is to pour out a little bit of each onto a white piece of paper then using your figure smear the Matcha across the page. A higher quality Matcha is going to leave a nice long clean line with little-to-no breaks. Lower quality Matcha will leave a shorter line and often you will see breaks in the lines.
Lastly when you make a bowl of Matcha you will notice that with a high quality Matcha you can get a creamy frothy layer, whereas lower quality Matcha is hard to create that micro form layer. Often with low quality Matcha you get big air bubbles or no frothy layer at all.
I hope that you found this information useful and can judge whether the Matcha you currently drink is the real deal Ceremonial Grade Matcha used for drinking traditional tea, or if you are really just drinking a lower ingredient grade that would be best suited for other uses than traditional tea.
Below are a few photos directly comparing Aiya’s Ceremonial Matcha with what we would call a low quality Matcha or even perhaps an imitation Matcha. The sad thing is that you can purchase the poor quality Matcha at your local Whole Foods Market.