Over the course of the last 10-15 years organic foodstuff production has been growing along with the consumption and awareness of organic products. The tea industry in particular has seen a surge in consumer demand for organic teas versus traditional teas (aka conventional or “non-organic” teas). In this week’s educational Matcha post we’d like to highlight some of the key ways in which organic Matcha is handled and processed that distinguish it from conventional Matcha. While there are a number of differences that set organic and conventional Matchas apart, the main difference that has the biggest impact on organic Matcha is something very simple – fertilizer. Read on to see some of the biggest differences as well as why fertilizer has such a large impact on Organic Matcha.
Differences in Farming
While organic and conventional Matchas are both physically grown in the same way (you can read more about how Matcha is made here), farmers of organic fields need to adjust their methods to comply with organic regulations; producing high quality Matcha that is also organically certified and in large enough quantities is quite an undertaking. It took our farmers 30 years to perfect their farming practices to make organic Matcha worthy of the name Aiya. In this section we highlight a key difference between growing conventional and organic Matcha - fertilizer regulation.
a. Pesticides and Fertilization
The most basic difference between organic and conventional Matchas is that farmers do not use any pesticides when growing organic Matcha. This is a commonly known and assumed fact. What is lesser known, however, is that in addition to the pesticide usage, the amount and types of fertilizer that are permissible is also highly regulated when cultivating organic Matcha. To qualify for USDA organic certification, one must use an approved organic fertilizer and follow strict guidelines regarding the amount of fertilizer used. For conventional Matchas, the types of fertilizer and pesticides that are approved are also regulated but not nearly as strictly as in the case of organic Matchas.
On its surface, this may sound simple enough – don’t use any pesticides and use only approved organic fertilizers. Without a deterrent, however, pests can overtake an entire crop and ruin years of work. Organic farmers therefore need to employ other, natural methods to keep pests at bay.
b. Tea Field Location
A common tactic used by farmers in the absence of man-made deterrents such as pesticides, is to choose a physical location that will naturally deter pests. Aiya is based in the Nishio region of Japan, which has been a cradle of Matcha production for over 800 years. All of Aiya’s Matchas have always imparted the distinct flavor of Nishio. For that reason, when Aiya first pioneered cultivating organic Matcha in the 1970s, it was imperative to find a suitable location in the same area. That location turned out to be Shimoyama. Just outside of Nishio City proper, Shimoyama was the perfect choice as it is about 2,000 feet above sea level and has a naturally cooler climate than the main city. The cooler climate acts as a natural deterrent to bugs and other pests since few of them can survive the temperature difference. Tea can be grown in Shimoyama with far less concern for pest encroachment on the fields.
Organically certified tea is not just grown under strict regulations. It also has to be handled and packed under strict regulations as well.
Differences in Processing
The whole manufacturing process of storing and grinding organic Tencha followed by packing and labeling is also performed under strict guidelines; the entire facility must have organic certification and follow all industry standards for storage, processing, packing, labeling, shipping, etc in order for the finished product to carry USDA certification.
The most surprising part of the whole process involves labeling. If one were to simply apply a label to a sealed, organic product at a facility that did not have organic certification, the product is no longer allowed to carry USDA organic certification.
Differences in Taste
Differences in the farming and processing of organic Matcha leads to a pretty stark difference in taste when compared to conventional Matcha. Conventional Matcha has a stronger tea flavor than organic and is often said to have a more “robust” or “full-bodied” flavor. Organic Matcha tends to be described as “crisper” or “lighter” in flavor. This tends to be surprising to people as the common consensus is that organic products always taste better than conventional products. The reason behind this draws directly back to the cultivation process of tea.
The Effect of Fertilizer Regulation
Unlike other agricultural products, tea is harvested using the same plant over a span of 25-30 years. In a sense it is like a vineyard where year-in and year-out wineries grow grapes from the same vines. As the type and amount of fertilizer used is strictly regulated for organic Matchas, the tea plant may not fully replenish its nutrients from year-to-year. Due to the fact that they are shade grown, tea plants that produce Tencha in particular are very reliant on soil nutrients. Soil nutrients are primarily provided by fertilizer. By strictly regulating the fertilizer, the tea plants may not get their nutrients replenished fully for the following harvest. This can compound over the years and cause the flavor of organic Matcha to gradually trend to being lighter and crisper while conventional Matcha remains more robust.
The Flavor Verdict
The logical question one might have after reading all this is, “Which is better tasting? Conventional or organic?” Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer because everyone’s tastes are different and “better tasting” is very subjective. Some find a strong, robust green tea flavor to be off putting and prefer the more subtle notes of an organic Matcha. Then there are others who seek out and appreciate the strong, robust green tea flavor of a conventional Matcha. It really depends on the taste buds of the subject and how strong you like your tea flavor.