Did you know? The tea leaves used to make Matcha are grown in the dark! The shade-growing process is critical to the quality, nutrition, and flavor of the resulting Matcha.
Shade Growing Process
The shading process begins one month before harvest time. First, a framework is built around the fields. Then, layers of black burlap-like material are draped over the framework. Additional layers are added each week, until almost 90% of sunlight is blocked from the fields. Even on bright, sunny days, the fields stay as dark as dusk.
Matcha is not the only shade-grown Japanese green tea. It is often confused with Gyokuro, which is also shaded before harvest. While Matcha and Gyokuro are both shade-grown, the harvested tea leaves are processed differently. Matcha is not simply ground Gyokuro; authentic Matcha is made from Tencha – shade-grown tea leaves that have been steamed and dried after harvesting.
Quality, Flavor, and Nutrition Benefits
Growing Matcha tea plants in the shade improves the texture and color of the resulting Matcha. Lacking full exposure to the sun, the plants respond by altering their leaf structure to try to absorb more sunlight. Specifically, the leaves broaden and become thinner, which allows the harvested leaves to be more easily ground into a fine powder. In addition, the plants increase their production of chlorophyll, the pigment that absorbs sunlight. The extra chlorophyll gives Matcha its vibrant green color, and shows whether Matcha has been properly shade grown.
Shade growing Matcha also improves the taste and aroma of the resulting tea. Exposure to direct sunlight breaks down amino acids in the leaves, converting them to catechins. High concentrations of catechins give tea its bitter flavor. Protecting tea plants from the sun helps maintain the amino acid content, resulting in Matcha with a naturally sweet flavor and little (to no) bitterness. The extra amino acids also give shade-grown Matcha a sweet, vegetal aroma. In contrast, non-shaded green teas used to make Sencha powders or imitation Matcha have a lower amino acid content and higher concentration of catechins, resulting in a pronounced bitterness.
Perhaps most importantly, the shade growing process boosts the nutritional content of the tea. One key amino acid protected by shade-growing is L-theanine. Studies have shown that L-theanine helps improve cognitive function, increase focus, and relieve stress. These cognitive benefits are a primary reason why Matcha has a long history of use by Japanese Zen Buddhist monks to aid their focus and help maintain a calm, alert state during meditation. L-theanine also slows the absorption of caffeine by the body. Thanks to high levels of L-Theanine, the caffeine in Matcha provides a sustained energy boost, without the crash and jitters that come from other caffeinated drinks.