In this Matcha education post, we will be discussing the importance of Matcha’s shade growing process, and the beneficial effect it has on the quality, nutrition, and flavor of the finished tea.
Before delving deeper into the intricate process of shade growing, we thought it important to note that another variety of Japanese green tea, called Gyokuro, is also shade grown. Because of its similarity in cultivation, Gyokuro is often confused to be related to Matcha. However, while some points listed below do, in fact, apply to Gyokuro’s finished flavor, Matcha and Gyokuro both go through completely different steps after harvest. Matcha is never made from Gyokuro; it is made from Tencha – the formal name for shade grown, refined tea leaves.
To grow the tea leaves that will become Matcha, the tea plants are gradually shaded for the month before harvest. First, a framework is built around the tea fields. Then, a layer of black burlap-like material is draped over this framework one layer at a time, each week for the month before harvest. Once the last cover is laid in its place, about 90% of the sunlight is blocked from the tea fields, making it as dark as dusk on even the sunniest of days.
Due to the shading and the lack of light, the leaves of the tea plants broaden, striving to absorb as much sunlight as possible to continue photosynthesis. Not only does the surface of the leaf increase, but it also become thinner and more tender. This allows the dried leaves to be more easily ground down into fine powder. Shade growing also boosts the chlorophyll content of the tea leaves, which gives Matcha its vibrant jade-green color, which is the first indication of whether or not a finished Matcha has been properly shade grown.
In addition to providing Matcha with its beautiful green color, shade growing also benefits the taste and the smell of the tea. Growing tea in direct sunlight breaks down the amino acids found in the leaves and converts them to catechins, which is what gives tea its astringent flavor. Shade grown tea plants maintain their amino acid content, resulting in leaves with a natural sweetness. This is the reason why high quality Matcha possesses a naturally sweet flavor profile (this taste is often called umami flavor), with little to no bitterness. These amino acids also give the tea its sweet smell, often referred to as a “sweet, vegetal aroma.” Non-shaded, open air grown green teas used to make Sencha powders or imitation Matcha do not maintain their amino acid content, resulting in a far more astringent taste.
Lastly, the nutritional content of the tea is also benefited by the shade growing process. The key amino acid preserved in Matcha is L-Theanine. Many studies have shown this amino acid to play a critical role in improving cognitive function, increasing the mind’s ability to focus, aiding in stress relief, and assisting in the gradual absorption of caffeine by the body for a longer, sustained energy. Because of the same reasons, the caffeine in Matcha is not associated with the crash or jitters that may come from other caffeine sources. It is due to these reasons that Matcha is still often consumed in Japan by Zen Buddhist monks to aid in their focus and to maintain a “calm alert state” during meditation.