Matcha 101

The Tea Maker’s Guide to Japanese Matcha 

“What is matcha powder?” is a popular question from people who might have heard about how beneficial matcha is, but who don’t really understand what it is, exactly. “Is matcha an instant tea? Is it the same as green tea? Can I just grind up any tea and have matcha?” To answer these questions in detail, we asked our tea farmers in Japan as well as our third generation tea master, Masaaki Sugimoto, at our headquarters in Japan to explain what exactly matcha is, clarify some points that others may not have known before, and reveal what makes it so special.

Guide Contents 

  • What is Japanese Matcha? 
  • How is Matcha Produced?
  • How is Ceremonial Grade Matcha Different from Culinary Grade Matcha? 
  • What is the Difference Between Matcha and Powdered Green Tea?
  • The History of Matcha and the Japanese Tea Ceremony
  • Sugimoto Tea Company Matcha
  • How to Make Matcha Tea at Home

What is Japanese Matcha Tea? 

Matcha is a powdered Japanese green tea. While it’s commonly known these days as a type of Japanese tea, it’s believed that matcha actually originated from China around the time of the Tang Dynasty. 

During that time, the tea leaves were pressed into cakes for easier storage and transport. To make tea, they were ground into a fine powder, then mixed with salt and water. Other natural flavorings were also added, such as flowers and fruits. 

Later on, a Buddhist monk called Eisai returned to Japan from a trip to China, bringing back with him Rinzai Zen Buddhism, tea seeds, and matcha. 


How is Matcha Produced? 

Step 1: Shading 

Like gyokuro and kabusecha, matcha comes from shaded tea leaves. Two to three weeks prior to the first harvest in early spring, tea fields reserved for premium matcha are shaded. This produces its vibrant green hue and its umami-rich flavor. 

What are the effects of shading on matcha? 

  • The light restriction the leaves experience during the shading process produces higher quantities of chlorophyll, giving matcha its vibrant green hue. 
  • Shading also yields higher amounts of amino acids, like L-theanine, which gives matcha its signature umami flavor. 
  • This process also yields higher levels of other nutrients, such as caffeineEGCG, and many antioxidants.  

Step 2: Harvesting  

Spring signals green tea harvest season in Japan. The start of harvest varies on the location of the tea field because of differing weather conditions across growing regions in the country.  

The best time to harvest matcha is on the 88th day after the start of spring in the traditional Japanese calendar, which is called hachijuhachiya. Traditionally, May 2 was considered the 88th day. However, these days, it varies based on weather conditions, but it typically happens in early May. 

Step 3: Steaming 

After harvesting, the raw leaf is taken to the factory where it’s quickly steamed for about 20 seconds. This prevents oxidation, which allows the leaves to retain their color and brings out the natural umami and sweetness in the leaves. 

Compared to the hardier sencha, tencha is steamed more quickly because it’s more fragile. 

Step 4: Blow-Drying 

After steaming, the leaf will be placed in a vertical contraption that has four or five columns. Each column has wind turbines at the bottom that push the leaves upward until they reach the last column. 

Nets cover these columns to contain the leaves and prevent them from getting blown away. This also knocks the stems and leaf veins off through abrasion with the walls of the column.  

Blow-drying the tencha serves two purposes: 

  • Separates leaves that got stuck together during the steaming process
  • Removes excess moisture from the surface of the leaf. This prevents it from burning when it goes into the tencha-ro. 

Step 5: Baking Using a Tencha-ro (Convection Oven)

What is a tencha-ro? The tencha-ro is an oven used for drying *tencha after the blow-drying stage. It consists of three or four layers of conveyor belts that take the leaves into the furnace. 

*What is tencha? Tencha refers to the tea leaves used in matcha production that have undergone steaming, drying, and baking, but haven’t been milled yet. Once they’ve been ground up, tencha becomes the final product — matcha. 

Stage 1 Drying: Bottom Layer of the Tencha-ro 

The tencha reaches the tencha-ro once it passes through the final column of the drying contraption, which is connected to the lowest layer of the tencha-ro. 

Since the heat source is directly under this layer, it’s also the hottest layer, with temperatures reaching 302 °F. Here, the tea leaves will go through the first drying stage for around 2 to 3 minutes. 

Stage 2 Drying: Topmost Layer of the Tencha-ro 

After the initial drying stage, a fan will be used to push the tencha to the top layer of the tencha-ro. Here, they’ll be subjected to 212 °F heat for about 6 to 8 minutes.  

Stage 3 Drying: Middle Layer of the Tencha-ro 

Next, the tencha is dropped onto the middle layer where it’ll move in the opposite direction for 9 to 10 minutes.  

Sorting

Before the final drying stage, the tencha will be sorted to separate the veins and twigs from the leaves. Additionally, the leaves will be cut up into smaller pieces. 

Final Drying Stage: Drying Cabin

In the last drying stage, the leaves will be dried separately from the veins and twigs through a drying cabin. Because of their differences in size, they require different temperatures and drying times. 

At this point, the tencha is now called ara-tencha, which means “crude tencha.” This will be sold to processors  who’ll handle the final steps of matcha production.  

Step 6: Finalizing the Tencha and Blending  

While steps 1 to 4 are handled by tea farmers, the last two steps of matcha production are typically handled by processors. After the raw tencha has been turned over by the farmers, the  processors will work on finalizing the tencha and creating a blend consistent with their brand. 

To create this brand-consistent tea, manufacturers turn to tea masters who are skilled in evaluating raw tea leaves to produce the final product. Tea masters will guide the manufacturer in the final processing stages, including creating the final blend. 

Once the final blend is ready, it’ll be stored in its leaf form until it’s ready for milling. This storage time develops aroma and mellows out the flavor. It also helps prevent future oxidation and keeps the tencha fresh for a longer period. 

Step 7: Milling

The last step in matcha production is what ultimately makes matcha a powdered tea — milling. In this step, the leaf is ground into a fine powder using a mill, which can either be the more traditional stone mill or the more modern bead mill. 

Regardless of the type of mill used, the idea is to crush the leaf completely and pulverize it into a fine powder. 

Additional Reference: 

Sōsen, T. (2019). The Story of Japanese Tea: a broad outline of its cultivation, manufacturing, history and cultural values [Amazon Kindle]. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1704715679/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=theteacrane-20&camp=1789&creative=9325&linkCode=as2&creativeASIN=1704715679&linkId=4d5a95df14d11eef645a98f54c15e08d



How is Ceremonial Grade Matcha Different from Culinary Grade Matcha? 

Ceremonial matcha is of a higher quality than culinary grade matcha due to harvest time, shading, and production. Ceremonial grade matcha is made from leaves that are picked at the first flush (first harvest) of the year. Prior to picking, these leaves are shaded for up to 3 weeks. 

Shading is only done once per year, before the first harvest. If shading occurs before each harvest, the tea plants would struggle to survive from a lack of sunlight. 

Shading before each harvest is also unnecessary because the effects of the first shading are carried out through the rest of the season. Yet, the first harvested leaves receive the greatest benefits from shading. The final result is a brew that is a vibrant green with a sweet and nuanced flavor. Later harvest leaves contain more bitter compounds and are used for making culinary grade matcha.

When it comes to drinking, ceremonial grade matcha will be the most pleasurable.  Culinary grade matcha is more ideal for culinary purposes, as the name suggests. Think of matcha cookies, ice cream, and other recipes. All of these call for culinary grade matcha. 


Sugimoto Tea Company Matcha

  • Organic Ceremonial Matcha (in 100g and 29g sizes) -- Our Organic Ceremonial Matcha is made from the most choice leaves of the first harvest. These tender, leaves come from a cultivar blend of Sae Midori, Asanoka, and Oku Midori. This matcha is delightful. You could drink this all day, and find each sip more pleasurable than the last. Compared with Daily Matcha, it possesses a smoother,  more savory flavor with a sweeter aroma.
  • Sugimoto Reserve “Mizuki” Matcha -- A thick sipper, this ceremonial grade matcha has a never-ending finish. It beckons contemplation over each sip. It is intensely nutty in aroma and flavor- similar to fresh pine nuts. Its rich umami-filled palate carries no astringency, but full complexity. When it’s gone, you know you’ve just experienced a drink of depth. 
  • Lemon Matcha -- A revitalizing  chilled beverage in summer, or a body-warming beverage in winter, Sugimoto Tea Company’s Lemon Matcha can be served as either lemonade or a throat-soothing lemon elixir.
  • Organic Hibiscus Matcha --  A refreshing beverage with Latin flair for any time of year. Sugimoto Tea Company’s Organic Hibiscus Matcha delivers a juicy matcha refresher that even those who claim not to like matcha will love. 
  • Organic Culinary Matcha -- This premium culinary grade organic matcha is produced by family farms in Shizuoka. Sugimoto Tea Company’s Organic Bulk Matcha is a premium culinary grade with a rich vegetal fragrance, vibrant green color, smooth texture, and delicate aftertaste.
  • Uji Matcha Powder (Premium Culinary)-- Sugimoto Tea Company’s Uji Matcha is a premium culinary grade with a rich vegetal fragrance, vibrant green color, smooth texture, and delicate aftertaste. This is the best matcha powder for making lattes. 
  • Organic Culinary Matcha Sticks -- Our convenient Organic Culinary Matcha Sticks allow you to enjoy matcha whenever, wherever. Whether you're running off to work, headed to the gym, escaping to the beach, or spending a day in the library, you can now bring along a full serving of organic matcha goodness with you. Just add the matcha to your bottle of water, shake, and enjoy! 
  • Organic Daily Matcha -- Daily Matcha has a bold flavor that can match the richness of milk and sugar. It makes brilliantly green confections and velvety lattes. From pancakes to smoothies, it is great for use as an ingredient.


How to Make Matcha Tea at Home 

One common surprise for those unfamiliar with matcha is that it’s not an “instant tea.” Since it is a powdered tea, some people assume that making matcha is as straightforward as adding matcha powder to hot water and stirring. 

However, while the process of making matcha isn’t complicated, it’s not as straightforward as merely adding powder to water. To make matcha tea, the first thing you have to do is to gather matcha accessories, including: 

Once you’ve got all the items ready, you’re finally ready to make matcha. Here’s a step-by-step video guide on how to make matcha

Step 1: Soak the Chasen in Hot Water 

Note: This only applies to new chasens. If you’re using an old one, skip to Step 2. 

If you’re using a new chasen, soak it in a bowl of hot water for 15 minutes before using it. This is essential prep to unfurl the tines of the chasen. Otherwise, your whisking will not produce the desired frothinessl. Soaking the tines also cleans and loosens them up, preventing breakage during whisking. 

Do not use soap or other chemicals to clean the chasen. After use, rinse with warm water, or whisk a bowl of warm water. Set on the Kusenaoshi (whisk holder) to dry. This keeps the tines of the whisk spread out for best whisking.   

Step 2: Add Matcha to the Bowl

Add two scoops of matcha using your chashaku into your chawan. If you don’t have a chasaku, use a teaspoon of matcha (1-2g). 

For best results, sift the matcha directly into the bowl. Any sifter will work. A tea strainer such as this is convenient and can be found at most asian grocery stores. 

Step 3: Pour Hot Water 

Pour 3 oz. of hot water (185°F) into the bowl. We recommend pouring from the sides rather than the center of the bowl to avoid splashing.

Step 4: Whisk the Matcha 

Whisk any matcha powder that got stuck on the side of the bowl into the water. Then, using a zig-zagging “M” motion, lightly whisk the matcha. Begin slowly, then build up to a rapid pace until you are happy with the amount of foam. Pro-tip: as you are whisking, slowly lift your hand so that your final zig-zags are whisking only the foam -this makes a creamy microfoam . Give one last circle of the foam and lift your chasen out from the center of the matcha.

If you don’t have a matcha whisk, you can also use an electric hand frother. 


Tips to Maintain the Quality of Your Matcha Powder and Accessories 

  • Matcha Powder: Reseal the packaging of your matcha powder to preserve its freshness and keep it dry. If packing in a zipper bag, push out all the air inside before sealing. Store in a cool, dark place, and not exposed to sunlight.   
  • Chawan and Chasen: Pour hot water into your chawan (matcha bowl) and clean using the chasen (matcha whisk). Discard the water, then wipe the chawan dry. Place chasen on the Kusenaoshi to dry it.
  • Chashaku: To clean the chashaku, simply wipe it with a dry cloth. It’s essential to keep the chashaku dry. Avoid contact with water so as not to transfer moisture to your matcha powder. Wetness can also stain the bamboo and potentially ruin the shape of the chashaku. 

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