If you’ve stopped in and seen our matcha menu, you’ve probably noticed a plethora of Japanese names for our matchas, including Gokou, Komakage, Samidori, and more. These names actually refer to the cultivar used to make matcha powder.
A cultivar is a selected variety of a plant that has been bred for specific characteristics, such as consistent flavor, disease resistance, and harvest-time. The easiest comparison to make is with wine; though you may have two red wines, one is made from Cabernet Sauvignon and another from Merlot. Both are distinctly red wines and share similar characteristics, yet at the same time are irrefutably different from one another.
This concept also applies to tencha tea leaves. Two bowls of matcha that taste very much like matcha in a general sense (vegetal, savory, or creamy) can still be noticeably different because one is made from Samidori and another from Asahi.
So, what makes each cultivar distinct from the others? Let’s dive into the differences between the ones we use at River & Stone.
Samidori is a cultivar we have offered since day one. It is not an officially registered cultivar yet is rather common all the same. It is one of the primary cultivars for gyokuro and tencha processing in the Kyoto area, which is the birthplace of matcha - a history you can read about in my previous blog post (hyperlink). Having milled and tasted this cultivar for 3 harvests now, we can say that it deserves a spot as a regular standby in our matcha selection. It is reliably smooth and savory, moderately creamy, with top notes of apple and banana. It is an easy-going cultivar, which makes it a great option for koicha, or thick tea, as it is not too overwhelming.
Okumidori is our most popular matcha, and for good reason! It is consistently creamy and heavy in the mouth, and smells like fresh pastry dough. Drinking it is, more than anything for us, a textural experience, followed by a floral and sweet aftertaste. Overall, it is a really great entry-point into matcha, as it isn’t overly intense for someone accustomed to lattes and the like. Surprisingly, this cultivar was originally intended for sencha, but thankfully tea producers have realized how good it is for shaded teas as well. Unlike Samidori, this cultivar has its origin in Shizuoka, although our grower is in Uji.
Asahi is another unregistered cultivar from the Kyoto area. It has been used for several award-winning matchas in recent years. In our experience, it has the most going on in any single cultivar we’ve tried. One cultivar may be really strong on the floral notes but have less umami and weight. Another may be textural and creamy, but lacking any distinctive brightness, and so on. Asahi seems to have it all in one package. It makes an exceptionally engaging bowl of tea, now savory, now floral, now spicy…it’s different every time!
Gokou is a new cultivar for us, and we’re currently in awe of it. More than anything, it strikes us as intensely floral, with notes of wildflowers, lilac, and key lime. This is yet another unregistered Kyoto/Uji cultivar and is relatively accessible. On its own the flavor can be a little intense, so it may not be my first recommendation for someone just getting into traditional matcha. But when you’re ready for it, it is an extremely rewarding one to drink.
Komakage is one of the rarer cultivars we offer, with little information out there and even less of it to purchase, at least online. It is primarily grown for shaded tea, though clearly not as widely planted as other cultivars. Yet it is incredibly tasty! The matcha we make with it is some of the savoriest matcha we offer; it is creamy with notes of toasted nori and pumpernickel bread and leaves a lingering, umami sensation long after drinking.
I’ve saved the most interesting (to me) for last. Zairai actually isn’t a cultivar at all. It refers to any tea bush that has been grown from seed. You see, cultivar use didn’t become common until the mid-twentieth century. It took off because, with cultivars, you know what you are getting, not only in terms of flavor, but in terms of adaptability to a specific terroir. So, teas from cultivars come from cuttings.
It is the same way with grapes and many other crops. Growing from seeds is such a genetic toss up, since each seed is different from one another, that it doesn't make good business sense to grow a field of zairai. Yet this is why Zairai is so interesting. For one thing, its flavor can’t be pinned down. Some bushes may be lackluster and yet a lucky few could be unlike any other matcha on the market. What’s more, tea plants grown from seed live longer, and, because most farmers have been growing cultivars for decades now, a Zairai tea bush is much more likely to be old.
If you’ve read my previous post, you may also remember that bushes treated with too much fertilizer don’t live as long, so to find old bushes is not only rare, but virtually a guarantee that someone has been taking good care of their tea plants. Fertilizer is often used to force the tea leaves to accumulate more amino acids, and thus a more savory flavor profile. Therefore, an old bush, left untreated in this fashion, and grown from Zairai rather than a known cultivar, really bucks the trends in the modern matcha market that favor savoriness at the cost of uniqueness.
To put it another way, drinking Zairai is the closest you can get to tasting what matcha was like hundreds of years ago! Anyways, the Zairai we offer is from bushes at least 60 years old, rumored to have been planted before WWII. It truly is engaging, with notes of lemon rind, pineapple, guava, and kaffir lime leaves.
This list is far from exhaustive. There are hundreds of different cultivars, and clearly even more that are unregistered. But hopefully it has given you an appreciation of the diversity that can be found in matcha, as well as a greater interest, as we have, in trying single-cultivar teas!
Thanks for reading!
Head Matcha Miller