Anyone just starting out shopping for matcha will almost immediately be confronted with these two phrases: "ceremonial grade" and "culinary grade." But what do these terms really mean? Read on to learn the key differences.
Before we dig into the details:
It's important to note that these two terms are relatively arbitrary. That is, they've been invented by matcha vendors as ways to market matcha. There is no governing body in the US, Japan, or anywhere that determines the grade of different matchas.
That said, they are still meaningful terms. If someone was calling culinary grade matcha "ceremonial grade," they'd quickly be called out for it. People would drink it, spit it out, and wonder how a ceremony could ever develop around such a bitter, astringent tea. So the terms are useful in helping us navigate a vendor's recommended use for the matcha in question. I've also been seeing the term "latte grade" popping up. Again, it's arbitrary, but also tells us how to make the most of any particular matcha.
I've already given you an impression of this above. Culinary grade matcha is very true-to-name. It is intended to be used in cooking. Matcha is a very potent, natural and healthy green food dye. People use it in all sorts of concoctions, from soba noodles to cheesecake. Generally speaking, culinary grade is intended to be covered up with sugar. On its own, it will be bitter and astringent, and probably not the brightest shade of green.
How did it get this way? The tea leaves were likely from later summer pickings, for one. The Summer-picked tea leaves are less desirable (less sweet, less savory, less caffeinated, etc.) than the first leaves of Spring.
Culinary grade tea leaves are also less likely to be as extensively shaded as ceremonial grade ones. The shading is critical for the production of chlorophyll, the pigment that gives matcha its vibrant green color. This can account for why culinary grade matcha is often flabby looking.
The other reason it may look kind of yellowish is because it is treated with less concern about oxidation. Whereas ceremonial grade matcha producers will seek to preserve the freshness of their tea via cold storage, oxygen absorbers, vacuum seals and the like, culinary grade matcha producers aren't going to be spending as much money in this department. Instead, they will throw their matcha in a bag, try to get the air out as much as possible, and that's about it.
Lastly, particle size. Culinary grade matcha is not milled as carefully as ceremonial grade matcha. The stones aren't always traditionally carved granite mill-stones. Or the mill is turned faster than it ought to be for high quality tea. Whatever the case may be, if you drink culinary grade matcha straight up, it will be gritty. It won't feel like a pure liquid, but like a bunch of little solids suspended in liquid.
Far better to keep the culinary grade in the kitchen.
But, for your chawan, there is...
Ceremonial grade matcha:
You probably have an idea of what this term means now. That is, it is not all those qualities that culinary grade possesses. It is not flabby-colored, gritty, overly bitter and astringent. Or at least it shouldn't be.
Ceremonial grade matcha is intended to be consumed directly, straight up. It is typically made from the first spring pickings of the tea leaves. After the winter, the tea plant has stored up a lot of sugars and amino acids, and the content of these will never be higher in the tea leaves than they are during early spring. This helps make the matcha smooth, aromatic, and savory.
Ceremonial grade matcha is also properly shaded. This is why good ceremonial grade matcha should be a vibrant green color. But the color is about more than aesthetics. It tells you that the matcha was shaded correctly, which is also critical for the preservation of savory (and calming) amino acids like L-Theanine. Without shading, these amino acids would be converted by the sun's rays into bitter catechins. So if a matcha is green, it is also a good sign that it will be relatively savory.
Ceremonial grade matcha is properly milled. That is, each particle size is under 10 microns. This is fine enough where straight up matcha will taste like a smooth liquid, rather than a gritty soup. If you open your matcha and a big plume of it rises like incense smoke, that's a good sign. Another test is to smear the dry powder across a sheet of paper. If it smears like paint, that's also a good sign.
Lastly, greater efforts will be made to preserve the freshness of Ceremonial Grade matcha. This is where all of those anti-oxidation methods come into play. If a matcha loses its freshness, it loses much of its complexity. This complexity hinges on volatile aromatic compounds that, when exposed to oxygen over time, dissipate out of the matcha. The first aromas to go are the floral and fruit notes, which is why a lot of people think of matcha as savory and only savory - because those other notes have disappeared. Needless to say, the best ceremonial grade matcha producers will do everything they can to prevent this degradation of their tea.
That leaves us with another question:
How does one decide between different ceremonial grade matchas?
Basically everyone who makes matcha that they think can be enjoyable straight up can call their matcha "ceremonial grade." Like I said earlier, there's no governing body looking for any telltale signals that a matcha deserves that label. If a matcha is called ceremonial grade, it probably meets those above benchmarks of quality. But, those benchmarks are:
1. The matcha is from spring material.
2. The matcha is bright green and properly shaded.
3. The matcha is not gritty.
4. Efforts have been made to preserve the matcha's freshness.
5. The matcha is not overly bitter or astringent.
In terms of flavor, this actually tells us very little. We know more about what the matcha is not than what it is. There are still some open questions for any ceremonial grade matcha:
1. Who were the growers and how was it grown?
2. Is the terroir (climate, place, weather patterns) any good?
3. What cultivars were used?
4. How complex and engaging is the tea?
5. Are the methods used to preserve freshness actually enough.
If your matcha is not from one of the traditional tea growing regions, grown by a factory farm that dumps tons of fertilizer and pesticides on their fields, made from cultivars not developed for matcha, and vacuum sealed then shipped overseas and stuck on a store shelf for months, it will still be called "ceremonial grade." But, it will not hold a candle to a matcha that is from a time-tested growing region, from tea fields cared for by passionate farmers, made from good cultivars, and impeccably fresh.
With that we come to:
The things I actually look for when buying a ceremonial grade matcha:
1. Mention of koicha or usucha. Koicha especially is a good sign, as koicha means "thick tea." This is like a matcha concentrate, and only the really good stuff will be palatable.
2. Mention of growing methods. If they are not saying anything about how it was grown, it was probably on a big monoculture field full of pesticides and artificial fertilizer.
3. Matcha that floats like smoke, or smears like paint across paper. This is a sign of good particle fineness.
4. Mention of cultivars. I like to know for the same reason I like to know what type of oolong I'm drinking. Tea is diverse, and exploring that diversity is part of the fun.
5. Complexity. I want to see tasting notes mentioned! So many people talk about their matcha like it is only ever umami, and nothing else. If that were the case, matcha would all taste the same - and I don't want to encourage growers and producers to pursue sameness. Look for complexity in your matcha, just like you'd want in your oolong, pu'er, wine, curry, wildflower garden - literally anything worth enjoying.
6. Freshness. Here's a plug for our stuff. Once you've tried freshly milled matcha, you can't go back. The other freshness preservation methods just don't do as well. You can flush a bag with nitrogen, but tea will still interact with this. People will say "but it won't oxidize without oxygen." But, it will "nitrogenize." That's how they make GABA oolong - by "nitrogenizing" it. So it is certainly not an inert gas.
With that, if you are inclined to explore matcha that fits all of these requirements, I would be remiss if I did not encourage you to look at our selection here.
Thanks for reading!
Simon - Owner and Head Tea Miller.