Are you new to matcha? If so, welcome! Drinking matcha is one of the great joys we feel lucky to share with the world. If you are hoping to start making matcha beverages for yourself, the first step is knowing how to find the best matcha powder. There are certain things to look out for before you buy. Knowing the common mistakes others have made may help you make a more informed decision when purchasing for yourself - enabling you to separate genuinely high quality matcha from the many subpar examples out there. Use the guidance below as you go about your matcha buying journey.
#1: Don’t Equate Color with Quality
Matcha is always a relatively vibrant green color, and high quality matcha tends to be a very vivid shade of green. But, this is not the essence of high quality matcha that some people think it is. First of all, many online vendors abuse this notion by editing pictures of their matcha to be neon green, so using the color of the tea to determine the quality of the product is inherently problematic when done online.
Secondly, the vibrant green color of matcha is a result of the shading process of the tea leaves. Shading’s main effects are to make the leaves grow thinner and more brittle (ideal for milling into powder) and to preserve a high level of savory amino acids that would otherwise be lost by exposure to sunlight. As a side effect of being starved of light, the tea leaves also boost their production of chlorophyll, which results in a vibrant green color. That is to say, the vibrancy of the tea leaves is secondary. It is pleasant to look at, but chlorophyll adds very, very little to the actual taste of the matcha. But! It is a visual cue that the tea has been shaded - and the other results of shading such as boosted L-Theanine do greatly influence the flavor of matcha.
So yes, vibrant green matcha is a sign that it was properly produced and deserves to be called matcha, but beyond that, I wouldn’t place too much stock in the color. I have had some absolutely incredible matcha that was on the paler side of the color spectrum.
#2: Don’t Assume “Ceremonial Grade” is a Guarantee of Anything
The terms Ceremonial Grade and Culinary Grade are everywhere when shopping for matcha. And the distinction between the two is important; some matcha that is more bitter, astringent and gritty is really only good for mixing with other ingredients, and this deserves to be consigned to culinary uses. But, the term Ceremonial Grade is, ultimately, a Western term used to market matcha intended for direct consumption, and it encompasses many degrees of quality, from so-so matcha to the best matcha on the market. Since it is an unregulated term that can be used by anyone, I would rather look for particular benchmarks of quality: particle fineness (under 10 microns), terroir (Uji, Shizuoka, and a few other Japanese regions are known for their tea. Typically, if a company is willing to proudly say where the tea is grown, I trust it. Others just say nothing at all, hoping the consumer won’t care.), freshness (see point #5), and, if you want something that would actually be used in ceremonies, reference to Koicha, or thick tea. If a matcha can be made and enjoyed as a very concentrated, almost paste-like drink, you know you’ve found some top tier stuff. If you’re curious to try some examples of Koicha Grade matcha, I’d point you to this and this from our catalog.
#3: Do Try Matcha Straight Up!
Matcha lattes are so ubiquitous that I’ve encountered a number of people who couldn’t even conceive of matcha made with anything other than milk! But let me assure you, having matcha straight up (whisked with water only) is a true delight, and, in my view, always the way to go. All of these benchmarks of quality I am mentioning have more to do with judging straight matcha than anything else; milk has a rather obscuring effect that can be beneficial for covering up the faults in lower quality matcha, but its addition makes it harder to determine the quality of the matcha itself. In addition, some preliminary studies have found that compounds in milk bind to the catechins in matcha and make them less effective!
When you start getting into the realm of high end matcha, or even Koicha grade matcha, it helps to keep in mind that the producer has put much time and effort into their matcha with the intention of having it served straight up, judged on its own. I advise at least giving it a try this way, because you may just discover that your matcha tastes shockingly good (I get chills down my spine when I have a particularly great bowl of matcha). If, ultimately, it’s not for you, then at least you know what it was meant to taste like!
#4: Do Pay Attention to Cultivars
Most matcha on the market is a blend of various cultivars - strains of the tea plant selected for specific qualities. Producers do this because they seek to blend different batches in different ratios each year in order to produce a consistent flavor. That is to say, the quality of any given brand of matcha has as much to do with the blending skills of that brand’s Tea Master as anything else. But, most brands don’t provide insight into the cultivars used in any given blend. What’s more, because most of these matchas are blends, it is uncommon to encounter single cultivar matcha. All of this amounts to the consumer having no clue as to which of the hundreds of cultivars they like and don’t like, and ultimately being unable to hone in on the preferred matcha for one’s taste. Imagine walking into a wine shop with hundreds of options, but the only information on each of them is “red” or “white.” Just like that, without adequate information, there goes a lot of the fun of having so many options to try. This is why we love being able to offer many single cultivar matchas, and have an especially fun time sourcing cultivars that are less common, even in Japan.
#5: Do Care About Freshness!
Matcha is a very delicate form of tea. The particle sizes need to be so small that when you drink it, it feels like a smooth liquid rather than a bunch of gritty suspended solids. The delicacy of these particles means that they react very quickly to oxygen, and I’d say there’s a noticeable drop off in quality about a month or so after being milled. Meanwhile, most matcha on the market never even tells you when it was milled. Even the high end matcha brands only go so far as keeping the matcha refrigerated, and trying to keep oxygen out with absorbent packets and vacuum sealing. These will slow down the rate of oxidation, but not halt it completely. Otherwise, they may flush the bag with nitrogen, to drive out the oxygen. But nitrogen interacts with the flavors of tea as well - nitrogenating is how GABA oolong is made, and that tea certainly has a unique flavor as a result. Truly, the only way to ensure real freshness in your matcha is to actually make it fresh. That’s why we think milling the matcha stateside - as we do - is so important! Fresh matcha is way more vibrant, complex, creamy and smooth than anything else.
If you’re interested in purchasing high-quality matcha that checks off all the boxes, River and Stone Tea is the place to go. For more information about our matcha, please feel free to contact us today.