The world of horticulture allows humans to make plants more desirable through a process called selective breeding. This process has given us a profusion of different varieties of the same plant for countless species. Through selective breeding, growers can nudge evolution in whatever direction they choose, and select for qualities like flower colors, scent, size, and in the case of cash crops like tea, yield, cold and disease resistance, budding time, and taste.
What are Cultivars?
Cultivar is short for “cultivated variety.” It is used to describe plants that have undergone the selective breeding process. The term is almost interchangeable with the term “varietal,” with which some may be more familiar. Varietal is a term often used in wine; for instance, the difference between a Cabernet and a Merlot grape is a difference of varietal. The difference between a varietal and a cultivar is simply that varietals occur naturally, by accident, and cultivars are deliberately produced by humans. So, while a grape like Merlot is a varietal, the Marquette grape, deliberately bred by the U of M to withstand cold temperatures, is a cultivar. Tea plants too - at least the vast majority of the ones used for matcha - are cultivars.
How are Cultivars Grown?
The concept of accidental varietals is important because, left to their own devices, plants are always creating new varietals. This is the process of evolution at work. But once farmers have found a cultivar they want to grow, they need to ensure that when it comes time to plant more, they are planting an exact genetic match. To grow a plant from seed, in the way plants normally spawn in nature, is always genetically risky. As with any form of sexual reproduction, the next generation of plants will not be an exact clone of the former generation. So, methods have been developed for the asexual reproduction of plants to ensure consistency.
Cloning is the main technique used for growing identical cultivars. This is done using cuttings from a plant instead of seeds. Cuttings create a perfect clone of their parents. Grafting, controlled seed production, and tissue culture are also popular methods of consistent cultivar production - but the big one for tea plants is the propagation of cuttings.
This process is why, say, an Okumidori matcha will always have consistent flavors and characteristics year-after-year, even when accounting for the differences that occur as a result of terroir. This is an important point to grasp: two Okumidori tea plants will both produce high quality matcha that is generally creamy and smooth. But if one plant is in the mountains, and another in a valley; one is organic, the other conventional; one is harvested in a dry year, another in a wet year - the subtler characteristics like tasting notes will still be different. Genetic identity is not the sole arbiter of taste, just like two identical twins can be raised in different households and end up with quite different personalities.
Many tea plants are crossbred by farmers, which is where the concept of tea cultivars comes in. The most successful crosses are listed under Japan's National Agriculture and Food Research Organization, with the most popular cultivar of all being the Yabukita cultivar. Breeding for cultivar began in the 20th century and became popular in tea production during the 1970s and 1980s. Before the mid-twentieth century, far more of Japan’s tea plants were grown from seed - but increasing demand for a consistent product and larger scale agriculture necessitated the widespread implementation of cultivars.
The process of making tea cultivars follows the same principles of standard cultivation. Tea plants are cut before they go through commercial production, giving them the genetic profile needed for identical production and making them easier to grow and harvest. This is the reason tea plantations are commonly harvested at the same time - in a field of yabukita bushes, the leaves all come in and are harvested at the same time. In a field of bushes grown from seed (zairai bushes), one bush may be ready one week, another one the next week, another the week after that…quite a headache for a farmer trying to optimize production.
With the ongoing demand for tea worldwide, cultivar use is still highly favored by tea growers. Many different cultivars have been developed, despite most tea fields being yabukita. It’s actually very fun for a matcha aficionado to find and try the less common cultivars. The primary benefit of the use of cultivars for the consumer is that we get consistent quality. Although terroir still plays a vital role, there are basic qualities of cultivars like Samidori and Okumidori that remain stable year after year. Since farmers can also select their cultivar based on what will thrive in their given terroir, it makes for higher quality tea all around.
One disadvantage of cultivars is that plants grown from cuttings do not live nearly as long as tea plants grown from seed. 100 years tends to be the maximum, so old bush matcha is very hard to come by, like old bush oolong, which also generally uses cultivars over seed-grown plants. Old seed-grown pu’er trees, meanwhile, can live upwards of 1000 years! The age of the tea bush definitely makes a difference in the flavor of the finished tea, which is why we get so excited when we are able to offer our Old Bush Zairai (Seed Grown) Matcha. Its yield, however, is lower than the known cultivars, so in the meantime we have just as much fun exploring all the variations you can find in single cultivar matcha.
Trying different cultivars is so much fun, in fact, that single-cultivar matcha has become our specialty. Just as with other types of tea that we enjoy, we love seeing how each year’s batch is a little different from the last - changes that don’t show up as readily in blended matcha. If you’re ready to get started exploring the wide world of matcha cultivars, check out our selection!