The answers to all your questions about River & Stone! Don't see your question? Feel free to reach out to us directly!
What is Matcha?
Matcha is the milled product of a shade grown Japanese green tea, called tencha, Until tencha is milled, it is not matcha. Matcha needs to be made from tencha, not just any green tea, in which case we'd refer to it as "milled green tea."
Why mill tea?
The experience of milled tea is very different from that of brewed loose-leaf. The flavor and texture are unique, and you actually consume the entirety of the tea leaf, rather than just the water soluble components. About 50% of the compounds in tea leaves are not water soluble so milled tea is the only efficient way to get them.
Why shade-grown tea?
The method of shading the tea plants was developed when Uji farmers tried to replicate the favorable tea-growing conditions of fog-shrouded mountains. The shading blocks the conversion of savory amino acids into bitter catechins, hence matcha's deep savory character. Shading also forces the leaves to produce more chlorophyll in an effort to photosynthesize more efficiently, giving matcha its intense green color. Lastly, the leaves spread out wider and thinner to catch more sunlight, resulting in brittle tea ideal for milling into a smooth (not-gritty) powder.
Are there health benefits to matcha?
Definitely! As mentioned above, many of the components in the tea leaf can only be consumed directly, and are not water soluble. What's more, the shading results in a tea that is very high in the amino acid L-Theanine, which is known to sooth anxiety without causing sedation. The level of other antioxidants is also very high in matcha. In general, if there is an ailment in the world, there's probably a study showing matcha helps with it - they are too numerous to list in full, and one-off studies don't form the basis of responsible health claims. But, to name a few study findings that we've come across, matcha has been shown to fight inflammation, fight cancer, fight COVID, strengthen the immune system, boost nerve growth, support memory, ease anxiety and depression...those are off the top of my head. More investigation is needed into these claims, and matcha should not replace tried-and-true medical interventions. But! It can serve as a delicious component of a healthy lifestyle.
What's the best way to prepare matcha?
We always recommend at least trying ceremonial grade matcha straight up - just tea and water. That's the way it was intended to be made, and the best way to appreciate the hard work and artistry of the tea farmers and tea masters. Traditionally, because straight up matcha can be intensely savory, one would have a sweet alongside it - that way, you get a nice experience of contrasts as you go back-and-forth, sweet-to-savory and back again.
But! The number one rule of any craft beverage is that it's purpose is to bring you pleasure, and if straight up matcha does not do that, by all means, prepare it how you like it! Just know, there seems to be hearty debate on whether some molecules in cow's milk inhibit our absorption of the catechins of matcha - so it is best to use milk alternatives if you are making a latte.
How would I prepare straight-up matcha?
Here's how we do it:
What are cultivars?
Cultivar is short for "Cultivated Varietal." Basically, they are the results of selective breeding for specific qualities, and each cultivar has its own characteristics. The difference between Okumidori and Asahi is akin to the difference between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the world of wine. In Japan, most matcha is a blend of various cultivars, but we like to appreciate the diversity of all the cultivars and the natural variation that occurs year-to-year with single cultivar matcha.
What is the difference between Ceremonial and Culinary Grade Matcha?
These basically denote the quality of the matcha. Culinary grade matcha will be lower quality - bitter, tannic, gritty, and in general not pleasant to drink on its own. That's why it's generally reserved for culinary applications, like baking (matcha serves as an excellent green food dye). Ceremonial grade is generally intended to be consumed directly. There are also some "latte grade," which falls somewhere in the middle. It is important to note that these distinctions are mostly western conventions - the term ceremonial grade isn't really used as a measure of quality in Japan. In fact, ceremonial grade is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to matcha quality; we've had some very so-so ceremonial grade matcha, and some absolutely divine ceremonial grade matcha.
So how can you tell if a matcha is high quality?
There are several tests one can use. Visually, it should be a striking shade of green. This means it was properly shaded. It's not necessarily true that the more green the better - past a certain point, it makes little difference except in terms of visuals, as chlorophyll is tasteless. In terms of texture, you should be able to smear the dry matcha along a piece of paper like it's paint. This indicates a small particle size, which means a creamy texture and lack of grittiness. Beyond that, people will point to lack of bitterness, umami, and lack of astringency as most important. Sometimes, though, we feel like more bitter teas are also more fragrant and floral, so I'd suggest tasting for complexity more than anything else. Also, if you can whisk up a bowl of matcha with very little water and drink it without gagging from the bitterness, it's probably a high-end matcha. Look for matcha that is labelled "Koicha Grade" (Koicha = Thick Tea), as an authentic mark of quality.
But! Another very important thing - something that people all too often overlook - is freshness!
Why does freshness matter?
Green tea, even loose leaf green tea, continues to gradually age and oxidize after processing. This is why, if you've ever had the chance to taste just-picked green tea in Spring, you've probably noticed how much better it is compared to the green tea left over from the last harvest. Well, matcha is of such a fine particle size that its surface area exposed to oxygen is astronomically higher than that of loose leaf tea. So, freshness gets lost more quickly. What does that mean in practical terms? More bitterness, more astringency, fewer floral, fruity, spicy notes - less complexity in general. If you're familiar with wine, it's like decanting a very tropical tasting white wine - those tropical notes are the first thing to go, and not much comes in to replace them. So, finding places that mill their matcha fresh (like we do!) is of great importance!