River and Stone Tea: The Home of Natural Matcha
What Do We Mean By Natural Matcha?
First, we need to provide some context on the matcha industry. The matcha industry is shaped by the demands of a globalizing market and changing consumer preferences, just like any other industry. In the past few decades, the idea of what constitutes high quality matcha has shifted, as consumers ask for, and producers create, an increasingly standardized product.
In this context, high end matcha has become synonymous with matcha that is creamy, smooth, lacking in bitterness, and full of umami. Some matcha fans will also say that high end matcha is “sweet.” But in a world full of sugary matcha drinks, to describe any straight up, traditional matcha as sweet is, I think, deeply misleading to the average consumer. In general, when it comes to taste, the pursuit of umami - mouthwatering, savory depth - has become the primary goal of matcha producers. This monomaniacal pursuit of a single aspect of taste is, however, problematic.
To be sure, all high quality matcha has savory depth to it. This is inherent in the process of growing tencha. The tea plants are shaded, and the shade prevents sunlight from converting savory amino acids like L-Theanine into more bitter catechins. The shading process has been in practice for centuries, but can only preserve the amino acid content already existing in the tea leaves - it cannot add more amino acids than already exist. What does increase the amino acid content, however, is nitrogen - the more the better. See the problem yet? In the race to outcompete one another, farmers have found that producing the most savory matcha on the market means adding the most nitrogen to the soil, thus encouraging the widespread use of chemical fertilizer.
The unnaturally high level of amino acids in artificially fertilized tea leaves is not only attractive to humans, but to pests as well. As such, the increase in fertilization goes hand-in-hand with an increasing need for pesticides.
As a result, soil health declines, and the tea plants themselves die much sooner, having been squeezed to produce beyond their natural limits.
Why Organic Producers Get a Bad Rap
For starters, the only farms that can afford the official organic certification tend to be larger farms, which tend to be more concerned with quantity than quality. Yet, the organic farming of tencha is difficult; it requires the attention of someone dedicated to their craft. As a result, the organic tencha being churned out of the large farms is even lower quality than it would have been had they just done conventional farming, and so the term “organic” has become associated with lower quality in the world of matcha. On the other hand, high quality, super savory, creamy and smooth matcha is considered the realm of conventional farmers, and even those artisan farmers who achieve these qualities using organic methods, such as the farmers with whom River and Stone partners, don’t like to associate themselves with the term, for fear of market bias against them.
So the race to make the most savory matcha continues, to the detriment of the environment, and, frankly, the consumer. We need to ask: “why is savoriness the flavor par excellence?” When the flavor (leaving out textures for now) of matcha is judged for this characteristic alone, what happens to matcha that is surprisingly floral, or fruity, or nutty? What happens to matcha that provides a complex drinking experience? It falls by the wayside.
What We Look For in Matcha
What we love about tea is its diversity. We love when one year’s batch of sencha is more floral, while last year’s tasted like buttered spinach; we love when we can form an opinion on which mountain of Yunnan we prefer for our pu’er; we love comparing the same oolong from the same year by the same farmer, except one is roasted and the other is unroasted. But if matcha is only judged by one standard, who really cares about the cultivar, or the terroir, or the farming methodology? So long as it’s savory it’s “good!”
So, I got sidetracked, but I’ll ask again: why is umami pursued at the expense of everything else? Well, here’s some food for thought - savory amino acids like L-Theanine are pretty shelf-stable. The volatile aromatic compounds that comprise notes like lilac or guava, for instance, are transitory. In a global market that is concerned with longevity over freshness in all things, the shelf-stable amino acids are more marketable. The more subtle tasting notes to be had in matcha require the fresh milling of tencha that has been grown for complexity’s sake, in a sustainable way that allows the cultivar, terroir, and hand of the farmer to shine through, rather than just the degree of fertilizer. What I’m talking about is matcha as it was meant to be, as it used to be, and as it ought to be. I am talking about Natural Matcha.
The Term Natural Matcha Takes Its Cue From the Natural Wine Movement
Not long ago, wine was judged as good so long as it was “big, dark, heavy and oaky.” Vintners followed the dictates of the market and produced wine that conformed to these standards, while adding colorants, tannins, and excessive preservatives. Some wine drinkers began to notice that wine around the world was all moving in the same direction, the diversity of flavors and styles losing out to the pursuit of an ideal. This has changed, and is still changing, and wine drinkers are beginning to appreciate and ask for diversity in their options. Native wine grapes of countries like Italy and Spain are gradually gaining in popularity outside of their specific regions. Vintners are taking greater pains to express the uniqueness of their terroir and methodology in their wine. And, finally, a subset of wine, labeled “Natural Wine” has emerged, placing an emphasis on non-adulterated wines that more closely approximate pre-industrial wine-making strategies. You may be more inclined to call it “Revivalist Wine” and “Revivalist Matcha.” The meaning is the same.
We seek to create a market push for matcha that more closely approximates pre-industrial matcha. We seek to celebrate the diversity of flavors possible in matcha, rather than obliterate them beneath a blanket of umami alone. We seek to encourage natural farming methods, and to enable organic tea farmers to feel proud of the work they’re doing. We seek sustainability, and the support of local matcha milling that enables this incredible drink to truly shine. We seek complexity in our matcha, just as we seek it in every other tea that we love.
So, what is Natural Matcha exactly? It’s actually pretty simple: matcha that is sustainably grown, freshly milled, and appreciated for its uniqueness rather than conformity to an ideal. It is still, like any top quality matcha, naturally savory, creamy and smooth, not overly bitter or astringent - everything you love about matcha, and yet so much more than that.
Our farmers represent a small portion of Uji tea growers that are pursuing high quality natural farming methods, and our local, Minnesota-based matcha mills enable us to show off their work as it was intended. We hope you’ll join us, and see for yourself how otherworldly matcha can be.
- Simon Parish, Founder and Head Matcha Miller