Although all matcha is made of powdered green tea, the quality varies greatly depending on harvest time, processing methods, and regional source. Most matcha found in cafes is medium-grade, which means it requires added milk or sweeteners to offset its slightly bitter taste. That’s why it’s typically used for green tea lattes or smoothies.
On the other hand, ceremonial matcha is the highest quality available, and its naturally mild flavor and grassy sweetness is best enjoyed with plain water. Also known as emperor grade, this tea was typically reserved for Zen monks and the highest social classes, but its modern popularity has made it accessible to the masses.
A better question is when does it come from? Tea is harvested all throughout the year, with the first harvest producing the highest quality leaves, and the last harvest producing heartier leaves with more robust flavors. These early spring leaves are reserved for matcha, as they are delicate, small, and mildly flavored, and therefore ideal for the highest quality matcha. The first harvest tea is also grown in the shade, which results in a richer nutrient profile compared to later harvests (which are typically reserved for tea bags).
Our ceremonial matcha is harvested during this first batch in early spring, from shade-grown tea leaves that are Organically grown in the lush volcanic regions of Japan.
First-harvest teas require more intricate methods of processing. Delicate new tea leaves are hand-picked every spring, with only the softest leaves and buds being selected. They are then manually de-veined and de-stemmed to produce even softer leaves, which is a very time-consuming labor process. Finally, these super-soft leaves are stone-ground using a very precise milling method that takes many hours for relatively little output.
Although modern machinery attempts to mimic this process, traditional stone-grinding methods are still reserved for ceremonial grade matcha, as the new technologies have yet to match this necessarily-delicate process. Grinding that is too harsh or that creates too much heat will burn the powder or increase its oxidation, resulting in low-grade matcha, regardless of its initial harvest. Thus stone-grinding remains the standard process for ceremonial matcha, and this higher time requirement results in a higher price point.
Ceremonial matcha is best enjoyed as plain tea in hot water. Because it is mildly grassy and slightly sweet in flavor, there is no need to add milk or sweeteners. Of course you can add it to smoothies and recipes as desired, but its higher cost typically prevents its use as anything but a straight tea.
*Please note that matcha does not “dissolve” in water. It will disperse and blend, but because it is a natural plant material made of finely-ground tea leaves, there’s no “dissolving” these particles. It is somewhat like cocoa powder, in that it is extremely versatile for a wide range of culinary uses, and its flavor and color remains intact after being incorporated into various recipes.
Ceremonial matcha was originally prepared as part of the traditional Zen tea ceremony, which requires special tools. However, you can enjoy it at home with no accessories required. Here’s how to prepare it both ways.
Modern Method: Using a small hand sifter, sift 1 teaspoon of matcha directly into a mug or glass of your choice (this will prevent clumping, which occurs naturally due to matcha’s fine particle size). Add about 1 tablespoon of water and stir vigorously. (Insider tip: stir with a fork instead of a spoon to break up clumps!) Add another 8 ounces of hot or cold water and stir for a few seconds until thoroughly blended. Enjoy!
Traditional Method: For a ceremonial-style cup of matcha, use a bamboo matcha scooper (AKA “chashaku”) to spoon matcha powder into a teacup or small bowl. Next, swap out your stirring spoon for a bamboo whisk (AKA “chasen”) to blend the tea into hot water. This is the method used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, but it can be adapted for everyday use.
How to use a bamboo whisk: Sift 1 teaspoon of matcha into a shallow mug or a small bowl. Add about 1 tablespoon of hot water (not boiling), and stir the whisk in a circular motion just to break up any early clumps. Add in another 4-6 ounces of hot water, and briskly stir the whisk in a “W” shape back & forth until the tea starts to froth. Begin the process with the whisk touching the bottom of your mug, and eventually bring it up & out of the tea. The matcha should be fully dispersed and free of clumps using this method.
Regardless of your preparation method, the key to enjoying ceremonial matcha is to properly disperse the powder into filtered water, and take your time appreciating the nuanced flavors of each sip.