Determining Matcha Quality: What Are Tea Grades & How Can You Tell the Difference?
Is matcha supposed to be bitter? Does it have to be bright green? Is it still healthy if it’s a brown color? Let’s explore!
Not all matcha is created equal. Although it all comes from the same plant (Camellia sinensis) and consists entirely of finely-ground green tea leaves, the various growing methods and harvesting times will drastically change the final product.
Just like the wide world of wines, matcha can range from very basic varieties found in any supermarket to highly expensive selections found only in specialty stores. When it comes to matcha, Culinary grade generally refers to cooking matcha, Premium refers to latte matcha used in many cafes, and Ceremonial refers to the highest quality matcha that is best enjoyed plain (as hot tea). This classification system is somewhat unofficial, and the grades aren’t necessarily clear-cut categories, but rather they lie on a spectrum of quality based largely on harvesting times.
As a consumer, you can reliably tell the difference based on taste and color, with the “lower” grades being lighter in color and more bitter in flavor, and the “higher” grades being a richer green color with a very vibrant and almost sweet taste. Each category can also be subdivided into further categories (higher & lower grade Culinary, higher & lower grade Premium, etc), but the average consumer won’t be able to tell these minute differences.
As a comparison, you might be able to tell the difference between a $5 bottle of wine and a $100 bottle of wine, but may not notice much difference between a $50 bottle and a $100 bottle. The same goes for the subdivisions of matcha, especially for the higher ceremonial grades. For our purposes, we will stick to the three main categories of matcha.
IT STARTS WITH HARVESTS!
To understand tea grades, you have to know the basics of tea harvesting. As a quick background, green tea is harvested all throughout the year, with the four seasons generally indicating the four main harvesting periods. The exact months of harvest determine what the leaves can be used for, from matcha powder to tea bags.
The first harvest takes place in the spring and produces the highest quality green tea, which is reserved for the highest quality of matcha (AKA Ceremonial grade). This is due to the delicate flavor of the brand new unfurled leaves and tea buds, which are best enjoyed as plain tea without any added sweeteners or milk. First-harvest tea leaves are usually grown in the shade, which results in darker leaves and richer flavor.
The photo above was taken at the tea plantation in Japan where we source all of our organic matcha. These first-harvest delicate green tea leaves are protected from the sun under large shaded covers. This shade growing method results in a richer, sweeter flavor of matcha green tea, ideal for Ceremonial grade plain tea.
The second harvest is processed in the summer, and results in a more robust, astringent flavor of green tea. Because the leaves have been allowed a few extra months to grow, and have also been exposed to the sun, the naturally-occuring tannins in green tea expand in number, which is what gives tea its piquant, bitter flavor. This second harvest batch is still used for matcha, but is typically too astringent to be enjoyed as plain drinking tea, and is recommended instead for culinary purposes.
The third and fourth harvests result in even more bitter teas due to broader leaf growth and even more sun exposure, and for this reason they cannot be used for matcha. These fall and winter harvests are only used for tea bags and roasted varieties of tea, such as genmaicha (AKA “popcorn tea”) or toasty kukicha. In the image below, mature tea leaves are allowed to grow in the full sun, possibly making this a third or fourth harvest batch.
If you see matcha that is brown in color, it either comes from late-harvest teas (which should not be used for drinking matcha), or it has been oxidized by improper storage or air exposure. Because matcha is such a fine powder, exposure to the air will cause it to degrade very quickly, therefore it must be stored in airtight containers in a cool, dark place. Even the highest quality matcha will quickly degrade into a pale green or light brown color if not properly stored, so be sure to keep it in an airtight container in between uses.
As a final point on harvesting, it should be noted that most matcha is processed in Japan, which is considered the authority when it comes to green tea quality. Although matcha is now being harvested in China and other countries due to its increasing popularity, Japan is still the most reliable source of matcha, as it has hundreds of years of tried & tested methods for precise matcha processing, has prime soil conditions in its volcanic regions, has rigorous quality control measures in place, and has produced tea with the highest nutrient values compared to other tea-growing countries. All of our Sencha Naturals matcha is organically harvested in the rich volcanic soils of Kagoshima, Japan.
To quickly sum up, matcha comes from first or second harvest green tea leaves, with all three matcha grades (Culinary, Premium, Ceremonial) coming from one or a blend of these first two harvests. Let’s explore a bit more.
As the name implies, this matcha variety is best for cooking & baking, and it is fairly synonymous with second-harvest green tea. As noted above, second harvest means the tea has been given a few extra months to grow and has also been exposed to the sun, resulting in a more robust, astringent flavor. To go back to the wine analogy, culinary matcha is like cooking sherry. You can drink it plain, but it’s not what it’s intended for, and the flavor may be too strong on its own.
Although it is still similar in nutrient content to its first-harvest cousin, culinary matcha has more catechins (a type of antioxidant) due to increased sun exposure, and also more tannins, which results in a more bitter flavor. It also has less caffeine than its first-harvest counterpart, which means you can enjoy an extra cup, guilt-free!
Because of its astringency, culinary matcha is great for savory dishes, yet it also blends well with milk, sweeteners, and other foods for countless flavor combinations. You can think of culinary matcha like cocoa powder, in that it is an incredibly versatile ingredient that adds a very unique color, flavor, and nutrient boost to almost any recipe.
Photo credit: Hemali Patel, Forks + Gold
Astringent, piquant, bitter
Light green to yellow-green
*Baking (breads, desserts)
*Cooking (curry, broth, seasonings)
*Lattes (may need sweetener)
*Smoothies (may need fruits/sweeteners)
*Snacks (energy bars, yogurt, oatmeal)
Culinary matcha is still matcha. It is still a higher quality tea than most tea bags, otherwise it wouldn’t qualify to be used as a powdered green tea. As a second-harvest green tea, it still provides a majority of the health benefits as first-harvest matcha, but at a much more affordable price point. With a distinct grassy flavor, it is incredibly versatile and can be used in countless recipes for sweet and savory dishes.
Remember: if your matcha is brown, it is very likely oxidized due to improper storage (exposure to air and light), and/or it comes from late-harvest green tea leaves that are not intended for matcha production. This is not necessarily bad, but the health benefits will be lacking, and the flavor will be far too bitter to be enjoyed even in highly-seasoned recipes.
Our Everyday Matcha is culinary grade, and is an amazing value for authentic, organic Japanese matcha.
The next step up, Premium grade usually refers to a blend of first and second harvest green teas. Because it consists of at least some first harvest matcha, its flavor is more mild (less bitter) and its color will be a richer green compared to culinary matcha. These aspects result in a slightly higher price point than culinary grade tea, yet still considerably more affordable than ceremonial grade. Higher grades of premium matcha may be delicate enough to be enjoyed as plain drinking tea, though most are used for lattes.
Premium grade is typically the variety found at cafes, which is blended with milk and sweeteners to make matcha lattes. You might actually see a powder that looks somewhat like the image below, but don’t take the color as a sign of using poor-quality matcha. Commercial cafe matcha is often pre-mixed with sugar, milk powder, and/or other special food ingredients to prevent it from clumping, so it might be much lighter in color than premium matcha on its own. As long as it is stored away from air, heat, and light, matcha will retain a lot of its color and nutrients long after harvesting.
Mildly grassy, piquant
*Possibly drinking plain
If you love to drink lattes or plain matcha everyday, this is your best bet. Much more affordable than ceremonial matcha, yet still consisting of at least some first-harvest tea, premium grade matcha is high quality tea at a great price.
Our Premium Japanese Matcha is this intermediate premium grade, and is perfect for your daily latte. Our version is also mild enough to be enjoyed on its own as a hot tea, as we use a blend of both first & second harvest tea for a sweeter flavor profile.
Finally, the most exclusive and expensive variety of green tea, ceremonial matcha is synonymous with the finest of first-harvest teas. Also known as emperor or imperial grade, this is the only matcha suitable for the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The flavor is richly verdant and somewhat sweet, and the color is a bright grassy green.
Because it is grown in the shade, ceremonial matcha has a richer nutrient profile compared to later harvests. In particular, it is higher in chlorophyll, caffeine, and the amino acid L-theanine. This last ingredient has been shown to provide a sense of relaxed focus, which is likely why Zen monks have used matcha tea for hundreds of years to meditate without falling asleep. Ceremonial matcha is also lower in certain tannins compared to second-harvest teas (AKA premium and culinary grade), resulting in almost no bitterness whatsoever. Due to this natural sweetness and the unique flavor profile of the shade-grown components, ceremonial tea is highly recommended to be enjoyed plain, without added sweeteners or milk.
WHY IS IT SO COSTLY?
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 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.
Umami, Grassy, Sweet
Rich dark green
*Drinking plain (as warm tea)
Ceremonial matcha can be used in recipes and lattes, but due to its higher price point, it typically isn’t recommended. Going back to the wine analogy, using ceremonial matcha in culinary recipes is like using a $100 bottle of wine to saute braised beef. Although the wine will be delicious in the recipe, it’s meant to be enjoyed on its own. Likewise, ceremonial matcha is a standalone tea.
Due to its high price point, first-harvest Ceremonial matcha is usually sold in small containers and is intended to be consumed as plain tea, rather than mixed into recipes.
Our Ceremonial Japanese Matcha is this highest-caliber grade of green tea, and we recommend it stirred with warm purified water and sipped slowly to be truly savored.
Now that you know all about matcha grades, can you tell what’s wrong with the picture below?
This photo is deceiving. It portrays a setup for a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, which only uses the highest-grade, first-harvest Ceremonial matcha, yet the tea is not vibrantly green. The powder is very light in color and the liquid has tints of brown in it, making it most likely culinary-grade (second-harvest) matcha, which is not recommended for drinking as plain tea. Now that you know the difference, you won’t be fooled again!
Regardless of which matcha grade you use, there are certain tips & tricks for how best to use it. Click here for more info on how to properly prepare your matcha!