Beginner’s guide to matcha – Choosing the right matcha (Part 3 of 5)

guide, japan, matcha

This is part 3 of the beginner’s guide to matcha. Access the other parts here:

I’ll cut straight to the chase – finding quality matcha outside of Japan can be a pain.

IMHO, low quality matcha abounds in the English-speaking market for two reasons: 1) low consumer knowledge and 2) abundance of health claims about matcha.

This is why I strongly recommend beginners buy their first matcha from an established Japanese brand. Sure, you may have to pay a little more in shipping than buying from Amazon, but you are paying for piece of mind and a genuine experience. Once you have developed a palate that understands what real matcha should taste like at a given price level, it might be worthwhile to taste and compare matcha from other sources.

cans_of_matcha
I’ve listed my recommendations for matcha brands at the bottom of this article. But before this, I’d like to explore some of the terminology surrounding matcha used on Japanese and English language websites.

Matcha terminology – food grade, ceremonial grade, premium grade, etc.

matcha_used_in_ceremony

Does use in a “ceremony” a ceremonial matcha make?

Western-facing English language sites tend to use terms like “food grade,” “ceremonial grade,” and “premium grade” to describe their matcha. What does it all mean?

Not much!

The distinction between food-grade and everything else is useful, but the rest of the terms are just marketing fluff.  I recommend ignoring the use of the words “premium” and “ceremonial grade” on most sites. Either matcha is suitable to be drunk straight, or it’s not. If it’s not, that’s food grade!

Classification of matcha by major Japanese companies

Matcha sold by the major Japanese companies is typically organized into four categories:

1) food grade matcha

2) matcha favored by specific tea schools

3) the company’s standard matcha offerings

4) seasonal/limited edition matcha

The amount of apparent choices can be overwhelming at first, so let’s walk through an example. The below image is a screenshot of the Marukyu Koyamaen simple English tea catalog, found here:

The food grade matcha section is self-explanatory, so let’s focus on sections 2 and 3 – matcha favored by tea schools and standard offerings.

Matcha favored by tea schools

Almost all matcha sold by the major Japanese tea companies are some blend of cultivar, flush, and region. These blends are created with a specific profile and price point in mind and are given poetic names (chamei 茶銘).

Some blends are created for and named by the heads of the various tea schools. These blends are frequently used by practitioners of the schools. For example, my Urasenke school tea ceremony teacher usually prepared Shohaku and Kiun at practice. These two matcha were favored by Hounsai Daishosho, a former head of the Urasenke tea school.

Note that a tea with multiple names at a given price level is the usually the same tea. Looking at the Koyamaen catalog again, this means that the 1,620 ¥/40g Shohaku (Urasenke) and Kissho (Omotesenke) are the same tea, just under different names. (At least I heard this is true of Koyamaen. It’s certainly true of Ippodo. See the note just below the matcha selection here.)

STANDARD OFFERINGS

The store’s standard offerings tend to be similar to the matcha favored by the tea schools, both in price and quality at that price point.

Seasonal/limited edition matcha

The seasonal/limited edition matcha can be worth a try! These teas are often blends meant to celebrate a season, event, or place, but may also undergo special processing or be made from a specific type of leaf. Of note on the Koyamaen menu are Hatsu Enishi and Hatsu Kaori, both made from freshly harvested leaves, and the Tsubokiri, a matcha aged for a half year before release. (I’ve reviewed the Tsubokiri matcha from Marukyu Koyamaen here.)

Usucha and koicha - an important categorization

Japanese tea stores categorize matcha in one more, very important way – whether it is suitable for usucha or koicha. (In the Koyamaen catalog, tea suitable for koicha has a green circle next to the name.) I will cover how to make both types of tea in Part 4 of this guide, but for now keep in mind the following:

Lesser grades of matcha can be used for usucha (“thin tea” 薄茶) since the tea:water ratio is low, and mild bitterness can be pleasant.

For koicha (“thick tea” 濃茶), the high ratio of tea to water means that too much bitterness will quickly make the tea undrinkable. (Don’t believe me? Try making koicha out of a matcha meant for usucha…)

This is why the lowest grade of koicha-use matcha is usually more expensive than the higher grades of usucha-use matcha – because lack of bitterness in matcha roughly correlates with an increase in price. Of course, any matcha suitable for koicha can also be used to make usucha.

An example of usucha whisked until foamy. Matcha suitable for koicha can be used for usucha, but not vice-versa.

Matcha prepared with a high ratio of tea to water is called koicha. Viscosity ranges from that of thick paint to heavy cream based on preference.

Price versus quality

Again referencing the Marukyu Koyamaen catalog, the price difference between the lowest grade (Aorashi, 864¥ /40g, ~$8 USD) and highest grade (Tenjyu, 10,800¥ /40g, ~$101 USD) of standard matcha is about 12x! What makes one matcha so affordable, and the other so expensive?

Well, according to the Koyamaen site, Tenjyu is handmade and has won prizes at tea competitions.

But is it worth the price?

I can’t say – I’ve never tried it. Generally speaking, the higher priced matcha will be less bitter and more sweet or umami. If you don’t mind a touch of bitterness, your wallet may thank you!

Storing your matcha

Think of matcha (or any green tea, for that matter) as a fresh vegetable. It needs to be kept out of heat and sunlight to stay fresh. The obvious place that fulfils both of these requirements is the refrigerator. I highly recommend storing both opened and unopened matcha in the fridge. (I’ve heard of people keeping unopened matcha in the freezer but have yet to test this myself.)

Storing opened matcha in the fridge does present a slight problem, however. Drastic changes in temperature when the matcha is taken in and out of the fridge can cause moisture to condense with the matcha container. Mositure is the third enemy of matcha after heat and sunlight. That said, I haven’t run into a problem as long as I remove the amount of matcha I need and replace the container in the fridge quickly. (I also live in a very dry climate so your mileage may vary!)

Speaking of containers for matcha, I reuse the matcha tins from Markyu Koyamaen. They are small (less air = less moisture to condense) and unlike many matcha tins, they have a tight seal.

Recommended tea stores

This short list focuses on established Japanese brands that are available for international orders. There are many more great Japanese matcha stores to explore, but the majority do not ship outside Japan. Click on the store name to visit the store’s site.

Their matcha Shohaku, Kiun, and Kinrin are the taste of tea practice to me and are great examples of classic matcha profiles at the lower end of the price spectrum for usucha and koicha.

BEWARE OF FAKES! Koyamaen packaging has been frequently counterfeited over the past few years, with many of these fake goods appearing on sites like Amazon and Alibaba. For this reason I recommend only buying directly from them, or from official distributors. (Who knows what’s in those fake bags of tea…)

I haven’t ordered directly from their store online and have heard varying reports of whether they will ship internationally. However, their products are available globally through Sazen Tea.

One of the very few established Japanese tea stores that directly handles international shipping (and has even expanded overseas)! Ordering is possible through their .jp or .com stores. Compare prices and shipping costs to figure out what works for you.

Shop is in Japanese only, but mentions at the bottom of the page that they ship internationally. I have not purchased tea from their online store so I am unable to comment on the ordering process.

Luckily for those in North America, some of their products are carried by Japan Incense (ships to the US and Canada).

While not a matcha producer themselves, Yunomi has on offer matcha from a variety of Japanese producers. (I’ve tried a koicha-grade matcha from Shogyokuen through them and found the quality to be good for the price.)

Their collection of single-cultivar matcha should prove interesting for those already on the matcha journey.

Continue reading the beginner's guide to matcha:

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