Matcha is to Japan as champagne is to France. Anything outside of Japan simply must be called, "powdered green tea." The purity of umami is exceptionally difficult to emulate and capture outside of the country. A large part of this truth is due to terrior and cultivation! In this brief blog, we'll focus on cultivation.
The tradition of growing matcha is a noble art. There are many factors deciding the quality of the end result of a masterpiece matcha, but a major element is the cultivation of Tencha [碾茶].
Tencha is what the tea leaves are called before becoming matcha. All tea comes from the plant Camellia sinensis, so plants designated to become matcha are referred to having tencha tea leaves. When the spring season arrives, (around mid-April, or about 40 days prior to harvest), screens or tana tarps are rolled out over the tea plants. The purpose of the tana tarps is to limit the sunlight that reaches the plants about 60-75%. There are two reasons for limiting sunlight: 1) the super anti-oxidant catechins concentrate when the tea is grown in the sun. Catechins have a bitter flavor. 2) So to balance matcha and achieve umami, limiting photosynthesis increases the amino acid L-theanine, which is sweet! Shade-growing tea allows for the plant to concentrate its many nutrients in the leaf, while also achieving a lovely and balanced flavor profile.
About 10 days after the tana tarp is spread, some farmers choose to limit the sun even further, to about 90%. The plants strain for sunlight, thereby stretching and growing wider and thinner, and as a result, more tender and palatable.
Matcha is the final state of Tencha, which has been processed, steamed, dried, and stone-ground in order to become the powdered tea we all love.
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"When matcha is prepared koicha style, the result is a thick syrup of green goodness. Unlike usucha, it may take a little bit of time to reach your mouth. But when it does, the drinker is greeted with a chewy brew of straight umami coupled with a silky sweetness that just lingers on the tongue..."