The quality of matcha is dependent on many factors, from matcha variety (matcha cultivar) to tea plantation and matcha manufacturing standards. What are the things you should check prior to buying matcha and how to judge the quality of matcha you have bought? Know how to buy matcha with confidence.
Not all matcha is made equal!
Let’s be honest – Matcha is generally more expensive when compared to black tea, green tea and even coffee. With matcha growing significantly in popularity in the last few years, several manufacturers and sellers have emerged selling matcha with a wide variation in prices and quality. However, “you get what you pay for”, is generally true when buying matcha. While you would never find out the quality of matcha you have bought until you open the packet and see, smell, touch and taste it, there are some things you should check before deciding whether to buy a certain brand or variety. Your matcha experience and even health benefits may depend on many factors such as origin, cultivation, manufacturing standards, labels and certifications, and these aspects can also determine the colour, texture and taste of the matcha powder.
What to check before deciding to buy matcha?
Country of origin of Matcha
Japan is generally associated with high standards and best practices in tea cultivation and matcha production. Japan Agriculture Society (JAS) has stringent standards when it comes to organic tea farms, criteria for organic labelling, classification of matcha into various grades and quality of matcha processing plants. All this results in higher production costs but also premium quality of matcha.
While matcha originated from China, it was standardised and became part of social high tea ceremonies in Japan. But China is the largest producer and exporter of green tea and matcha. There are several factories in China manufacturing matcha in large commercial scales, which brings down the cost. Many producers of matcha in China are also producing premium quality matcha certified by USDA and EU organic standards authorities.
South Korea is one of the smaller producers of matcha but catching up fast. South Korea has several commercial scale producers of matcha in the southern part of the country like Jeju Island.
The country of origin may determine the quality of matcha. However, you do need to look for other factors as well.
Certifications do matter but it depends on how much value you place on certain qualifications when it comes to drinking tea, specifically matcha. Organically certified matcha by JAS, USDA or EU will certainly be more expensive, but it will also give confidence that tea plantation is not using chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The taste is also different when tea plants are grown faster by artificial or chemical fertilisers as compared to organic and natural practices. Non-organic matcha may have a subtle sweeter taste (matcha is supposed to taste umami or earthy or slightly grassy depending on the grade) and is generally full-bodied when compared of pure organic matcha.
Other certifications include HACCP which indicates whether matcha has been tested for hazardous materials. Rainforest Alliance certification tells whether planet-friendly sustainable practices are used in cultivation. Vegan and Halal are some other certifications that may matter depending on personal preference.
This is one of the most important factors that determine the grade, taste, colour and sometimes even the nutritional value of matcha. Tea leaves from the first harvest in Spring are young and supple and most certainly produce a lighter matcha that is subtle in umami taste and has rich green colour. This is known as Ceremonial matcha and is the premium quality. Matcha from second and third harvests in Spring will also have decent qualities. However, as tea plants and leaves age during the later months and seasons, they become more mature. Matcha produced will be full-bodied and will have a stronger umami, grassy and mature flavour. This is culinary matcha that is more suitable for cooking, baking, desserts and as condiment in food. Matcha producers mix various harvests in different ratios to produce various grades in between premium ceremonial and culinary matcha. Hence it is important to know whether the matcha that you are buying in from the first harvest in Spring or from later harvests, depending on what is the intended use of the matcha powder.
While all matcha is made using the same process, there are certain factors that can determine the quality of the final powder. Factors such as hand-picked leaves versus machine harvesting, air dried leaves versus heat dried after steaming, and finesse of the powder will determine the quality of the product. Generally, the matcha powder should have particle size less than 18-20 microns. Perhaps the most important manufacturing factor is that a good quality matcha must have stems and veins of leaves removed before grinding into the fine powder. Some culinary matcha may not have stems and veins of leaves completely removed which gives them a bit of a bitter taste.
Matcha cultivar refers to the cultivation variety of matcha. We have a separate blog that outlines the various varieties of matcha in Japan. Taste of matcha may vary depending on the cultivation variety of tea plantation that is used as the raw material to produce matcha powder.
How to know you have bought good quality matcha?
Colour and Taste of matcha
Premium quality ceremonial grade matcha will have vibrant green colour because it is made from young and supple leaves, while lower grade matcha will have dull green colour because it is made from mature and heavier leaves. The taste of premium matcha is very subtle umami and will feel light-bodied to tongue and stomach. Lower quality matcha may feel slightly bitter (with bitterness varyibng between quality and grades), more grassy or stronger umami and more full-bodied to tongue and stomach.
Foam produced when matcha is whisked
This is one of the best ways to judge the quality of matcha bought. Take warm water, approximately 80 degrees Celsius or 175 degrees Fahrenheit, in a wide bowl; sift ½ teaspoon of matcha and whisk vigorously in a zig-zag pattern using the standard Japanese bamboo whisk. Good quality matcha will whisk easily within 20-30 seconds and will produce a thick uniform foam because it is made from young and lighter leaves. Lower grade matcha will not produce a healthy foam and will probably have larger bubbles because it is made from mature leaves which are denser naturally.
Can you buy matcha in the grocery store?
Matcha green tea powders are now sold in grocery stores and supermarkets. In Australia, major grocery stores such as Coles and Woolworths have matcha products in the coffee and tea aisle. In the early days, most of the matcha products sold in grocery stores were actually blends, either matcha lattes or blended with green tea. The actual matcha content was less than 5%. However, pure matcha is now increasingly available. We have examined most of the matcha products in the grocery stores, and found wide range of products that are labelled as matcha, but contain many other ingredients. We encourage shoppers to check the following things to determine the quality of matcha before buying from your local supermarket:
- 100% pure matcha, nothing else added. Check the ingredients and ensure that it is only matcha and absolutely nothing else added, not even green tea.
- Country of origin is Japan. Check that matcha is a product of Japan. If nothing is mentioned, it can be assumed that the product is not from Japan.
- Grade of matcha is specified. We have not been able to find any product in Supermarkets yet that explicitly states the grade of matcha. If Ceremonial or Culinary grade is not mentioned then it can be assumed that the matcha is made from various harvests during the year. The colour, taste, texture and solubility all depend on the grade of matcha. Ceremonial matcha from the harvest in Spring is the best quality, most beneficial and most expensive.
- Quality certifications on the packaging. Check if the matcha is organic, tested for contamination and carries ISO 22000 or FSSC22000 food safety compliant manufacturing labels. All this will make difference in price.
So, there you have it – with the knowledge of all of the above factors, you will be able to buy matcha with confidence like an expert. There are many things that determine the quality of matcha, which in turn will make a difference in the taste and colour of the matcha green tea powder. Ultimately it also comes down to personal taste and preferences as well as affordability. All matcha powders in general are rich in antioxidants (EGCG) and amino acids (l-theanine), although the concentration of these nutritional elements will depend on the above factors.