A Blog Series for Serious Sippers!

In this blog series, I will answer the question “what is Matcha green tea?” and help you discover how to find genuine matcha, how best to store it, and the ways to prepare this vivid green health elixir from Japan.

What is Tencha?

In part one (The Essential Guide to Matcha: What Is Matcha?), we learned about the importance of cultivation and regions that make a big difference in matcha quality and taste. 

The second big difference is how the tea leaf is processed after harvest. In fact, and this is BIG, matcha isn’t matcha until it is milled from tencha.

A photo of small pieces of tencha. High quality tencha is a key of matcha processing.

Freshness is one of the most important factors in Japanese tea, especially matcha; so the whole leaves are placed in cold storage refrigeration until they are ready for milling – which is when an order is placed. The HIGHEST QUALITY matcha is milled to order, placed in a small canister flushed with nitrogen to remove any trace of deteriorating oxygen, then sealed with a lid engineered with a rubber gasket to make it airtight. This particular detail ensures the matcha stays as fresh as possible after opening. 

In Japan, two of the top tea classifications are cultivated in the exact same way with shading methods and timings: Gyokuro and matcha. After the leaves are hand picked, they take two distinctly separate routes: One becomes tencha which gets milled into matcha, and the other goes the other way to become gyokuro, the top steeped tea.

You may have been misled into thinking that matcha is milled gyokuro. It’s NOT. And don’t be fooled by big brand names that claim it is. I’ve seen far too many packages that claim this and it’s one reason I had to write this guide! Matcha is milled tencha. This confusion arises mainly because the leaves which become gyokuro are grown in almost the same way and quite often in the same location as the leaves used to make matcha.

Milling Tencha into Matcha

In order to understand matcha, we first need to get to grips with high-grade, shade-grown tencha and gyokuro

While gyokuro uses the finest, most delicate leaves for steeping, tencha uses the best but slightly larger leaves, which could be shaded even longer depending on a host of factors.

The larger leaves are more fibrous which is vital for proper micro-milling into matcha. Think kale versus baby leaf lettuce. Some tencha could even be shaded for up to 8 weeks, though this is quite rare. This extra shading also makes the green color much more intense. For matcha to achieve a luxuriously talc-like consistency, the fibrous stems and veins must be removed before milling. It requires fairly robust, flat leaves for milling so there is no rolling in the production process.

The leaves are referred to as tencha only after the stems and veins have been removed. The stems are then reserved for high-grade kukicha called either shiraore or karigane (see video explanation here) depending on the region. While tencha can be steeped, most of it is milled into matcha.

Tencha leaves are cute! They remind me of confetti with flat, broken up, smaller pieces of leaves. And for some reason, they seem to be featherlight. If I think about this, it is no doubt due to the lack of rolling which produces less weight in the leaf.

Using a stone mill, usually made of granite, tencha is ground into a micro-powder so fine that it feels like talcum powder and the particle size is finer than the smoke of a cigarette. Particle size does vary however, with lower grades having larger particles. On average, a mill can only produce about one to two ounces, roughly 30 to 50 grams per two hours. We are talking about 2 to 3 tablespoons per hour!

The labor, time, and expertise involved in producing high-quality matcha is mind-blowing and this is why matcha commands the pricing it does. Time is money as the saying goes…just like in the wine industry. Pardon the pun, but you would be hard pressed to find a cheap bottle of vintage Bordeaux.

In the next post in this series we will be looking at Japanese matcha versus “imposters” and other juicy tidbits! But if you can’t wait for that and want to dive right in with the best matcha on the planet, jump over to chikitea.com and pick up some matcha from Yame.

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