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Drinks Atlas: Japanese Matcha

“Matcha is a state of being, rather than an actual style of tea that’s grown,” says Zach Mangan, owner of tea company Kettl, based in both Brooklyn and Fukuoka, Japan. He’s not speaking philosophically: The two characters that comprise the word matcha simply mean “powdered tea,” but true matcha is crafted through precise methodology with nearly a millennium of history behind it. When tea production took root in Japan at the end of the 12th century, matcha started to become synonymous with specific regions, particularly Uji, located outside of Kyoto. “Uji is really the cultural, commercial, and spiritual home of matcha,” says Mangan. “It’s really like Burgundy or Bordeaux in terms of its historical importance.”

Matcha is also produced in regions such as Nishio in the Aichi Prefecture, and Shizuoka in the shadow of Mount Fuji, which tends to produce more culinary-grade matcha, and Fukuoka and Kagoshima on the country’s southern end, which are newer growing regions. But even more important than where the tea is grown is how it’s grown. Matcha is made from tencha tea leaves. To qualify as such, tencha is grown under strict conditions, the most notable being that 20 to 30 days prior to harvesting, tencha leaves are covered with shade structures. “What’s so important about this step is that it radically shifts how the plant creates its energy,” says Mangan. “When you limit sun, you limit photosynthesis. That kickstarts a cascading group of chemical reactions that ultimately change the flavor of the tea.” The tea better retains its brilliant green color from an uptick in chlorophyll, and the amino acid L-theanine is preserved, lending matcha its rich, savory flavor.

Though matcha has been an integral part of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony for centuries, consumption by the general population in Japan today is similar to that across the rest of the globe, where it’s more regularly encountered in lattes or sweets. “A lot of people might think that people in Japan just wake up and whisk a bowl of matcha before work, and that’s not the case,” says Mangan. “Your average Japanese citizen is really not interacting with high-quality matcha very regularly.”

While tea ceremonies are still a highly regarded element of Japanese tea culture, for which only the highest-quality ceremonial-grade tea is used, the increasing global demand for matcha has led to booming sales and market ubiquity. “It’s great, because it’s given a stage for producers of quality product to become more well-known,” says Mangan. “But anything that has a boom drives people to make choices that are based on sales rather than quality.”


*The introduction and popularization of tea in Japan is credited to Japanese Buddhist monk Eisai, who brought seeds from China to Kyoto in 1191. The optimal growing climate in Uji and the region’s proximity to Kyoto’s imperial court allowed tea culture to flourish, and matcha was almost exclusively the style of tea consumed— primarily by samurais, monks, and aristocrats—until the mid-1700s.

*A defining moment in matcha’s global industry came in the mid-’90s, when Häagen-Dazs tapped a wholesaler in Japan for a massive order to make their green tea ice cream. The flavor, Häagen-Dazs’ first Japan exclusive, became an instant success and was later released around the world.

*Ceremonial-grade matcha is harvested mostly in the springtime and milled with traditional stone mills, while culinary-grade matcha is often harvested later in the season and processed with an industrial mill. “You can notice the difference both in the visual appearance and in the taste,” says Simona Suzuki of the Global Japanese Tea Association. “Ceremonial-grade matcha will normally be richly green in color and will taste naturally sweet [and] umami. Cooking-grade matcha will be lighter in color, sometimes with a yellowish tint, and will have much more bitterness.”


Gokou Operating for slightly more than 15 years, Obubu Tea is a relative newcomer, but the independent farm in Wazuka, Kyoto, aims to educate and advocate for other independent farmers. Their Gokou cultivar matcha is lightly sweet with a balance of vegetal and fruity flavors. Approximately $16/25 grams, obubutea.com

Kiwami High on sweetness and umami with almost no astringency, this matcha from Fukuoka offers chocolatey aromas and an extra-creamy richness. $44/20 grams, kettl.co

Saemidori Often used for blending, the Saemidori cultivar offers a lighter body and gentle sweetness on its own. “This matcha is grown on the banks of the Uji River and has a captivating freshness, bright neon color, and exhilarating aroma of toasted nori and a salty sea breeze,” says Mangan. $40/20 grams, kettl.co

Soukou This blended matcha from Yame in Fukuoka Prefecture is a mix of Yabukita, Oku Yutaka, Okumidori, and Saemidori cultivars. Fresh and delicate, the Soukou is an easy-drinking matcha that also holds its flavors well as a latte. $25/20 grams, passengercoffee.com

Tsuji-san’s Matcha Asahi “From Uji’s most awarded tencha farmer, Kiyoharu Tsuji, this matcha is made from 100 percent Asahi cultivar, the Pinot Noir of matcha,” says Mangan. The tea’s extra-high levels of L-theanine make this one a “rich, heady, and umami-packed matcha.” $50/20 grams, kettl.co

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