Harvesting and manufacturing the perfect green tea leaves to produce high-quality organic matcha is not only an arduous labor but also an art. Matcha farming and matcha cultivation are two terms that are widely used when talking about growing and harvesting the green tea leaves that become matcha powder. Strictly speaking though, it is more accurate to use the phrases ‘tencha’ farming and cultivation. This is a small difference but the term ‘matcha’ only refers to the final product, the tea leaf in its powdered form, not the plant. As Tyas Sosen says: “After the grinding, we speak of ‘matcha’. Everything that happens before this final grinding process is referred to as the production of ‘tencha’”.
The Best Of Both Worlds
In Ikeda Tea World, we grow organic and non-organic green tea leaves so we can offer different grades of matcha suitable for different needs. The grades vary in flavor and color but neither their quality nor their health benefits are compromised. The main difference lies in the fertilizers we use to feed the plants.
Our farms, located in Kagoshima, Japan, have the best soil needed for the best green tea trees. This southern region is a volcanic area, which provides the nutritious combo our plants need to produce the highest quality organic matcha. The green tea trees use these natural minerals to nourish themselves during the cold and long winter in Kagoshima, Japan. After ‘hibernating’ the trees awake in early spring and our farmers begin to fertilize the crops. For our certified organic production, organic natural fertilizers with no pesticides are applied early in February since they take longer to get absorbed. For the non-organic matcha, nitrogen-based fertilizers can be applied a few weeks later because they work faster.
A Shade Darker
About twenty days before harvest, the green tea bushes have to be covered to reduce the amount of light that hits their leaves. Traditionally, this shade was made from straw and reeds but currently, we use USDA organic certified materials that don’t affect the biodiversity of the ecosystem, a standard requirement for certified organic matcha. Decreased sunlight reduces photosynthesis in the leaves, and helps maintain their high levels of theanine, the amino acid responsible for the calming and pleasant feeling matcha brings. Also, it helps to retain matcha’s unique sweetness and the bright green color we all love.
When the green tea trees have between three to five sprouts, they are ready for harvesting. Expert hands navigate between the large rows of trees selecting only the best leaves, not too large or too small. The leaves reach the perfect size in just a few days so the hand picking days are of intense and precise labor. To guarantee high-quality organic matcha we avoid the use of mechanized techniques in the harvesting process.
How matcha is processed is also a critical part of the technique. After harvesting, the leaves are organically sorted by grade by our certified 10th-grade Chashi Master Tea Maker.
The leaves are then steamed for 30-40 seconds to stop oxidation and then blow-dried. Once dry, the thick stems and veins are removed creating the refined tea known as ‘tencha’.
Last But Not Least
Once ‘tencha’ is dried and sorted, it is time to grind it with a stone mortar. The traditional recipe calls for grinding the tea leaves until the matcha powder is ready to be packed. This reduces the risk of oxidation.
The first tea of the year that celebrates the spring harvest is called Sincha and is usually harvested in early May when the land is most fertile. Tea experts argue it is the best tea you will get all year!