Will the Real Matcha Please Stand Up

A few months back I applauded the news that Darjeeling tea had been granted Protected Geographic Indication status by the European Commission.  I posted about this on our Tea Trekker’s blog so that tea enthusiasts could read why this is was an important step forward for the protection of all distinctive tea, not just for Darjeeling.

(To keep this post from being far too long, please click on the link below to refer back to my original post for an explanation of the importance of Protected Status for foodstuffs…and for tea.

http://wp.me/pi2BE-QE )

From my perspective as a veteran tea professional, protecting the name and essence of distinctive (or famous) teas (those teas with un-duplicatable style and flavor that are the result of unique conditions of terroir) is becoming increasingly essential.

At Tea Trekker we are traditionalists, and we support and sell authentic original teas and not copy-cat substitutes. We want our Darjeeling tea to be from Darjeeling, India; our Longjing to be from Xi Hu Region, Zhejiang Province, China; our Tieguanyin to be from Anxi region, Fujian Province, China; our Tung Ting to be from Tung Ting Mt, Lugu Township, Nantou County, Taiwan,  and our Matcha to be real Matcha powder from Japan.

If it were up to me, I would protect all the famous teas from copycat imitators. But protection is not up to me – it is up to the producers in their respective countries to apply for this status. But I can use my blog to enlighten tea enthusiasts about the teas that I believe need to be granted protected product status and what to watch out for in the marketplace.

So I begin my defense of authentic teas with my case for traditional Japanese Matcha.

WHY JAPANESE MATCHA?

Because Matcha is unique in the world of tea. It is the most labor- intensive tea cultivated and produced tea in Japan. It is foundation upon which Japanese tea drinking culture is built, and it commands respect across all borders in the tea drinking world.  it is as relevant today as it was in the days of  Samurai warlords who lay down their swords to drink humble bowls of Matcha with the great tea masters of their day.

It is easy to define Matcha in just a few words – powdered green tea – but few perhaps realize that Japan also produces other powdered green teas that are not Matcha. These teas are sold as powdered green tea, and there is no attempt to fraud the consumer. I applaud this clarity and transparency which shows respect for both producer and consumer and allows Matcha to retain its venerable reputation while offering consumers other, clearly-identified, less expensive alternatives.

What concerns me in the U.S. is the proliferation of non-Japanese powdered green teas  marketed as ‘Matcha’ both on the internet and by a few notable tea wholesalers. Calling these powdered teas ‘Matcha’ suggests that they are Japanese when the truth may be quite different.

One such offender has gone as far as to advertise  Chinese ‘Matcha’ as a less expensive alternative with the same taste! Another shameful tea wholesaler is marketing non-Japanese green and ‘white’ tea powders of unspecified origins (Africa? ) as ‘Matcha’. These teas are less expensive than Matcha so I question the quality of the leaf used and wonder if the tea has been processed with the same care and diligence as Japanese Matcha.

My issue regarding the mis-use of the name Match is  the confusion that these mis-labeled or un-labeled non- Japanese powdered tea products bring to the marketplace. Un-informed consumers may not ever know that these products are not true Matcha, nor that they are purchasing products that in our opinion, have little to offer in terms of flavor or cultural integrity.

Other than marketing a new product for the sake of marketing a new product, I wonder what these tea products really have to offer tea lovers.  To me, product marketing that elevates the status of non-authentic products to something grander by the suggestion that their products have something in common with the authentic original is misleading, plain and simple. This is wiggly ground at best.

I believe that these tea powders should be properly identified as tea powder or powdered tea and clearly labeled as to their country of origin.  If their strong suit is for baking or mixing into beverages, then fine. But they should not be marketed as if they were on the same playing field with genuine Japanese Matcha. Here is why I feel strongly about this.

On one of our tea buying trips to China we visited a Japanese-built, Japanese-operated ‘Sencha’ factory in eastern China. The tea we tasted was not delicious and nothing like Japanese Sencha, but it suited the needs of this company as a source of inexpensive Sencha-style tea to sell to manufacturers of bottled tea beverages, green tea desserts, green tea cosmetics, etc. This tea factory also produces ‘Matcha’, but as their leaf green tea was sour and unpleasant (the  wrong tea bush varieties and very different terroir), we found that the powdered tea only amplified those undesirable characteristics. The tea lacked the vibrant green color of authentic Matcha, and the taste was thin, metallic and off-putting. In no way was this powdered tea an acceptable substitute for Japanese Matcha.

(NB: One exception to the above…..I want to make the point here that I am not including Korean powdered green tea in this ‘mis-labeled’ commentary. All of the Korean powdered green tea that  I am aware of has been clearly labeled as a product of Korea, and I applaud them for labeling their products truthfully and with pride ).

WHAT IS MATCHA?

Historically, the usage and production of Matcha powder is associated with Japan and Japan’s unique tea drinking practice. The Japanese learned of Chinese tea drinking practices in the Song dynasty (960-1279) that utilized tea which was scraped from tea cakes made from compressed, powdered tea.  By the 16th and 17th centuries, Japanese tea masters perfected the technique of grinding whole leaf tea into tea powder. Tea masters whipped this gossamer tea powder into a froth with bamboo whisks in an over-sized tea bowl known as a chawan.

Matcha was used by a succession of influential tea masters who shaped and codified Japan’s nascent tea drinking culture. As each tea master was succeeded by another, they effected changes and re-defined the tenets of tea drinking. From these early tea drinking methods, Chanoyu ( the Japanese tea ceremony) developed, and Matcha became tea royalty.

Today, as in the past, Matcha is serious business in Japan. Very exacting standards for Matcha cultivation and manufacture are followed, and devotees search out venerable tea shops for their favorite Matcha. In a country that produces much expensive tea, Matcha is still Japan’s most expensive tea.

SO WHILE MATCHA IS POWDERED TEA, NOT ALL POWDERED TEA IS MATCHA

Starting with the manner in which the fresh leaf for Matcha is cultivated to the subsequent steps of specialized tea manufacture in the tea factory, Matcha is a the result of precise detail and exactness.

With the exception of one other tea – Gyokuro – the fresh leaf  that is grown for Matcha is cultivated under conditions unlike that used for Japan’s leaf teas. The leaf processing techniques are unique for Matcha as well, so much so that Matcha is processed with specialized equipment used only for processing Matcha.

Japan produces both Matcha and powdered green tea, and the processes for each have little in common.  Japanese powdered teas are sold as that – powdered tea – and not as Matcha. Tea companies that specialize in Matcha create different styles of Matcha with varying flavor profiles for various uses. Some Matcha is for Chanoyu; others are for everyday tea drinking, hot or iced; and some for culinary or cosmetic uses.

TRADITIONAL USES FOR MATCHA

For Chanoyu, some types of Matcha are used for usacha (thin tea ) while others are designed to be used for koicha ( thick tea ). Each tea ceremony schools has a particular Matcha that has been selected by the Grand Master and is blended to his wishes. These Matchas or okonomi are used by the tea teachers when conducting tea ceremonies and in classes with advanced students.

Different Matcha is used throughout the four seasons, as well. Some Matcha is to be used from the middle of June to the end of August, or from early December to early January. Practitioners of Chanoyu select their Matcha for specific tea ceremonies with the same diligent thought that they put into selecting the appropriate chawans and other elements for the particular toriawase ( grouping of tea utensils).

HOW IS MATCHA PRODUCED ?

Cultivation:  fresh leaf for Matcha is plucked from tea bushes that are grown in the shade for a period of time under a covering called a tana. The tana is a permanent frame structure that stands all year long. Approximately 20-30 days before plucking either mesh cloth (modern-way) or straw matting (traditional way ) is placed over the tana and the bushes are covered. This method cuts the available light that the plants receive by about 90%, insuring that the usual photosynthesis within the plants stops, and that chlorophyll production will be high. This reversal of the internal leaf chemistry increases sweetness in the finished tea by producing a higher percentage of amino acids. This is one reason why good Matcha has a creamy, umami-type mouthfeel.

 Plucking Techniques: without natural light tea buds stretch towards the minimal ight available to them. The leaves grow long and slender and have a weak stem. Shade-grown leaf for Matcha ( Gyokuro, too ) is usually hand-plucked ( whereas most Japanese tea is machine harvested).

Manufacturing Techniques: when the fresh leaf enters the tea factory it is quickly steamed on a conveyor belt, then air-dried in a vertical wind-tunnel where the leaf is  free to blow loosely around the tunnel and remain as flat as possible. After this, the leaf is passed through an oven-type dryer. Unlike the process for making leaf green teas, leaf for Matcha is never rolled, pressed or otherwise shaped.

Refining Techniques: at this point, the leaf is called TENCHA. The tencha is chopped into small bits, and the stems and veins are removed from the leaf by an electrostatic cleaning. The de-stemmed tencha is once again cut and dried.

Grinding Techniques: the tencha is milled to a micron-fine powder in a rotary mill comprised of two granite millstones. The millstones are kept in prime operating condition by stone mill carvers who keep the intricate, web-like pattern of fine, tiny grooves on the stones in precise cutting condition. Slow, careful grinding of the tencha brings out the flavor and fragrance of the tea, which should be fresh and lively, vegetal, slightly bitter yet with a measure of sweetness. The best Matcha is full-bodied and creamy, and it should not be grassy or bitter.  The more costly Matcha for Chanoyu are splendid, rich,  mouth-filling and silky and like no other tea.

HOW IS JAPANESE GREEN TEA POWDER DIFFERENT FROM MATCHA?

In contrast, most Japanese powdered green tea is  made from kabuse leaf (fresh leaf that is shade for less time). It is then processed using the same manufacture for Sencha green tea, not the manufacture for tencha. This leaf is  ground in a drum-roll grinder with the stems and veins remaining, so the flavors will be stronger and less sweet. The powder will be less fine.

Japanese green tea powders are wonderful for culinary uses as the flavors are stronger and the leaf has more astringency which stands up well to the addition of other ingredients. Also, the cost of powdered green tea is significantly less than the cost of Matcha.

BECOMING A MATCHA ENTHUSIAST

We are Matcha enthusiasts, and want others to enjoy this special beverage, too.

Remember, that when you drink Matcha means that you are consuming the entirety of the tea leaf.  Real Matcha has a sweetness and delicious creaminess to the taste and mouthfeel because the stem and veins have been removed from the leaf.

Matcha is expensive, and the cost for top grades of Matcha is especially high. But one does not have to purchase tea ceremony-quality tea to have an enjoyable, everyday drinking Matcha. Some Japanese tea companies recognize the cost factor and are making ‘everyday’ grades of Matcha available for times when cost is a factor.

Also, less expensive Japanese powdered green teas are a terrific alternative to the more costly Matcha for baking or adding to slushies or fruit smoothies.

Try and discern if your tea vendor is selling true Japanese Matcha and powdered Japanese green tea versus other powdered teas from other places, and make sure you know what you are purchasing.

Freshness is important, too. Matcha should be from the current harvest or the previous harvest, depending on the month of the year the tea is purchased.

WHEN IS MATCHA NOT MATCHA?

There are those in the tea industry who argue that it is merely the processing techniques and manufacture that makes tea what it is. Therefore,  they believe, the same tea can be produced in any place in the world if the original techniques and leaf pluck are used. In other words, Matcha is ‘Matcha’ is Matcha.’

We disagree completely with this idea.

We believe that unique teas are the result of a combination of the elements of terroir (place) that simply cannot be reproduced, such as:

  • specific conditions due to geography and altitude
  • soil conditions,  climate and weather patterns
  • the craft of tea making ( history, culture and custom)
  • technique and skill ( expertise cannot always be copied successfully from one place to another)
  • local tea bush cultivars and varietals
  • seasonal plucking styles and methods
  • method of leaf manufacture

Accordingly, Tea Trekker only sells authentic Japanese Matcha and powdered green tea from Japan. We firmly believe no other Matcha tastes like Japanese Matcha.

We also believe that tea makers who follow a long line of tea makers before them and strive to keep the unique tea making traditions of their region and country alive deserve our support and our encouragement.

Please feel free to point out the differences between Matcha and powdered green tea to others that you encounter on the internet or in tea shops!

My elaboration on Matcha is meant only to give a brief overview of the particulars of this extraordinary tea. Certainly anyone interested in further study of Matcha will find this to be a richly rewarding topic filled with depth and dimension.

Meeting the Dragons in Japan

On our last visit to Japan in 2010 we arrived the week of spring school break. The weather was glorious but our carefully devised plan to visit the top temples in Kyoto was thwarted by hoards of happy ( albeit sometimes bored ) school children engulfing each place. Parking lots were jammed with buses, and viewing (and moving about the temple gardens in general) was difficult due to the crowds.

Since Kyoto has hundreds of temples and shrines to visit, we quickly shifted gears  and headed off to visit a temple that has a significant history  involving tea and the development of tea drinking in Japan. As compelling as this fact is to us, this temple is NOT prominently featured in the tourist circuit, so we looked forward to a more serene visit.

A few bus rides and a short walk later we arrived at Kennin-ji Temple 建仁寺. This is the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto, and we were delighted to see only a handful of people wandering around.

We learned that Kennin-ji was established in 1202 upon the request of Emperor Tsuchimikado 土御門 (r. 1198–1210) and with the Japanese monk Myoan Yosai (Eisai) 明菴榮西 (1141–1215) serving as the founding abbot. Eisai made the voyage to China twice during his lifetime, visiting Mount Tiantai to learn  more fully about Zen Buddhism. He eventually received recognition of his Zen enlightenment, and as  a result, he introduced Rinzai Zen Buddhism to Japan. He also introduced the tradition of drinking tea to Japan. He is recognized as the founder of the tea ceremony because of his efforts to encourage the cultivation and consumption of tea.

http://zen.rinnou.net/head_temples/12kennin.html

There is much about Kennin-ji that impresses,  but for me the unexpected joy of the  ‘road-less-traveled’  moment came when we entered Nenge-dô, the Dharma Hall. Inside of this grand space, a portion of the ceiling features a bold black ink and wash drawing ( suibokuga) titled – Twin Dragons – painted in 2002 by the contemporary artist Junsaku Koizumi. The drawing was commissioned to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the temple’s founding. Usually, dragons depicted on the ceilings of dharma halls are painted within a circle. But this exuberant ink drawing of two dragons roiling about in the cosmos covers a very large amount of un-bordered space in the center of the ceiling.

The striking image features two dragons who appear to be chasing a pearl. One dragon clasps the pearl in its talons; the other looks longingly at it. It is unclear if they are playing with the pearl or engaging in a battle of wills to possess it. The sheer size, boldness and technical expertise of this colossal drawing is mesmerizing. The fluidity of the scene underscores the grace and ease of movement that dragons possess.  It is easy to imagine these creatures swiftly disappearing from sight back into the cloud-filled cosmos with just a powerful gyration of their bodies.

We craned our necks until they hurt and we got slightly dizzy from gazing upwards. But nevertheless it was difficult to leave and re-enter the world of daylight. I was thrilled to be in the hall, and to experience the humbling feeling of being small and vulnerable beneath this colossal drawing. Perhaps that was just the response intended by the artist. I began to imagine what feelings an image like this would have invoked in people who perhaps believed that the cosmos was indeed filled with such magnificent and powerful beings centuries ago.

This drawing measures 11.4m by 15.7m, the size of 108 tatami mats. (In contrast, a classic Japanese tearoom where Chanoyu is conducted is the width of 8 tatami mats). The image is drawn with the finest quality ink on thick traditional Japanese washi paper.  The artist created it on the floor of a gymnasium in an elementary school in Hokkaido and took him just under two years to complete.

For those who visit, Kennin-ji also houses another wonderful piece of dragon art. Un-ryu 雲 龍, a dragon flying in clouds” is an ink painting on four fusumas (sliding partitions). The image was originally painted in the 16th century by Kaihō Yūshō(海北友松 1533-1615 ).

POSTSCRIPT

As I was writing this post, I discovered that Junsaku Koizumi passed away on January 9th of this year. Perhaps that was why I began to think about him again. This is his obituary as recorded in the Japan Times.

Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012

Todaiji painter Koizumi dies at 87

Yokohama — Artist Junsaku Koizumi, who painted 40 paper screens of Todaiji, the renowned Buddhist temple in Nara Prefecture, died Monday his family said. He was 87.

Koizumi studied under the famed Kyujin Yamamoto (1900-1986) while attending Tokyo School of Fine Arts, which later became Tokyo University of the Arts.

He won his first award at a 1954 exhibition of new paintings. After he turned 40, he tended to stay away from painters’ circles and was sometimes described as a noble loner. He produced many ink paintings of magnificent and serene landscapes.

Koizumi’s representative works include ceiling paintings at Kenchoji Temple in his native Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, and at Kenninji Temple in Kyoto Prefecture. In 2010, he completed the 40 paper screens at Todaiji, a World Heritage site.

He also created calligraphy work and pottery.


Firefly Light, Pure Water, and Tea

It’s nearly mid-June and the fireflies have returned to the meadows in my neighborhood. On warm, still, cloud-less nights I sit behind my house when darkness has settled in to enjoy one of my favorite moments of summer – the juxtaposition of the heavenly glow of the stars in the sky and the tiny,  twinkling lights of the fireflies hovering over the hay fields. With a little imagination, one could believe that the blinking lights are the frantic efforts of stars that have fallen from the sky to rise up and return to their celestial domain.

Ricefield-Fireflies wood block print                     by artist David Stone

But fireflies are real creatures – they are members of the beetle family who have a marvelous, bioluminescent ability to emit light from their abdomen which they use to attract mates. When I was a kid we called them lightening bugs, and we tried our darnedest to capture a few each June and keep them in a jar for a few hours for closer examination.

artwork by Mike Lowery, argyleacademy.com

Fireflies are a phenomenon in Japan, too, during the month of June. Firefly ‘viewings’ or ‘gatherings’ along streams and fields are a popular way for many in Japan to venture outdoors and appreciate the natural world. For tea lovers, this also offers the opportunity to enjoy tea in a tranquil, outdoor setting, combining an appreciation of life’s fleeting moments (an awareness that every tea ceremony gathering carries with it is the notion of ‘ichi go ichi e’, meaning, one chance in one’s lifetime, or, the knowledge that such a gathering of guests will never gather again at that monent, on that day, in that year, in their lifetime) with a delicious bowl of fragrant tea.

I recently discovered charming piece on firefly viewing that emphasizes the importance of pure water for both the health of the natural world and for tea preparation and drinking, and which also cleverly contains subtle references to principles of Chado, or the Way of Tea.

The piece was written by Dr. Genshitsu Sen, Hounsai Daisosho, and posted  on the Urasenke.org website under Essays on Tea, Firefly Light. I wonder if others familiar with Chado will recognize within his words the nod to the principles or temae (etiquette) of Chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony, that I think I see in this piece: wa (harmony – applied here as harmony with the surroundings), kei (respect- applied here as our respect for the environment), sei (purity- applied here as purity of water and nature), and jaku (tranquility- applied here for the ability of nature to calm and refresh us).

This is what he wrote:

” Speaking of fireflies, each year in June a Firefly Light Tea Gathering is held on the grounds of Tadasu no Mori, a wooded site within the Shimogamo Shrine renowned from ancient times in Kyoto. The gathering is hosted jointly by the Tadasuno Mori Kenshô Foundation and Urasenke Konnichian. The gatherings are part of an effort to re-establish fireflies along the Mitarashi Stream that flows through the shrine precincts and to reclaim the purity of the stream. The fruition of these efforts over the past five or six years occurs at dusk in the sixth month. Here and there fireflies wing about. Yearly the number of persons who come to view them increases.  Starting from around six o’clock in the evening, the Firefly Light Gathering attracts not only firefly aficionados but also many who come seeking a few moments of tranquility.

In the same way that fireflies cannot live without the flow of beautifully pure water, tea that elicits gratitude from the heart’s depth cannot be partaken of if there are no sources of crystal pure water. For the task of ensuring the purity of flowing water, each individual must expend his or her energy. Let us join together in creating a world environment that encourages gazing upon the light of fireflies and sharing a delicious bowl of tea.”  Translated from Tankô Magazine by Christy A. Bartlett.

For those interested in celebrating the Japanese idea of nodate ( open air tea ceremony ) or preparing matcha outdoors, this traveling bamboo and silk tea basket is designed to carry the necessary supplies. The basket contains a tiny whisk, a folding matcha scoop, and room for a small chawan ( matcha tea bowl).

So, please join me on some moonless night during June, in the backyard, or beside a meadow along a darkened country lane, with cup of tea in hand, and salute the presence of twinkling fireflies, and the joy of partaking of a cup of tea with other kindred spirits.