Anything outside of Japan simply must be called, "powdered green tea." The purity of umami is exceptionally difficult to emulate and capture outside of the country, given how matcha is a labor-intensive process. A large part of this truth is due to terrior and cultivation! In this brief blog, we'll focus on cultivation.
The tradition of growing matcha is a noble art. There are many factors deciding the quality of the end result of a masterpiece matcha, but a major element is the cultivation of Tencha [碾茶].
Tencha is what the tea leaves are called before becoming matcha (ground tea). In essence, Tencha is a processing term used to designate Camellia sinensis leaves that have been properly shade-grown.
The shade-growing method was invented about 400 years ago when Uji region producers realized that fields that were shaded from the sun by their natural environment (trees etc.) produced mellower flavors than the fields exposed to direct sunlight. By artificially shading their fields, the producers were able to imitate nature and give their teas a mellow, umami rich flavor without having to relocate the tea bushes.
These days when the spring season arrives, (around mid-April, or about 40 days prior to harvest), screens or tana tarps are rolled out over the tea plants who have been storing nutrients all winter. The purpose of the tana tarps is to limit the sunlight that reaches the plants about 60-75%.
The most traditional form of shade-growing, honzu, is now rarely utilized due to the intense labor it requires. Honzu requires a covering made from multiple layers of straw or handmade reed screens called yoshizu. Mizuba's Tsuji-san Uji Hikari matcha is made utilizing this special method.
There are two reasons for limiting sunlight:
1) The super anti-oxidant catechins (epigallocatechin gallate, or known as EGCG) concentrate when the tea is grown in the sun. Catechins have a bitter flavor.
2) So to balance matcha and achieve umami, limiting photosynthesis (the process that would normally convert the amino acid L-theanine into catechins) instead increases the amino acid, which has a sweet flavor profile that you can taste!
Shade-growing tea allows for the plant to concentrate its many nutrients in the leaf, while also achieving a lovely and balanced flavor profile between the bitter catechins and sweet L-theanine.
About 10 days after the tana tarp is spread, some farmers choose to limit the sun even further, to about 90%. The tea plants strain for sunlight, thereby stretching and growing wider and thinner, and as a result, more tender and palatable.
Traditionally, dense heaps of bamboo reeds were used to create a screen over the plants. Today, that is exceptionally rare to find. Though it can cost up to a million dollars to install shade-growing tarps, today you'll most commonly see Tana - curtains that are suspended by metal poles over the fields.
Whether harvested by hand or machine, the tender tencha tea leaves must be processed very quickly - within 24 hours! The tencha tea leaves are steamed, de-stemmed, de-veined, and dried into a finished tea leaf that can be put through the stone mills. We have now reached tencha's final state - its transformation into matcha, the milled tea we all love!
For us at Mizuba, matcha must be sourced from properly-treated tencha tea leaves in order for us to consider adding it to our coveted matcha collection.
Here is our brew guide for enjoying this special tea that is rarely drunk in loose-leaf form!
Tencha Brew Guide:
Amount: 7-8g Tencha
Water: 200ml water at 140º-175ºF
Time: 1.5 - 2 minute steep
Make Iced Tea: our tencha is great for both slow ice-steeping and cold brewing.
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