If we were to be completely honest, we would say there’s no difference because “ceremonial grade” and “culinary grade” matcha are really meaningless terms. In this article, we explain why and what you should be looking at instead when evaluating matcha quality.
Most matcha companies outside of Japan divide matcha into two grades, ceremonial grade matcha and culinary grade matcha. The idea is that “ceremonial grade matcha” is higher quality and “culinary grade matcha” is of a lower quality. In fact, matcha is not separated into two categories like this in Japan because people look at individual blends and their characteristics when evaluating matcha quality.
While “ceremonial” and “culinary” terminology has caught on overseas, they are completely unregulated, so matcha companies just end up drawing the line wherever they want.
The reasoning is that ceremonial grade matcha is fit for use in a tea ceremony, meaning that it is suitable for drinking. Whereas culinary grade matcha is a lower grade of matcha with a more pronounced bitter taste and should only be used as an ingredient. Accordingly, most people understand that “ceremonial grade matcha” is more expensive than “culinary grade matcha”.
Why you should not fixate on the "ceremonial" and "culinary" labels
- It is difficult to cleanly separate matcha into two bands of quality. Matcha is never categorised this way in Japan. It is instead graded based on multiple factors across a spectrum.
- No government or international organisation regulates the use of the “ceremonial grade” classification. The only thing stopping matcha companies from overcharging you for “ceremonial grade”matcha that miss the mark in taste and quality is their integrity.
- Even under the best of intentions, matcha companies cannot accurately define what “ceremonial grade” means and will just apply their own subjective standards.
But merely rejecting these labels because they do not make sense is unhelpful to you as a matcha consumer. We must find a better way.
Ultimately, what you need is a framework to independent assess matcha quality. Then you can decide if a matcha product on offer is worth its asking price. We published this article to demystify some of those quality factors and equip you with the knowledge to judge for yourself.
What is behind the labels?
You must understand exactly what each company means by “ceremonial grade matcha” and “culinary grade matcha” and look deeper into other factors that indicate a matcha’s quality. Ask the matcha company more about their various matcha products. Read reviews, and ask if you can purchase samples if they are available.
What “ceremonial grade” and “culinary grade” means to Naoki Matcha
We are not great fans of this ceremonial / culinary matcha distinction. But for better or worse, these labels provide many overseas matcha fans an easy means of categorizing matcha. We adopt it only for convenience and because it has become an accepted norm in America.
At Naoki Matcha, if the matcha blend can be used to make something you drink, we consider it a ceremonial matcha. If it can be used to make something you eat, we consider it a culinary matcha.
As a result, we have a number of ceremonial grade matcha blends. Each of our ceremonial matcha blends are different and tailored to specific use cases. Some are made from specific cultivars, some are single-origin, some are made exclusively of first harvest leaves, others a blend. There are too many factors to set out exhaustively. If you have any other questions, we are most happy to answer them!
What type of matcha should you use for matcha lattes?
We get this question all the time. The optimal choice is to use either our Superior Ceremonial Matcha or Organic Ceremonial Matcha. These are incredibly versatile blends that allow you to make an affordable matcha latte with reduced levels of sweetener. Between the two, the Organic Ceremonial Matcha has a lighter taste profile.
You can use our other ceremonial grade matcha blends to make lattes, but the costs will quickly add up and most of the nuanced flavors will be lost amidst the milk. It is also possible to use our Creative Culinary to make matcha lattes, but you may end up adding more sugar and/or milk to balance the more pronounced bittersweet taste of our Creative Culinary Matcha.
Shopping for matcha? Ask these questions instead
Read reviews, ask a representative. You should always try to obtain more information based on these few criteria, and most tea companies are more than happy to share it!
1. Where was it produced?
The best matcha is made in Japan, but you should also check the region of Japan where the matcha was produced. Uji in Kyoto Prefecture is famous as the birthplace of matcha and Japanese green tea. Naturally, matcha from Uji is expected to be good but there may be a price premium because of the brand name. Yame is a city in Fukuoka Prefecture which is famous for gyokuro tea, and has begun to make good matcha. Shizuoka and Nishio (both nearer to Tokyo) are also known for matcha. Kagoshima Prefecture and Wazuka town in Kyoto Prefecture mostly produce sencha, but quite a few growers are branching out into matcha and are getting quite good at it.
2. Was it grown under shade before harvest?
The shading process is the most important step in matcha cultivation. In the few weeks leading up to harvest, the tea plants are deprived of sunlight and grown under shade. This changes the amino acid profile of the tea leaves and gives matcha its signature mellow, umami taste. The different shading techniques and duration of shaded growth are important variables for the grower to decide.
3. What tea plant cultivar was the matcha made from?
The vast majority of tea produced in Japan is made using the Yabukita cultivar. The Yabukita cultivar is used to produce everything from bottled tea to matcha. Certain cultivars, like the Asahi cultivar, are normally associated with high end matcha from established tea brands. However, this topic is quite nuanced and we recommend you read our article examining cultivars for further clarity.
4. When was it harvested?
The first harvest (otherwise known as the first flush or Shin Cha) is typically the best because the tea plants have retained the nutrients accumulated over winter. Matcha of the highest quality would be made using only first harvest tea leaves, while others may comprise a blend of first or second harvest leaves to keep costs low.
5. How was it processed and stored?
After harvest, the tea leaves are sent to a factory to be steamed, dried, sorted and cut. Veins, stems and impurities are removed. The processed leaves (tencha) should be stored in a refrigerated room if not being immediately ground into matcha. Storing tencha (or matcha) at cooler temperatures is important to preserve freshness. Ground matcha should have the same texture as talcum powder and should not feel grainy. If any of these criteria are not met, we would have serious doubts about the quality of the matcha.
6. What color is it?
A vibrant green is important and is indicative of freshness. Yellowish matcha powder suggests that the matcha has become stale or that it was made using the leaves harvested from the bottom of the tea plant. However, be aware of possible variations between the shades of green. Kagoshima matcha is known for being slightly darker green because of the surrounding area’s volcanic soil, but would still appear vibrant. Other cultivars like the Seimei cultivar are known for being extremely bright green. Just like fresh vegetable produce, the key is the vibrancy of the green color. Regardless of grade, the green color of matcha should look “fresh” and not faded.
7. How does it taste?
It’s difficult to really understand how the matcha would taste by reading a description online. The above factors will give you some expectation as to how the matcha may taste. But even then, there is an element of subjectivity which may affect your experience. Wherever possible, we always recommend asking the seller for some small samples. Some may impose a token charge to pay for shipping and product costs, but asking for samples is something we always recommend as an important and prudent step for more expensive teas.
This is the first of several articles that go into greater detail on how to understand the different factors that affect the quality of matcha. Please read the next article to learn more about how matcha is produced.
Next in this series
Producing matcha tea is a process which requires skilled labor at each stage. The tea plants must be cared for, properly shaded, and then processed in specific methods. Thereafter, a