Most matcha companies outside of Japan divide matcha into two types of matcha grades; ceremonial grade matcha and culinary grade matcha. The idea is that ceremonial grade matcha is most appropriate for drinking in tea ceremonies, whereas culinary grade matcha is more suitable for ingredient use in recipes due to its more pronounced bitter taste.
Most people also understand that “ceremonial grade matcha” is more expensive than “culinary grade matcha”. Hence, the general perception is that “ceremonial grade matcha” is high quality matcha and “culinary grade matcha” is low quality matcha.
But is this the best way of understanding matcha grades? Our humble suggestion is that it is not.
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Ceremonial vs Culinary grade matcha in Japan
In Japan, matcha is not separated into two categories like this because people look at individual blends and their characteristics when evaluating matcha quality. While the label culinary vs ceremonial grade matcha terms have caught on overseas, they are actually completely unregulated, so matcha companies just end up drawing the line wherever they want.
From our perspective, we would say that there’s no real difference between ceremonial and culinary grade matcha because “ceremonial grade” and “culinary grade” matcha are really unhelpful terms with not much actual relevance with how matcha is really graded in Japan.
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 independently assess matcha quality. Then you can decide if a matcha product on offer is worth its asking price. We published this culinary vs ceremonial grade matcha article to demystify some of those quality factors and equip you with the knowledge to judge for yourself.
Find meaning behind culinary vs ceremonial grade matcha
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
As mentioned earlier, we are not great fans of this ceremonial vs culinary grade matcha distinction. But for better or worse, these matcha grade labels provide many overseas matcha fans an easy means of categorizing matcha. We adopt it for convenience and because it has become an accepted norm in America.
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!
Culinary or ceremonial matcha for matcha lattes?
We get this question all the time. The best type of matcha for lattes 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. You can use our other ceremonial grade matcha powder blends to make lattes, but the costs will quickly add up. Most of the nuanced flavors will also be lost amidst the milk and sweetener.
It is possible to use our Latte Blend Premium Culinary Grade matcha to make matcha lattes, but we discourage this. You may end up adding more sugar and/or milk to balance the more pronounced bittersweet taste of our Latte Blend Premium Culinary Grade matcha.
What is culinary grade matcha best for?
The “Culinary grade” matcha is usually the best matcha for baking or cooking. However, the culinary grades matcha available in the market are often too astringent, barely discerning any matcha flavor in baked goods.
Quick guide to choosing the right “grade” of matcha
For most matcha companies, this is what they mean when they talk about “ceremonial grade matcha” or “culinary grade matcha”.
Ceremonial Grade Matcha
Ceremonial grade matcha is meant to be enjoyed on its own in the form of tea. This superior matcha tea grade is used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies where it is whisked with hot water and savoured plainly for its smooth mouthfeel with light sweetness, and a lasting finish that can range anywhere from sweet nuttiness, floral, umami or pleasant bittersweet notes.
A high quality ceremonial grade matcha powder is also vibrant green as compared to culinary grade matcha as it is produced from first harvest tea leaves which contain the highest content of chlorophyll and L-theanine.
Culinary Grade Matcha
Culinary grade matcha has a more pronounced bitter / grassy taste, and a less fragrant aroma. It may sound unappealing, but it still works in baked goods and other confectionery because matcha is usually just one of many ingredients. The other ingredients (usually fat and sweeteners) will overcome the bitterness found in lower quality matcha. We do not recommend drinking culinary grade matcha as tea because it will be bitter. Culinary grade matcha is also produced from later harvests, which is the reason why its color is not as vibrant as ceremonial grade matcha.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that culinary grade is of a “low-quality” grade matcha. Both matcha grades are designed for different uses and choosing a good quality ceremonial or culinary matcha will make the most of your matcha experience.
What about lattes
That’s where most brands struggle because the answer is not clear. This is why many matcha companies simply end up recommending cheaper “ceremonial grade matcha” to make lattes.
Looking beyond "ceremonial grade matcha" labels to assess matcha quality
Read reviews, ask a representative. You should always try to obtain more information based on these few criteria. 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