More than 70% of all tea plants grown in Japan are genetically identical. This is because they were propagated from cuttings rather than grown from seeds. This is known as a “cultivar”, and it allows farmers to standardize quality and output of matcha tea year after year. Certain tea cultivars are said to be better for making matcha. Today we examine some of those claims.
What exactly is a “cultivar”?
Tea plants are crossbred by farmers to select their desired traits, which give rise to “cultivars”. A tea cultivar is short-form for “cultivated variety”. The successful crosses are “registered” with the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization of Japan. The Yabukita cultivar became popular precisely through this process. It was bred in the early 20th century, registered in 1956 and then cultivated widely as tea production boomed in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, it is by far the most common and popular tea plant cultivar in Japan.
Tea plants enter commercial production by cutting. This keeps the genetic information identical across all plants within a cultivar. The lack of genetic diversity makes them susceptible to diseases but also much more predictable to grow and harvest. This is the reason why entire tea plantations can be harvested at about the same time. On the contrary, if tea plants were grown from seeds, each of them would have its own growth rate and ideal harvest date. The farmer would have to harvest each plant individually at different times around Spring. Considering the worldwide demand for Japanese tea, this approach simply would not work.
But wait, should I even care or pay any attention to the tea cultivar?
Yes you should! A lack of regulation and standardization means marketers can go wild with health and quality claims in their matcha products. Some brands portray certain tea cultivars as “higher quality” and charge a higher price. We also see some others touting “single-origin” matcha as a better product. They may not be wrong, though we believe that it is always good to equip yourself with the knowledge to judge the truth behind such claims. After all, matcha tea does not come cheap and you should ensure that you get your money’s worth.
For our coffee-drinking friends, the term “single-origin” is bandied about often. It often means that your beans (or leaves) come from the same place. In the context of matcha, it means that the matcha was produced entirely from tea leaves from the same estate harvested in the same year. However, the “single-origin” label on its own adds no value to the quality of the product. Single origin matcha is only a superior product if the crop from that estate is exceptional to begin with.
To illustrate, a “single origin matcha made of the Yabukita cultivar is probably not worth 40 dollars, unless it is grown by a renowned farmer who has applied special techniques during the shading and production process to fundamentally improve its taste.
On the other hand, the Seimei and Asahi blends in our Master’s Collection are rare cultivar tea plants that happen to be single origin matcha, and are produced by expert and long-time farmers who are known in their community for growing excellent leaves. Their value is derived more from the growing techniques than their status as a single origin matcha. Indeed, these cultivars happen to be single origin matcha only because of the farmer’s preference. Thus, a single origin matcha product means nothing if the farming techniques are incorrect.
The above scenario is the exception rather than the norm, because matcha still mostly exists in blends, made out of tea leaves from multiple tea estates (not single origin). People mostly think of companies being greedy and trying to save costs when “blends” are mentioned, but this is not the case for matcha.
Historically, tea masters would blend different tencha batches from different years to maintain a uniform taste. Over time, these blends became popular in their own right. The great matcha brands like Ippodo and Marukyu Koyamaen grew famous as their resident tea masters created unique, proprietary blends using a mix of harvests and cultivars. Their customers would usually request for a particular matcha blend than a particular cultivar. Some of these are now bona fide product lines, and the tea companies must incorporate similar mixtures to maintain the taste.
This is also the case for our other ceremonial blends. We work with tea masters to create them, and most of the subsequent work following each harvest is to blend in more tencha to maintain the taste and quality. A good matcha blend means that the tea master has contributed most of the value to the finished product.
What should I know about cultivars if I want to grow my appreciation for matcha?
If you currently do not know much about matcha but are eager to grow your appreciation for it, here is what you can do.
1. Know your cultivars
First, get a baseline understanding of the common cultivars in Japan for tea, and the “rare” cultivars used in matcha production. We have listed them out below with some descriptions for you to refer back to in the future. This way, if something is marketed as single origin, you can make a quick estimate of whether it is truly worth its price.
2. Consider also how it was shaded and processed
Second, understand that the cultivar of the tea plant is one of many factors that determine how matcha will taste. The farming skills and the shading technique of the grower have the largest impact on taste, followed by the subsequent processing in the factory. The cultivar alone should not determine the price. Read the tasting notes and try to procure samples ahead of committing to an expense purchase.
Common tea cultivars in Japan
Here are some known cultivars used in producing matcha.
Yabukita makes up 74% of Japan’s tea farming industry. It is wide-spread and remains a top choice because it is easy to grow and has an abundant yield. It is fit for both sencha and tencha/matcha production due to its strong flavor.
Okumidori makes up 3% of tea farm acreage in Japan and 12% that of Kyoto. It is a cross-breed of Yabukita and a Shizuoka native cultivar. Matcha made from Okumidori is known for its sweet flavor and vibrant deep green color.
Samidori is specially cultivated for matcha. It typically has a sleek and mellow flavor profile with a creamy mouthfeel. It also has a lovely bright green color.
Although Samidori has a slightly lower yield than Yabukita, it offers a longer picking period.It is also easily harvested since its buds tend to grow upright, and has a strong tolerance for harsh weather conditions.
Gokou is popular for its fruity aroma, creamy texture, strong umami, and refreshing astringency. The shading process in preparation for matcha production works well to enhance its dark green color and strong aroma. Gokou is native to Uji, Kyoto.
Uji Hikari translates to “light of Uji”. It usually results in matcha tea with a velvety texture and a hint of astringency.
Matcha tea from the Asahi cultivar gives off a sweet and rich taste. The texture is similar to Uji Hikari , with a touch of delicacy in its tastes in addition to being creamy and velvety. Its aroma has a hint of cocoa.
Seimei is a new cultivar. While uncommon, we believe this cultivar will grow in popularity in the next decade. There are high hopes for this new cultivar because it possesses all the desired traits for producing matcha tea. It has a high yield, strong aroma, excellent color, and intense umami flavor. Because it is very resistant to frost and cold weather conditions, it can be grown throughout the whole of Japan across both temperate and sub-tropical climates.
Zarai is a general term used for tea plants that are grown from seeds. Technically, it is not considered as a cultivar because it is not grown from cuttings. Most farmers are not fond of Zarai because of its unstable nature. There are uncertainties in growing this variety as some may grow to have strong flavors and aroma and at times, the opposite. Growing conditions can also be difficult and yields are unstable.
This is a nuanced topic, and it was only after meeting various players in the matcha supply chain that we were able to clarify our thinking. If you work in the tea industry or are familiar with other teas and would like to weigh in on the topic, please write to us. We hope that this article sparks a broader discussion that will help matcha tea lovers all over the world make better purchasing decisions.
Next in this series
In the first week of May each year, there is a palpable energy in the tea growing regions of Japan. It is time for the annual first tea harvest, the