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Article: What are tea cultivars and should you pay any attention to them?

What are tea cultivars and should you pay any attention to them?

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.


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.


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, but we believe that it is always good to equip yourself with the knowledge to judge the truth behind such claims. After all, Japanese 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 tea 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 cultivar leaves used for our Chiran Harvest matcha in our Master’s Collection is a rare tea cultivar 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 rather than their status as a single origin matcha. Indeed, these cultivars happen to be single origin matcha only because of the farmer’s preference.

The above scenario is the exception rather than the norm, because matcha tea mostly exists in blends, made out of tea leaves from multiple tea estates (not single origin). Many people perceive companies as being greedy or trying to save costs when they sell “blends” instead of single-origin products, but this is not the case for matcha.

Historically, tea masters blend different batches of processed tea leaves (known as tencha) 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 over a long period of time. Their customers would usually request for a specific matcha blend rather than a specific tea cultivar. Some of these are now bona fide product lines, and the tea companies must incorporate similar mixtures to maintain the taste.