How our matcha is made
Most companies on the internet will talk about removing the “middleman”, but truth is much more complex than that. We take a look at the typical matcha supply chain below. You will see that it comprises a complex web of stakeholders who work together to produce the final matcha product. Today, each of the stakeholders may offer finished matcha for export, yet it would be inaccurate to call any of them “middlemen”. The truth is that in advanced, open economies like Japan, the internet has already caused the extinction of tea distribution middlemen quite some time ago.
A patchwork of small tea estates
The tea plants shown here will be grown under the shade canopy or about 4 weeks before harvest. This process starves the plant of sunlight, and forces its roots to work overtime in drawing nutrients from the ground. The result is a more complex amino acid profile, giving finished its matcha is wonderfully complex flavors.
In the older Kyoto region, many tea estates are held by individual landowners and are actually only a few hectares in size. The smallest are about 1 hectare and we have seen instances where a large backyard is used to cultivate very prized tea plants. Most farmers sell the plucked tea leaves, and usually do not own any plant or machinery necessary to process these plucked tea leaves into matcha. Larger tea fields are often owned by larger companies that are big enough to run a vertically integrated operation.
The hard work of harvesting
Some tea plants are harvested by hand, and others machinery. Some hold the view that hand-plucked leaves are superior, but the reality is that both involve hard manual work. These plucked tea leaves will then be transported to a processing plant where it will become tencha.
For many small plot farmers, the harvest season is extremely busy. Agricultural labor is in short supply in Japan, and elderly farmers often call upon their grown children to temporarily come back from the cities to lend a hand. The harvest is then sold to a tea production company. In recent years, tea estates have increased in sophistication. With the help of contract manufacturers, they are increasingly looking to offer the finished matcha product under their own name.
Journey from tea leaf to tencha
The tea leaves undergo a lengthy process of repeated sorting, sifting, steaming, drying and cutting before they become tencha. Tencha is the raw ingredient of matcha, and blenders will then perform taste tests on the different batches of tencha to direct the ratios for each distinct matcha blend. At this stage, oxidation and shelf life is a concern. All reputable matcha processors will mark and seal the tencha up in large wooden boxes for refrigeration. These boxes are left untouched until it is time to produce a batch of matcha.
The tea processing plants are a serious capital investment, and most tea estates are too small to afford one. Regional tea cooperatives usually pool funds together to set up a cooperative processing facility. These are usually smaller facilities which are open for use by any stakeholder – whether tea estate, blender or production company. These days, many operations are automated, and a tencha production line can be overseen by only a few staff.
Finally, we have matcha
Each time we prepare our small batch shipment, we instruct the processing plant to remove the tencha and feed them into the stone granite mills for grinding. The ground matcha powder is then filled into packets and sealed. This process allows the freshness of the matcha to keep for about a year after grinding without compromising its taste and flavor.
A large proportion of a matcha processing plant’s space are taken up by refrigeration units. The costs of constant refrigeration is another reason why matcha tends to be expensive. Using a stone or granite mill is essential because it allows to keep the temperature down during grinding. Higher heat will damage the matcha and result in an inferior taste. One downside is that the stone mills are quite slow, and it usually takes several hours just to grind 100 grams of matcha.
Where our matcha comes from
Currently, we get our produce from estates in Uji, Wazuka, and Kagoshima. Each of them brings something different in terms of taste and flavor thanks to the particular differences in the environment around the tea estate. We are constantly on the lookout for new places to get matcha so we can share them with you.
Uji, Kyoto Prefecture
Uji is the spiritual home of matcha culture in Japan, and has been for hundreds of years. It was here that the first tea plants were cultivated, and the most prized plants are still found in small plots of land within the city limits.
Wazuka, Kyoto Prefecture
Wazuka is a small town by the mountainous region of Kyoto Prefecture. The high altitude provides favorable conditions for tea plants, and the end result is tencha and matcha that usually offer a distinct light sweetness. Because many of the tea estates are literally carved into the mountainside, growing and harvesting tea is difficult work and small trucks are needed to access the more remote plots.
Chiran, Kagoshima Prefecture
The landscape of Kagoshima is flatter than that in the Kyoto region, and this allows tea farms to be much larger. Instead of handheld harvester, you tend to see large harvest tractors
Kagoshima used to be known for cheap, mass produced tea destined for use as “fillers” and bottled tea drinks. Today, that cannot be further from the truth.
Growers in places like Chiran take great pride in their produce, and many of them are now able to grow tea plants and make matcha comparable to the best that Uji and Kyoto have to offer.