The Matcha Journey, Part 1: Cultivars
What other factors affect the quality of matcha tea powder? Like humans, tea is a product of nature and nurture. Today we will examine how its nature affects your matcha green tea powder.
This series will take you on an in-depth journey of how a satisfying bowl of matcha came to be - story of how tea is grown, cultivated, processed to become the relaxing drink you have everyday.
It begins with the cultivar
A basic grasp of the indicators of matcha quality: color, aroma, umami and a long finish. The stringency of processing tea can only extract so much from the plucked leaves, to attain the very best tea so much of it relies on the cultivar from which it was grown.
While Esai bought matcha to Japan by planting the seeds he bought from China, modern tea farming relies on cultivars. Cultivars, a combination of the words ‘cultivated’ and ‘variety’, are plants selected from naturally occurring species which are bred to enhance or maintain a particular set of desirable traits. This means that tea farms are essentially ‘clones’ of the cultivar, containing the same DNA and producing the same qualities.
A tea farmer favors cultivars because of its predictability and proven reliability - he knows when to harvest, how much the yield is, and the flavor of the resulting tea in consistent. However, unidentifiable, native varieties of tea called ‘zairai’ has a few advantages - it’s more resistant to pests and diseases, and the sticklers to tradition firmly believe its ‘old Japan’ taste is how tea should be like.
Tea cultivars vary according to color, flavor profile, pest & disease resistance, harvest time,
Etc. , but the Yabukita cultivar is the most popular, with about 76% of the tea in Japan are grown from it, and it constitutes 69% of tea in Kyoto.
Farmers favor yabukita for its hardiness, adaptability to different environmental conditions, resistance to frost, high yield, strong aroma and good flavor. Despite new cultivars being developed, most farmers still favor yabukita because it’s resistance guarantees a stable harvest. It’s downside is its susceptibility to disease and pests which requires extra care. For it’s sheer popularity, most of matcha is grown from yabukita.
The Kyoto cultivars: Gokou, Uji hikari, Samidori
The method of shading tea before harvesting originated from Kyoto so a lot of the cultivars hailing from there are meant for shades teas like matcha, and the best matcha teas are mostly made from these cultivars.
The gokou cultivar is famed for the creaminess and distinctive aroma of the resulting matcha powder. During the shading period the production of chlorophyll goes into overdrive as seen in the dark green leaves of gokou, and later on during processing the notable aroma indicates that the resulting matcha powder will have a strong umami flavor. A bowl of gokou will delight the senses: the aroma of freshly ripened fruits, elegant umami and a refreshing astringent taste to finish.
Uji hikari means ‘the light of Uji’, with ‘Uji’ being the name of the tea-growing region of Uji in Kyoto, and ‘hikari’ meaning ‘light’. Uji hikari matcha is the perfect compromise between yabukita and samidori - velvety, elegant, with a touch of pleasant astringency.
The cultivar naming convention dictates that cultivars ending with ‘midori’, meaning ‘green’ in Japanese, are to be grown for green teas. Like yabukita, samidor has a good resistance against cold weather. Comparing it with yabukita matcha, a bowl of samidori matcha is smooth, soft and velvety.
While some cultivars are intended for a specific kind of tea, a cultivar can be processed to make any kind of tea. Also, it’s not limited to the ones listed here, there are other cultivars that grown all over Japan that grown are grown for matcha.
The next part of this series will be posted in a week. In the meantime, why not fix yourself a relaxing bowl of matcha green tea?