The Matcha Journey, Part 2: Shading
In Part 2, we tackle nurture. Discover what a few weeks in darkness gives matcha what the light can’t. Read Part 1 here
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.
Thriving in the dark
The shading process is where matcha diverges from typical path that other teas undergo. It’s a critical step to attaining quality, nutritious and flavorful matcha.
While matcha is kept under the shade a month before harvesting, green tea is kept under the bright, blinding heat of the sun especially during the long months of summer, and the direct exposure to sunlight turns the l-theanine to tannins, the compound that makes tea bitter. Under the shade, the tea bush is deprived of sunlight it needs to photosynthesize and feed itself so to compensate it boosts its production of chlorophyll.
The leaves are broader and thinner making them easily to ground into fine powder, and it’s noticeably brighter and more vibrant.
Perhaps the biggest change is beyond what the human eye can see - the nutritional content. Blocking out the sun retains the L-theanine that gives matcha the amazing cognitive function improvement, stress relief and increased focus that matcha is known for. The effects of growing in shade can be smelled and tasted. Open a new tin of matcha and a sweet aroma will pervade, and take a sip of matcha and you’ll taste a similar sweetness, both due to the shading process.
Tea farmers practice two major types of shading:
Tea bushes are enclosed in bamboo frames which are then draped with straw mats, burlap, or loose rice mats one month before harvest. Additional layers are added over as harvest time draws closer. This makes the younger leaves, the ones picked for matcha, an extra boost of flavor. An advantage of canopy shading is that the amount of sunlight is adjustable, however, the leaves grow freely making it necessary to pluck the leaves by hand.
Hand picked leaves jack up matcha’s price, but despite its cost it delivers superior quality: only the best leaves are selected to be harvested. Nothing beats the trained eyes and the expert touch of expert farmers.
It isn’t unusual to see fields of tea wrapped in black mesh netting (‘shakoami’) before harvest season. These plastic nets provide the tea with 90% shade. Direct contact with the netting forces the leaves to point downward, softening it. There is a downside to this too - constant contact with the mesh can reduce leaf quality.
Tea bushes under this type of shading are usually machine harvested. These machines can shape the tea bush into hedges that are easier to wrap the net around.
Tea bushes meant for matcha are usually shaded for four weeks starting from April but lesser quality tea can be shaded for 2 weeks only.
- Sencha, called Kabusecha when shaded, is shaded for one week
- Gyokuro is shaded for 20 days
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