The very best matcha gets harvested by hand only once per year around May. About six weeks before harvest (aka now) the tea fields are covered — beginning at the top. But why? Find out below!
Decreasing the amount of sunlight shining on the plants slows photosynthesis. Ceremonial grade matcha is grown in near-darkness by the time harvest rolls around - these leaves are restricted to about 30% of the sunlight they normally receive. The decreased access to sunlight is a carefully calculated action taken to increase the amounts of both chlorophyll and amino acids in each leaf, resulting in the increased nutritional content (antioxidants, l-theanine, EGCg).
This increased amino acid content increases concentration on glutamates, which are responsible for matcha's umami. The best matcha is sweet and creamy in part because of this higher amino acid content!!
Much like Hollywood, the smallest and youngest (greenest) parts of the plant are picked. These Tencha leaves (premium green tea leaves that are turned into matcha) are then tumble-sifted to remove stems etc, and then flash-steamed for about 10 seconds to stop the oxidation process. This is a key step on the journey from leaf to matcha, that preserves the bright color and nutrients. These (green tea leaves used for matcha) leaves are then air-dried in a giant net that closely resembles a butterfly net you may have experienced as a kid! This is the gentlest way of drying the leaves without doing any damage to the structural integrity of the leaves.
The leaves that make it through this round are called Aracha (semi-processed green tea leaves). The Aracha is kept refrigerated until it’s ready to be ground. Fun fact: hundreds of years ago these leaves would be stored with the monks in mountain temples with high altitude to keep them at the required temperature.
Once the leaves are ready to be made into matcha they are ground into the fine powder you know and love by masterfully crafted granite wheels. There are only very few artisans in Japan actually capable of creating these matcha-grinding wonders! Graham and I met the duo (apprentice + master) that created and maintain these stone masterpieces for our Farming partners and they explained how there is a minimum 10-year apprenticeship required to be eligible for this position.
It takes more than an hour to grind 30 grams of matcha — our entry-level tin. Every spoonful of our matcha is thanks to the amazing hard work and dedication to the process that our farming partners bring to the table every day. We are consistently grateful and humbled for this relationship and one of the many reasons why we've been working with them for 6 years now. I hope you enjoyed this little rabbit hole exploration of process. It is so important to reflect on and honor how much effort and skill goes into each epic cup of matcha we consume (and we consume many)!