But first, a disclaimer: Much like wine, matcha is sold in a very wide range of quality levels (and a very wide range of price points to match). This quality is determined by where it is grown, how it is cultivated, when it is harvested, and how it is processed. Grade designation and pricing is entirely up to the brand selling the matcha - so please keep that in mind and always purchase matcha from a trusted source, with accurately assigned grades and fair pricing for the grade of matcha you receive. We take great pride in producing high quality matcha across all grades, including our later harvest offerings
Oftentimes, you will see brands pitting Ceremonial Grade Matcha against Culinary Grade Matcha; claiming Ceremonial's superiority. Technically, Ceremonial Grade matcha is made of higher quality tea leaves than Culinary Grade, but that is with intention because Japanese tea farmers cultivate and process the two grades of matcha for two very different preparations and use cases. Comparing the two is like comparing apples to oranges.
Harvesting Seasons in Japan
Green tea plants known as Camellia Sinensis are shaded in darkness for 25-30 days before harvest.
Shading methods vary from farmer to farmer, but the intention remains the same: to protect delicate tea leaves from frostbite and to boost nutrient production by suppressing photosynthesis which prevents amino acids in the tea leaves to convert into catechins (the antioxidant known to impart bitter qualities). Inhibiting sunlight during this period results in producing thinner, more delicate tea leaves which are often more darker and deeper in color.
Ceremonial Grade Matcha
Young tea leaves and buds picked for Ceremonial Grade matcha are harvested during Ichibancha (literally meaning “first tea” or First Harvest season from late April to May) and is regarded as the highest quality one can consume. They are found at the very top of the tea bush and are extremely delicate, imparting a natural sweetness to matcha due to its higher concentration of L-theanine. Another characteristic to note is that younger tea leaves contain more chlorophyll than the older tea leaves harvested for culinary grade matcha, which is responsible for imparting more of a vibrant green hue to ceremonial grade matcha.
Culinary Grade Matcha
Tea leaves processed into Culinary Grade matcha are harvested during Second Harvest or Nibancha (meaning “second tea” and refers to the Second Harvest of the year taking place from June to the end of July) and Sanbancha (meaning "third tea" and refers to the Third Harvest season). These tea leaves are “older” and have been exposed to more sunlight than the younger tea leaves reserved for Ceremonial Grade matcha, which impart a rich, bolder flavor due to higher concentrations of antioxidants known as catechins (contributing more of those “bitter” notes once culinary grade matcha is prepared) and still provides a beautiful color. Culinary Grade matcha is often referred to as “lower quality” than Ceremonial Grade, which is partly true due to the information shared above, but this in no way means that Ceremonial Grade is better than Culinary Grade; they each have different use cases and preparation guidelines and should not be compared to one another. One thing to keep in mind when trying to determine which grade will best suit your needs is considering the intended use case.
Is the color of matcha the only factor I should consider when assessing quality?
Some brands will form their argument and claim that their matcha is better or higher quality on the sole basis of comparing the color (or shade) of matcha, but there's so much more to consider when assessing quality and understanding the various shades of matcha can have. Here are some things to keep in mind when assessing color.
Ceremonial Grade Matcha is more vibrant and has a deeper shade of green as its made of the youngest tea leaves that have higher concentrations of chlorophyll. Culinary Grade Matcha has a more subdued shade of green that is still beautiful in color as its made of older tea leaves that have had more exposure to sunlight.
Cultivars are group of tea plants that have been bred to embody desirable characteristics (for example: the ability to withstand certain temperatures/micro climates) when cultivated. Various leaves of cultivars differ in shade of color from having a deeper green leaf like Okumidori, to having yellow tones presents in its leaves like Samidori. Understanding the cultivar(s) used in your matcha powder can be very empowering and should be kept in mind when assessing color. Fun fact: There are over 200 registered cultivars in Japan. The Cultivar Yabukita makes up approximately 80% of all Japanese tea because of its ability to thrive and survive in various microclimates.
Organic vs. Conventional farming methods
Organic matcha will tend to have a slightly less vibrant green color, and less sweet taste than a non-organic matcha of comparable grade. Matcha tea leaves (Tencha tea leaves) are shade-grown to produce the high levels of Chlorophyll and Amino Acids (L-Theanine), that gives matcha its vibrant green color, and enhances the natural sweetness, however, as matcha tea leaves do not get energy from the sun, they need to get it from somewhere else, usually fertilizers. Organic fertilizers are effective (and desirable from a health standpoint), but need over 3 months to take effect. When compared to synthetic fertilizers, organic options do not give the plants as much energy to develop maximum Chlorophyll and Amino Acid content. At the end of the day, however, organically grown tea is better for both the environment and those of us consuming it.
Oxidation refers to the series of chemical reactions that result in the browning of tea leaves and matcha powder. It occurs naturally when your matcha powder is exposed to light, heat, and/or oxygen.
The best method to slow down the rate of oxidation is to keep your matcha stored in an airtight tin or pouch (like the tins and pouches our matcha arrives to you with) then store it in the refrigerator or freezer. If you do plan on transferring your matcha powder to a different container, be sure it is airtight and protects it from UV rays in light (avoid using clear containers like mason jars).
Are there differences in health benefits?
As far as health benefits, our grades of matcha have similar base nutrient profiles; however, Ceremonial Matcha will have a higher caffeine and l-theanine content (good for energy and focus), while later harvest grades, like Culinary, will actually have a slightly higher antioxidant catechin content.
Which Grade of Matcha is Best for Me?
As we shared above, Ceremonial Grade and Culinary Grade matcha have very different purposes and use cases. It is entirely up to your personal preference which grade of matcha you use for your own enjoyment (plenty of folks use culinary matcha for tea, while others won’t even bake cookies with anything less than ceremonial). Our grade designations are simply guidelines for what we think works best for each use case.
If you’re a purist and enjoy drinking matcha as a traditional tea (like in a chawan) we recommend using our offerings that were harvested during Ichibancha (First Harvest): Limited Edition Matcha, Ceremonial Grade Matcha or Barista Edition Matcha.
If you enjoy making delicious matcha lattes, smoothies or using matcha for culinary (baking) or skincare purposes, we recommend exploring our: Barista Edition Matcha, Culinary Grade Matcha, and Ingredient Grade Matcha offerings. We even have a lightly sweetened Cafe Style Matcha Latte Mix for those of you looking to easily re-create your favorite cafe-style matcha lattes at home!