Nicole Wong • December 20, 2018
The Road to Tencha
Top: tea leaves that have been processed into tencha. This particular harvest is of the Saemidori cultivar, which is blended into our Kodemari house matcha. Bottom: Kodemari.
Translating to “mortar/grind tea,” the later steps its destined for, tencha is the finished-unfinished product of growing, cultivating, and harvesting. If you’re keen on your high-end Japanese teas, its cultivation is the same as gyokuro, the forest green, shade-grown tea, and shincha, the hand-picked first flush harvest.
In the winter, starting in late October, tea bushes begin to amass soil-rooted nutrients to withstand the season’s icy frost. After blossoming in the spring, around early February, the tea bush thaws, resuming its growth. By feeding its sprouting buds after hibernation, the leaves release far more nutrients in its leaves than harvests of other seasons. These nutrients (amino acids, polyphenols, flavonols, and the like) are responsible for that high-end taste: subtle sweetness, zero bitterness, zero astringency.
Growing multiple cultivars in their fields, farmers will shade the tea leaves for 20-28 days, depending on when those tea leaves sprout. Bamboo reeds were and are used traditionally, but suspended aluminum canopies and kanreisha curtains draped directly over the leaves are modern methods. Tea leaves that have elevated shade are reserved for exquisitely artisan harvests of gyokuro and matcha; tea leaves that have direct shade are considered lower-quality. Elevated shade means more space and temperature regulation for those tea bushes to grow. However, having to build and dismantle those shades at the beginning and end of each season is an extremely grueling process, which is where direct shade can be considered “efficient.”
The method of harvesting is also an important question to ask in matcha production. As you can imagine, the more labor required to invest in it is, the smaller the yield. Though Japan has made incredible strides in machine harvest techniques (compared to other machine-harvest teas, Japan’s tea quality is distinctively uncompromising), gyokuro, tencha, and shincha are best hand-plucked, as each tea leaf is picked discriminately to create a truly flawless tea.
Tencha produces a pale, mellow liquor tasting of sweet sea kelp. Many steps later in the process, tencha will be transformed into full-bodied, unctuous matcha.
After harvesting, the leaves must be quickly shipped to production. As these delicate tea leaves retain more moisture than its later heartier harvests, they should be processed within 24 hours of plucking. First steamed, then de-stemmed and de-veined, and then dried, the finished tencha-unfinished matcha is an echo of how it will taste after grinding. It’s a pale liquor with a deep and mellow flavor, resembling little of the unctuous, full-bodied matcha it will eventually become.
If we went even further back than the seasons, it would involve a triad of factors: the farmers of the present, the farms of the near past, and the regions of the distant past.
The history of the region is important to take into consideration with quality matcha. The more established its tencha production is, the most definitely the better. Some regions have centuries of tradition locked into their craft - Yame, where our Kodemari and Mokuren matcha is sourced, and Kyotanabe, where Toyo is - have 800 and 1,000 years of practicing tencha techniques. Despite modern innovations in processing, construction, and technology, nothing has remotely come close to what the hands and years of tradition craft.
The legacy of the farm, built in the geological trifecta of elevation, field position, and weather, is key to matcha’s taste. These factors affect the integrity and health of the tea plant as well. Higher elevations and cooler temperatures stave off insects, mountain terrain results in a slower growth (especially for spring harvests, the best season to make matcha), and less sunlight produces chlorophyll-intense leaves.
The skill of the farmers is crucial, as it goes without saying. Exemplary qualifications would mean the farm is multi-generational, with a 20-plus year ancestry that passes down its skills and techniques to the present. Specializing in tencha is a prerequisite, at least in sourcing our matcha. The ultra-specificity in Japanese tea production roles - from farmer to tencha processing to matcha making - means that every small, yet no less integral, step is meticulous and deliberate.
As you now know: even before it becomes matcha, tencha is an intensive, multi-layered process that requires care and precision. Budget “matcha” tends to be rare; if you find a Japanese-origin steal in your grocery store, it might be konacha, or powdered generic green tea. Because the demand has skyrocketed in Western markets, many matcha products have been outsourced to China, Taiwan, and Japanese regions with no history of matcha production. The possible risks in choosing these not-quite-matcha products is the quality and consumer oversight: Japan has high quality standards that few countries match.
No matter how you’re drinking it, it’s important to check where your matcha comes from. Our dedication to finding accessible, quality matcha means a pledge to transparency: you’ll always know what’s going to be in your cup.
Want to step back a bit and learn about matcha’s origins? Read here.