Last week a friend had asked about some of the green teas we offered in our latest Tea Tip. The question was about how matcha tea is made and how it's different from the other leaf teas. Here I relate some details from one of my previous trips to Japan.
was springtime and I was there to see the tea harvest in Uji. The trip
had started before dawn as my bags were checked onto Druk Air, in the
Paro valley of Bhutan. The Airbus flew from the rugged Himalayas through
the haze over Burma and Thailand. The flight from Bangkok via Hong Kong
took most of the day and a shared taxi to the guesthouse brought me
some much-needed stillness - the movement of arduous travel had ceased.
Priorities changed from boarding passes to finding a larger size of
slippers and understanding how late the bath stayed open. Luckily a
friend was waiting with a good bottle of sake and some advice about the
Uji is located just to the south in the outskirts of Kyoto, where much of the quality tea from Japan is grown. Tea is grown in many areas of Japan including the well known regions of Uji, Shizuoka and Kyushu.
Uji is the center of matcha and gyokuro production although they make many grades of sencha
as well. The town lies on a river and the tea grows in the low hills
near the town. The farmers will either have a small factory by their
fields or use the larger factories that can accommodate a group of
at 2pm we arrived at the headquarters of Koyama-en, an old, respected
matcha company. We were met at their small shop by Mr. Toshimi Koyama,
one of the two brothers who own and run the company today. He invited
us into a tearoom and prepared some sencha.
We sat on tatami mats around an electrically heated tetsubin (cast iron
pot for heating water) from which he ladled water into the teapot.
He showed us all the steps for producing matcha
as we walked though the building. First we saw the raw tea leaf, called
tencha, which is ground between two granite wheels to make the fine
emerald powder known as matcha. Matcha
is a blend made up of different lots of tea for specific flavor
characteristics. The blends are meticulously produced to ensure
consistency for each type. They usually have poetic names which refer to
a season or scene in nature. The tencha is kept in cold storage until
an order for matcha needs to be produced, as the qualities of the tea
are best stored in leaf form. We saw a room where hundreds of wheels
turned in unison, slowly grinding the tea leaves into fine powder, fed
from a funnel above.
man responsible for maintaining the granite grindstones was wiry and
energetic, he'd worked there his entire life and learned the skill from
his father. He explained that the angle and depth of the grooves in the
stone had to be constantly fine tuned for efficient grinding. Now they
buy the granite from Eastern Europe because the crystalline structure
works the best.
The matcha is then sealed into airtight tins before being packed into cases and shipped out. Most of the fine grades of matcha
are consumed in Japan, and the supply is limited. The lower grades are
more plentiful and the ingredient grade ubiquitous for export. Koyama-en's matcha
is one of the most respected in Japan, particularly by the Tea Ceremony
schools; the Urasenke's grandmaster personally has endorsed their matcha.
It is certainly one to try, so we made the effort to import it directly
for our consumers here in the U.S., so we, too can taste what the
grandmasters are appreciating
Travel Diary, Japan 2010
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