The sprouting tea bush is covered with reeds, straw or an artificial fiber screen for more than 20 days. The freshly picked tea leaves are steamed and dried without rolling. Later, stalks and veins are removed and the remaining soft leaf tissue is ground into a fine powder, Matcha, by a stone mill. – Marukyu Koyamaen
Ceremonial Grade Matcha
There is a lot of confusion as to what constitutes the matcha tea powder used in a tea ceremony. Unfortunately, most people’s first experience with matcha is usually at a cafe, or incorporated into some snack or dessert, where it is often served sweetened, or adulterated with other flavourings like vanilla. This makes it virtually impossible for them to know at any point of time if they are drinking true ceremonial grade matcha, or cooking grade matcha being passed off as ceremonial grade. Likewise, a person accustomed to drinking instant coffee may not be able to distinguish true brewed coffee, as far off as instant coffee is to the real deal. At NUS Sado Club, we consume a wide variety of ceremonial grade matcha as part of our tea ceremony practice on a very frequent basis, as well as have access to some of the best grades of ceremonial matcha, including those favoured by the grandmaster of the Enshu school of tea, amongst others.
As such, we would like to share the following distinguishing factors between ceremonial grade matcha and that of cooking grade matcha.
Colour of the matcha powder should be a bright green. Cooking grade matcha powder may be a pale shade of green to olive green. Improper storage of ceremonial grade matcha will also cause it to lose its bright green colour, and should not be used.
Most ceremonial grade matcha powder will have a very distinctly sweet smell despite containing no other additives, although the characteristic sweet smell itself will vary between teas from different tea companies. This smell is especially prominent when sifting the matcha powder in preparation for a tea ceremony, where the smell can fill an entire room. Cooking grade matcha powder tends to smell grassy, hay-like or vegetative, which carries on into the beverage itself.
Ceremonial grade matcha when prepared may have an initial taste profile that may range from a profound bitterness (yes, there are indeed some rarer ceremonial grade matcha that are notably bitter, but it is not the same kind of bitterness as in cooking grade matcha or sencha) to a lightly sweet taste on the palate, which may or may not end with a sweet aftertaste. Umami notes similar to Gyokuro tea may be present. Some ceremonial grade matcha may have seaweed notes. But no ceremonial grade tea should ever have grassy, hay-like or vegetative notes, and especially not with a lingering bitter and astringent aftertaste.
Ceremonial grade matcha when served should not have any gritty or powdery mouthfeel when drunk. This is distinctly different from the presence of lumps which may be a result of improper preparation.
It is very uncommon for ceremonial grade matcha to be sold in bulk packs in excess of 200g, as tea ceremonies do not typically use a lot of tea at a time. A 200g can makes approximately 133 servings of thin tea. If you can easily buy it in a packaging weight far greater than that (i.e. 1kg), it is likely cooking grade.
Shops selling ceremonial grade matcha should have a few different types of ceremonial tea powder on display/sale. Be wary if only one type of “ceremonial grade” tea is sold.
True ceremonial grade matcha does not come cheap. Even the lower ceremonial grades meant for okeiko practice are clearly more expensive than cooking grade matcha. However, price is unfortunately not a clear indicator, as cooking grade being sold as ceremonial grade can often have the price unscrupulously marked up.
- Tea Name
Ceremonial grade tea should have a Japanese tea name prominently displayed on the packaging, either given by a grand master of a Japanese tea ceremony school, or the tea company which grew/processed/packed the tea. The tea name is essential in a tea ceremony, as the host needs to know what tea he or she is serving the guests, and the guests may ask for the tea name in a similar manner to the name and origins of the tea ceremony utensils used. If the tea has no name, it is highly likely to be cooking grade. That said, some cooking grade teas from prominent tea companies do have names, which means that while a tea name may not be indicative of ceremonial grade, the absence of one should raise a red flag.
- Tea Company Name
This is just as essential as the tea name itself in a tea ceremony, and may be asked by the guests during the ceremony as well. Not having the tea company listed makes the tea highly suspect.
- Recommendation as thick or thin tea
Ceremonial grade tea will frequently have an indicator on the packaging as to whether the tea is intended to be used as thin or thick tea (Usucha or Koicha). Koicha grade tea is far more expensive, as being prepared in a paste like consistency means that is has to be less bitter to the palate, and only the youngest leaves are used. The tea is suspect if it is being served as both indiscriminately outside of tea ceremony okeiko practice, especially if the matcha powder itself is unusually cheap.
- Endorsement by a grandmaster of a Japanese tea ceremony school
It is not necessary for a ceremonial grade matcha to have a formal mark of endorsement by the grandmaster of a tea school, but a tea with one is assured of being ceremonial grade. It is a tradition for the grandmasters of tea schools in Japan to select certain blends of matcha at well established tea companies in Japan and endorse it as an Okonomi, or favoured tea of his tea ceremony school, along with giving the tea itself a name. In particular, you should be able to find out which grandmaster of which tea school endorsed the tea, as well as the tea’s given tea name. Beware of any claims to such endorsements that do not explicitly state the name of the grandmaster endorsing the tea, the tea school and the name of the tea given by the grandmaster.
Where the tea is grown is not an indicator of a ceremonial grade matcha. Often quoted famous tea growing regions in Japan like Uji in Kyoto also produce cooking grade tea, simply due to the fact that in a single tea plant, the youngest leaves are used for ceremonial grade matcha, and the older leaves are used for cooking grade.
- Fancy Labeling
Beware of mistaking terms like “organic” or “premium” on the label as a sign that the tea is ceremonial grade. In fact, most ceremonial grade teas do not have such labels. This is not to say that one should avoid matcha teas that are labeled as “organic”, but rather more of the fact that there are both organic ceremonial grade and organic cooking grade.
- Tea Ceremony Tools
The presence of tea ceremony tools in the shop on display (like the chasen tea whisk and chashaku tea scoop) only means that the shop has decided to display/sell these items. It does not automatically imply that any of the tea sold is ceremonial grade.
It is not true that the concept of “ceremonial grade” is an arbitrary classification, as the above points clearly show that there are distinct differences in appearance, taste and smell between ceremonial grade matcha and other inferior grades. The very meaning of ceremonial is that the matcha is fit to be used in a proper tea ceremony. No tea ceremony master or practitioner will ever serve his or her guests cooking grade matcha, as that would be an insult against the very principles of the tea ceremony itself, which is to serve one’s guests to the utmost possible.
Quick FAQ on Ceremonial Grade Matcha
Do you have any recommendations as to a good ceremonial grade matcha I can get?
Our personal favourite in NUS Sado Club is our grandmaster’s okonomi from Marukyu Koyamaen, Hatsu no Mori. Our grandmaster’s okonomi Momoyo no Mukashi from Kanbayashi Shunsho is also another excellent choice. If cost is not a factor, try Kogetsuen’s Amanohara, which is Koicha grade, and their top blend.
I would like to get a good gauge of what is the minimum standard that can be used as ceremonial grade.
Give Marukyu Koyamaen’s Aoarashi a try. This tea is their lowest and cheapest okeiko (practice) use ceremonial grade matcha, and is our baseline standard as to what ceremonial grade tea should be. From our point of view, matcha of a lower standard than this is not fit for use in a tea ceremony, due to the fact that even with Aoarashi, multiple servings can start to become quickly tiring due to the comparatively harsh and bitter profile as compared to ceremonial grade teas that are of a higher quality. Aoarashi should not be used to serve guests in a formal tea ceremony except in a pinch. That said, it still retains the bright green colour of a ceremonial grade tea, as well as the characteristic sweet smell as with the higher ceremonial grades from Marukyu Koyamaen. The photo on this page on the left is actually Aoarashi, taken in our tea room with no image editing done. You would be surprised though that unfortunately, a lot of teas from various matcha cafes serving matcha as whisked with hot water don’t meet this standard. If you are looking for an affordable option for ceremonial grade matcha for your daily matcha fix, you can’t go wrong with Aoarashi.
So where can I buy ceremonial grade matcha?
Various tea ceremony shops on Rakuten do sell ceremonial grade matcha from varying companies. A favourite Rakuten shop of ours is Kogetsuen, which stocks teas from Marukyu Koyamaen and their own ceremonial grade blends. In Singapore, you can find Fukujuen in Takashimaya B2, opposite Cold Storage. Look out for the various small cans of ceremonial grade matcha they stock at the front of the shop, some of which you can sample on request. Occasionally, some Japanese supermarkets like Sakuraya may stock Kiri no Ne from Itoen, which may work as a substitute for Aoarashi for practice use, although more costly. Isetan supermarket may occasionally have Japan fairs with stalls selling ceremonial grade matcha from tea companies like Ippodo. You should be able to ask for a sample. Avoid other off the shelf supermarket matchas as those are cooking grade. As for the matcha sold at matcha cafes, we tried them but sadly they range from being borderline at best at one of the well known Japanese chains to outright cooking grade at others, so we cannot recommend getting those.
What about those Singapore based websites purportedly importing ceremonial grade matcha?
We are indeed aware of the presence of such websites, many of which are trying to cash in on the matcha trend. For some reason, everyone and their pet are trying to import matcha now. What such websites seem to be doing – sourcing a supplier in Japan, packing the matcha under their own brand and selling it online. As there are too many of these around, we cannot say if the teas sold are genuine ceremonial grade, or inferior matcha being sold as such at first glance, as there may be a handful of them who know what they are doing, yet others may be dishonest, or just cluelessly running after the matcha train. But our stand is simple. Why risk it? If you buy the same stuff that we do, from established tea companies in Japan that have been providing ceremonial grade matcha to many different tea ceremony schools for centuries, we can assure you it is ceremonial grade.
I’ve seen many people classify matcha grades in different ways. According to a tea ceremony practitioner, how many grades of matcha are there?
Four, but we are only concerned with three of them
- Ceremonial grade (Koicha, thick tea)
- Ceremonial grade (Usucha, thin tea)
- Ceremonial grade (Okeiko, practice use, technically subset of usucha grade)
- Cooking grade (Any matcha that does not meet the above grades would be under this category. Unusable for tea ceremony means unusable)
Anything else is likely to be generic green tea powder or wasabi powder.
Hmm, how do I know if the information here about ceremonial grade matcha is reliable?
Trust us. No one knows ceremonial grade matcha better than the people who actually do the tea ceremony itself.
DISCLOSURE: NUS Sado Club is not affiliated with any of the tea companies or shops mentioned, nor do we earn any commissions whatsoever from any recommendations made above. We simply would like to share with readers what true ceremonial grade matcha is, and help prevent the appreciation of ceremonial grade matcha from deteriorating into a confused and disappointing affair.