For most people, matcha green tea powder is a strictly Japanese tea (after all, only about 2% of the matcha produced in Japan is exported), synonymous with a tea culture that dates back to the 12th century, when ground tea was first introduced to the archipelago.
Still, ever since matcha green tea powder began to be exported to the West, other countries—namely China—have started to grow and produce a form of green tea powder that has become popular on the matcha market for its attractive price and availability.
Long before we launched Maru Matcha, we decided to investigate deeper into Chinese “matcha” green tea powder to find out if it really could rival Japanese matcha. Here’s what we found out about Chinese and Japanese matcha green tea powder, and what you should know:
China is the birthplace of tea, but...
All green and black teas derive from the same very special plant, Camelia Sinensis, which was first discovered along rolling, misty hills in Southwest China. An instant sensation in Tang Dynasty China, tea soon came to play an integral part in all Chinese daily life, as it continues to today.
In the 1191 AD, the Japanese Zen Buddhist monk Eisai arrived back to Japan from a trip to China with a new kind of tea, tencha, that had been steamed and ground into a fine powder then packed into cakes for easy transport.
Though at first exclusively used by Zen Buddhist monks as a meditation aid, powdered green tea soon became a favourite of the Shōgun and the warrior class. By the 16th century, matcha green tea powder became the star of the tea ceremony (chadō or chanoyu) —a highly intricate tea drinking ritual that celebrates simplicity, tranquility and mutual respect.
What makes Japanese and Chinese green tea different
While ground green tea powder eventually lost favor in China, it flourished throughout Japan: matcha production methods have been honed and optimized in Japan for nearly 800 years in pursuit of the perfect, electric green powder with a subtly sweet umami taste.
Meanwhile, China, India, Korea, and other regions of Asia developed their own tea production methods to suit their own tastes. Chinese green tea is still among the most precious in the world—and has its own, wonderfully complex history and culture—but at the end of the day, it’s very different than Japanese green tea.
“Matcha” green tea powder started to be produced in China about 15 years ago, when a global demand for green tea-flavored foods. Mass-produced products, like bottled iced tea, don’t require an especially good quality of tea. But as matcha began to be exported from Japan, Chinese tea farms realised that they could approximate Japanese green tea growing and matcha processing techniques, like shading and grinding, to compete with the Japanese market.
Approximate is the operative word here: the similarities between Chinese green tea powder and Japanese matcha stop at the word powder. The terroir (or soil characteristics) in South West China are quite different than Southern Japan, and produce a completely different tea.
Chinese “matcha” green tea powder neither tastes nor looks anything like Japanese matcha: more often than not, it’s lacklustre in color and slightly sandy in texture, making it tough to foam. Here’s one of the better Chinese green tea powders we tried:
Notice the pale, sandy green color and dull texture?
Once tea leaves are harvested, they need to be dried quickly to stop oxidation, which can otherwise dull the taste and appearance of tea. Chinese and Japanese producers have different techniques for growing and producing matcha:
- In China, green tea is not typically shade-grown and is dried by “pan-frying” to stop oxidation. This process lightly ferments the tea, subtly changing its color and the flavor. When “matcha” green tea powder is made in China, this traditional Chinese process is often replicated, leading to a duller color and taste than Japanese matcha.
- In Japan, by contrast, tea is steamed then air-dried, locking in the young tea leaves’ bright green color and sweet, vegetal flavor.
In March 2011, central Japan was struck by a powerful earthquake and tsunami that flooded a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. While Tōhoku earthquake had a huge emotional impact on all of Japan, only regions in central Japan—Chiba, Fukushima, Gunma, Ibaraki, Kanagawa, Shizuoka, Tochigi, and Tokyo—recorded hazardous radiation levels in food thereafter. In Japan’s tea growing regions, such as Ise and Uji where Maru Matcha is grown, no significant radiation levels were recorded pre or post-2011.
China started to draw ire from the European Union, the United States, and Canada in 2006, when 32% of Chinese green tea samples were found to exceed the limit of 2 micrograms per teaspoon. No Japanese tea leaves tested exceeded this limit. In 2013, Greenpeace randomly tested 18 different Chinese teas, and found that 12 of them contained pesticides—including methomyl and endosulfan—that are banned under the Stockholm convention.
When we were first starting Maru Matcha, we dutifully went through dozens upon dozens of samples from all over Japan and China—from some real “mud” that smelled like ground up hay to some truly spectacular, psychedelic-green powders with a near-mystical aura (and price tag). With no exception, we never found a Chinese “matcha” green tea powder that met our stringent standards.
This isn’t to say, of course, that we at Maru Matcha don’t adore tea from China, or that a regional product can’t be reproduced in new settings. But, traditional know-how, hundreds of years of trial and error, and an honest-to-goodness love for what you make speaks pretty loudly, we’d say.