Comparing 2 single-cultivar matcha
Why do we love matcha so much?
Personally, I love its color, sweetness, cocoa butter notes, hints of freshly cut grass (even better if there’s some umami taste), rich persistent foam and creamy mouthfeel. Honestly, I’ve been wanting to take it to the next level of tea geekness for a while. Unexpectedly, I found an intriguing method for matcha evaluation on the Kettl Tea blog (*). When I managed to find and get my hands on 2 single-cultivar matcha, the stars aligned. I had to compare them in a systematic way. The idea of “decoding” matcha is pretty exciting and I ended up learning more than I had ever expected to.
You might be wondering, what is a cultivar? “A cultivar is a cultivated variety, a plant that has been selectively bred for its desirable traits” (World of Tea). In Japan Yabukita is the dominant cultivar, so much so that “earlier or later harvests of all other tea cultivars in Japan became based on the harvest period of Yabukita” (**) (Chika Yagi, Namiko Ikeda and Dwight Sato). Cultivars are registered with the Japan Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry but registering a cultivar is optional. If you are interested in more details, I recommend reading Ricardo Caceido’s blog, My Japanese Green Tea (link in the footnotes).
The single-cultivar matcha I’m going to evaluate here is from the Okumidori and Saemidori cultivars. Okumidori is a high yielding cultivar registered in 1974. It was developed in Shizuoka prefecture from a hybrid of Yabukita and a Shizuoka native variety. It is harvested 8 days later than Yabukita. The Saemidori cultivar (literally, "bright green") is grown in warmer climates (like Kyushu Island) and was registered in 1990. It’s a cross between Yabukita and Asatsuyu and can be harvested up to 7 days earlier than Yabukita.
Let’s evaluate side by side.
First, let’s take a look at the packaging. Both types of matcha are packaged in a thick black glass jar with black plastic screw-on lid. Inside, the matcha is in a non-resealable foil pouch. The information available on the jar is serving size, how to prepare a bowl of matcha with pictures, origin, best by date, lot number, ingredients, organic certification, net weight, cultivar. On the foil pouch label you can find item name, ingredients, net weight, origin, lot number and imported by.
Now, let’s open the foil pouch. Stick your nose in there. What do you smell?
Okumidori - fresh, savory, nutty
Saemidori - sweet, nutty, milder aroma than Okumidori
Time for the color test. The method I followed recommend taking a small amount of matcha and spreading it in a smear on a piece of white printer paper, with different types of matcha side by side (see photo above).
Okumidori - bright green, slightly darker than Saemidori, consistent color, smooth texture, but it seems to be coarser that Saemidori
Saemidori - lighter, paler green with slight yellow hue, consistent color, smooth texture
In a small, white ceramic cup, I put a small amount of matcha and added 2-3 teaspoons (10 - 15 ml) of hot water at 195 F (90 C). I used my chashaku (bamboo scoop) to mix the matcha with water without creating foam. This way it was easier to evaluate the color and particles.
Second smell test
Okumidori - on the nose it’s vegetal, notes of freshly shelled peas. It’s emerald green, a deeper shade than the Saemidori, particles suspended are larger than Saemidori
Saemidori - very mild and sweet on the nose, notes of asparagus. Lighter green than the Okumidori, faint yellow hues, particles suspended are smaller that Okumidori
After 20 minutes, the matcha will settle at the bottom of the cup. Evaluate the color again by looking at the edge (it’s easier against the white cup, see picture below).
Okumidori - emerald green
Saemidori - bright green with yellow hues
Mix the matcha with a spoon (I used the end of my bamboo scoop again) and slurp. At this point, it will be a cold, concentrated shot of flavor.
Okumidori - vegetal, notes of fresh spinach, umami
Saemidori - sweet, notes of asparagus and shelled peas
Last but not least, I prepared both types of matcha like I would normally do, ceremonial style, in a chawan (bowl) with a chasen (bamboo whisk). This step was not part of the original core method, but I thought it would complete the evaluation. I used 1 tsp (2g) per 2.5 oz (75 ml) of water at 160°F (71 C). The Okumidori was sweet and vegetal, robust, with a touch of astringency at the back with a creamy, mouth coating mouth feel. The Saemidori was bitter. I was clueless why. Then my dear friend Geoffrey aka The Lazy Literatus came to my rescue with his seasoned tea advice. I usually sift my matcha powder in the bowl, add a touch of hot water to make a paste, then add the rest of the water and whisk. He suggested I use room temperature water to make the matcha paste. That was a great piece of advice and it worked! Since the Saemidori is more finely ground, it’s more finicky and it’s easier to mess up and get a bitter result. I can’t believe I had never heard of this trick before! The Saemidori ended up being much milder in taste than the Okumidori. Personally, I preferred the latter, but it’s a matter of taste. I think both types are good quality, maybe not the highest quality I’ve ever had but still good.
Have you ever tried evaluating your matcha in a similar way? Which of the two types of matcha would be your favorite? Let me know in the comments below!
(*) Kettl, Evaluating the tea you have
(**) Characteristics of Eight Japanese Tea Cultivars (Chika Yagi, Namiko Ikeda, and Dwight Sato)
Ricardo Caceido’s blog, My Japanese Green Tea, Japanese Tea Cultivar List
World of Tea, Cultivar Database
Disclaimer: I was not paid to mention or review businesses, products or services. This is my honest opinion.