Well, quite a bit of time has passed since I last posted, I definitely wasn’t expecting that to happen but a mixture of managing a chronic illness and moving house meant I just did not have the time to write posts, do tasting session or take pictures. We have now moved house though and I should be able to start working on content again when my health allows. I’ve definitely missed posting and being creative so I’m very happy to be back. For my first post back I wanted to post a Matcha Monday Masterclasses post and continue the series but I wanted to do a different kind of post than I would normally do for this series so I invited Ian Chun from Yunomi.Life to come and do a Q&A and thankfully he agreed to do so!
As I’m sure you’ll know if you’ve been reading my blog over the last few years, Yunomi are the tea company who introduced me to Japanese tea and have helped me learn so much about it over the years which has definitely resulted in me developing a huge passion and appreciation for Japanese tea that I’m incredibly thankful for. For this Q&A there are 10 questions in total covering all things Matcha as well as an insight into Yunomi.Life and tea culture in Japan. I was initially going to split this post into two but I wanted you all to be able to take it all in, in one go and make sure that if you ever wanted to come back and find an answer to something you would only have to go to one post. It’s definitely resulted in a long post though so make sure you have a cup of tea ready before you get stuck into reading.
1) Why did you start Yunomi? In my opinion Yunomi is currently the ultimate place online to buy Japanese tea / teaware and learn more about it, I’m sure many people out there who love and have learnt about Japanese Tea through you are incredibly thankful that you chose to create Yunomi and would like to know more about the story and the reason behind the choices you made to get Yunomi to the point where it is now.
I was helping Obubu, NaturaliTea, Kurihara Tea and a few other tea farms and food producers with their overseas expansion through e-commerce between 2010 and 2012. I opted to take my freelance work to the next level and that turned out to be an aggregate ecommerce website, what is now Yunomi.life.
I was inspired by friends who were creating startups: they were not out to make money per se, but to have an impact on society. That is one way of looking at a scrappy young business and saying it’s a startup vs a side hustle or an emerging small business. As a startup founder, you want to have impact.
The impact that I wanted to have was spreading Japanese culture and helping the small scale producers whose products are the artifacts of culture. Tea just happens to be one of those artifacts of Japanese culture, both contemporary and traditional. Yunomi.life is not YunomiTea.com for this reason. It’s not meant to be a tea company but a platform that helps a broad spectrum of producers. Tea happens to be the main focus, and will likely always be the pillar, but we will end up incorporating products from a wide variety of industries in order to provide a life steeped in tea.
And because the people behind these products are so important to me, I also feel that commerce becomes a form of communication between producer and consumer (with Yunomi.life as an interpreter).
At scale, if we grow to become a billion-dollar company for example while adhering to these precepts, I think we effect positive change in several ways: the spread of a love and an understanding of Japanese culture, the revitalization of certain production industries in decline domestically like the tea industry, and finally a more human approach to commerce where consumers are aware and conscious of the intent (the dedication and passion) of the producers through the products that are consumed.
But it has been a long, hard path, and truthfully, I certainly wish I could go back to the start and do many things differently. Too often I wonder whether we shouldn’t have just made a more conventional tea brand from the start and grow from there… Though that was never my intention so I doubt there was a path ten years ago that would have led me to creating a more conventional tea brand.
2) Since starting Yunomi what are the most important things you have learnt about Matcha?
First that there is a lot of misinformation, misunderstanding and marketing gimmick in the industry surrounding Matcha. Quite sad really. For example, brands (non-producers) make so many assumptions about the product they procure, and then present those assumptions as fact. Matcha is stone mill ground therefore their Matcha is stone mill ground. However, most Matcha (in the widest definition) is not stone mill ground and other forms of pulverization can lead to stone mill ground level quality. And vice versa, you can use a ball mill grinder to grind the Matcha to very premium level.
3) How important is Matcha in Japan in everyday life? In the media and online in a lot of places those of us who don’t live in Japan are told that Japan loves Matcha and most people who live there will drink it every day in some way shape or form. Is that true?
In daily life, pure Matcha is almost non-existent as a drink. No one drinks Matcha here in Japan as a drink unless it’s a latte at a café, or eaten as a flavouring in a chocolate or cake, etc. As a blended drink and flavouring, like a latte, it is available everywhere though. As drinks in convenience stores, at cafes, as all kinds of foods…
4) When looking to purchase and try new Matcha what should my readers look for to ensure they will be drinking high quality Matcha? What are the main differences between quality?
I have several great posts about Matcha quality at Yunomi.life / Matcha but basically good quality is strong umami, weak bitter/astringent flavours, rich flavourful and sweet aroma, vibrant green colour, and smooth texture. You can see a little of this in photos but colour can easily be altered. So it’s hard to tell online.
5) What is your favourite way to prepare your bowl of Matcha? What are the most common mistakes made by people who are new to it and may not have come into contact with the right information or haven’t had a chance to fully learn yet?
This is my recipe for Matcha: sift 2g of Matcha into a bowl, pour in a spoonful of hot water (70-80C) and mix into a paste with my whisk (this is actually like making Koicha), then taste a bit. Afterwards, I’ll pour in more water, about 100 ml and drink.
I do think that many people have not tried really good Matcha. The explosion of umami in your mouth level of good Matcha. But the most common mistake might be using too much water actually. Especially for those who can’t seem to get foam; either their Matcha is too low grade or they are putting in way too much water. That being said, very diluted Matcha is actually not bad in itself (1g / 500 ml), a light, sweet green tea.
6) I know you are probably trying new Matchas all the time but what would you say is the best Matcha you have ever had the chance to try?
Most definitely Zuisho by Shogyokuen or Tenkei by Aoi Seicha. The ones from Tsujiki Tea Garden as well. But in all, I would not claim to be a connoisseur in being able to identify individual flavours within a high grade Matcha. I can tell that it is very high grade, high grade, medium, etc., but to be even more specific is beyond my own abilities as a taster.
7) How do different cultivars affect the way that Matcha tastes? Do producers tend to only focus on one cultivar? Are there certain cultivars that are more sought after than others?
Farmers always have multiple cultivars because you need to vary the harvest time, and you want multiple cultivars to be able to blend (or to provide blending for producers down the supply chain). Having multiple cultivars allows a blender to create consistent flavour throughout the year as the recipe can be adjusted as the tea leaves age.
Certain cultivars though are definitely more sought after than others: Saemidori for example. It may have more sweetness in its flavour. Or some like Okumidori which might producer a greener colour. Or the standard Yabukita, which offers decent quality and is easy to cultivate (resistant against disease). If you grow an excellent but delicate cultivar like Asahi, you can have an amazing leaf sometimes, but the risk is that the leaf might be susceptible to damage by weather, disease or pests, and you’d have lost your crop for the year. That’s a huge risk. While factories use multiple cultivars (and production lots in general) to blend and create consistent flavour year-round, farmers mitigate cultivate diverse cultivars in order to mitigate the risk of a bad crop.
8) How do different environmental aspects i.e weather, location, elevation, seasons, growing and farming techniques etc effect that way that Matcha tastes.
Weather – in general, the most highly valued Matcha is made from leaves from the spring harvest. However, the weather as the leaves grow — particularly the cold weather in March and April, but also heavy rain and winds — can damage the leaves. Damaged leaves begin the processing of withering (oxidization, like an apply when it is cut) and that degrades the quality of the leaf (though in certain rare cases it can make an interesting oxidized leaf, something like an Oolong).
Location is important in terms of the elevation, the quality of the soil, the weather and climate of that location. Higher elevations tend to be warm later than lower elevations, so the leaves grow more slowly and tend to stay more tender for a longer period of time. Tender leaf is more delicate and creates higher quality Matcha. Soil can be developed over time with proper maintenance (fertilization, development of microbial environment, etc), but the terrain — the amount of rain, the drainage of water, and the amount sunlight the field gets can change the way the leaf develops. Farmers might need to put in drainage pipes underground before planting a new field to ensure the water drains from the field properly after heavy rain.
Seasons – the spring season is when both the most amount of leaves are produced by a plant and the most amount of flavour is infused into the leaf by the plant. Because of the higher number of leaves, a farmer can harvest the leaf at a younger stage to get enough of a yield, and can earn enough due to the higher price of that leaf. For summer and autumn harvests, because the price is lower, a farmer will allow the leaf to grow much larger and stiffer resulting in less umami content and more bitterness. The lower quality and lower price per kilogram is made up by the volume.
There are other techniques too: for example in the highest quality Matcha (and Gyokuro), leaves are allowed to grow freely underneath canopy shading rather than having a hedge shaped by a mechanical pruner. The shaping by the pruner ensures that only new leaf is harvested when the same pruner is then used to harvest later. Allowing the plant to grow freely prevents you from using the pruner, and instead requires hand picking. The lower level of stress on the plant produces better leaves, and the canopy shading, if it uses the most traditional straw method for shading, can be adjusted for the amount of sunlight depending on the day and the time in the season. Also the best farmers will, for example, pluck the apex bud preventing the plant from extending the branch, and instead forcing nutrients into lateral buds that grow off of older base leaves. This creates higher crop yield for the field while creating consistently high quality leaves (instead of getting one leaf per branch that is the best, you’ll get 6-8 leaves per branch that are just an insignificant notch below in quality).
Farmers also have their own fertilization techniques, and use different fertilization material. The higher amount of nitrogen that a plant gets, the more nutrients it will produce…i.e. the more umami flavour it will get. However, if the leaf is too good, it will also attract pests. Higher elevation will have fewer insects so that is one mitigating factor, but in the end, an amazingly good field would also need an amazingly good pest management system. This is also generally why the highest quality organic Matcha doesn’t compare in umami flavour to matcha grown more conventionally (i.e. using pesticides to manage the insects).
Storage is also another aspect that is very important. Tencha leaf can be stored for years if airtight and deep frozen (-20C). And 2-3 year old Tencha leaf can also be used to make very very high quality Matcha. As the leaf ages while in deep freeze, the bitterness degrades more than the umami components resulting in a higher concentration of umami. However, after grinding, the Matcha itself degrades fairly quickly. This is more noticeable with higher grade Matcha than lower grade Matcha of course, but after 6 months, if you have a good palette, a side by side comparison will be noticeably different — you can see the change in colour, smell a lack of aroma, taste a difference in richness. After 12 months, that difference should be noticeable by memory of what it should have tasted. Without proper storage…like on a supermarket shelf or a hot warehouse…I think this might be the reason why a lot of Matcha in the West is not so good even though it may have been good to start with. (Or maybe brands are just taking too high of a margin and the Matcha itself was low quality to begin with).
9) How much work went into creating your Matcha grading system? Do you think that Matcha should be more regulated worldwide so there is a specific detailed grading system (like yours) that producers should have to follow to ensure that people are getting what they are looking for.
Truthfully, I wrote the grading system in a day—based on years of experience (and frustration with what I saw on the market). I don’t think it’s perfect, and probably pretty difficult to understand for beginners: there are 4 culinary grades and 6 ceremonial grades…that’s a lot to consider. But a big manufacturer would have 20-30 different grades actually. Or rather 20-30 different gradations of quality.
A few notes: when getting into the heritage grade level, getting that extra bit of richness and umami in the flavour takes exponentially more work for less yield, so you see an exponential increase in price. But that extra bit of quality only really lasts for a few months after grinding. 6-12 months after grinding, and I think the quality becomes comparable to imperial level. Between any two levels, the difference may be only slight, especially for someone who is not a professional taster or an experienced connoisseur.
- Heritage Grade – Must follow all traditional cultivation and production methods. Made from the best quality spring-harvested tencha.
- Modern Heritage Grade – Must follow all traditional cultivation and production methods, except the canopy shading material may be artificial material (usually plastic). Made from the best quality spring-harvested tencha.
- Imperial Ceremonial Grade – Top quality umami strength, minimum astringency, beautiful green powder and liquor color, fresh aroma. Smooth, silky texture. Made from the best quality spring-harvested tencha.
- Premium Ceremonial Grade – Strong umami, minimum astringency/bitterness, beautiful green powder and liquor color, weaker aroma. Smooth, silky texture. Made from spring-harvested tencha.
- Standard Ceremonial Grade – Balanced umami / astringency / bitterness. Beautiful green powder and liquor color. Weak aroma. Texture is smooth. Made from spring-harvested tencha.
- Basic Ceremonial Grade – More astringency & bitterness than umami. Green powder and liquor color. Weak aroma. Slightly grainy texture. Made from tencha but may be a blend of spring/summer harvested leaves.
- Premium Culinary Grade – Strong astringency/bitterness, dull green powder / liquor color. Little to no aroma. Slightly grainy texture.
- Standard Culinary Grade – Strong astringency/bitterness. Dull, more yellowish green powder / liquor color. Little to no aroma. Grainy texture.
- Basic Culinary Grade – Very strong astringency/bitterness, very grainy texture, dull or yellow in color, no aroma.
- Industrial Grade – Extremely strong astringency/bitterness, very grainy texture, dull yellow in color, no aroma.
10) Lastly what is the most important piece of information about what you think that everyone should know about Matcha & where are the best places to learn about Matcha should you want to gain a more in depth knowledge.
I would like Matcha lovers to understand that there are multiple steps in the production process: farming, initial processing to dry, unrefined leaf (Aracha Tencha), refinement of that leaf, blending, grinding and finally packaging. When blending, an expert blender will blend leaves from multiple batches, and may blend for colour of powder, colour of liquor, aroma, and flavour of course…and sometimes may have to prioritize one factor over the other though ideally all factors would be consistent from batch to batch. The blender’s skill is immensely important in the industry.
Each of these processes is usually done by multiple different entities (farms and factories) and sometimes combined with some parts outsourced. Because Yunomi.life seeks to promote People-to-People commerce, we do want customers to be aware that there are more people involved in the creation than just the farmer or the factory. It’s impossible to feature everyone, but we hope you drink with appreciation.
Finally, there wasn’t a chance to talk about grinding: Stone mill grinding sounds great, but you can grind low grade leaf in a stone mill, and you can grind it fast so it comes out rough instead of smooth. While likely the best Matcha that a stone mill can produce is better than the best Matcha other more mass-production oriented grinding or pulverization methods can create, but in fact, ball mill or jet-air pulverization can get grains down to what I consider Imperial Grade level. I mention this because it is very easy to fall into the marketing gimmick trap in which “stone mill” automatically indicates the best possible quality. Finally, smaller brands themselves may not understand that there are multiple methods of cultivation and production and grinding, and may make false assumptions about their own product.
And if you have read this far, here’s a little secret. The lowest grade Matcha, particularly anything that is harvested in Autumn, may not even be shaded. The industry in Japan still calls it Matcha though—this level (usually industrial) almost never makes it into retail though, so you generally don’t have a chance to encounter it; it might go into cheap matcha chocolate or ice cream, or heavily flavoured drinks at large retail café chains.
If you ever have the chance to visit Japan, the biggest factories give pretty good tours: Marukyu Koyama-en, Fukujuen in Kyoto, and Aiya Seicha in Nishio.
To those of you who made it all the way through this post thank you for sticking around and reading through everything this was a post I had wanted to do for a while for this series and I really hope you enjoyed reading through it and getting to know more about the culture, tea industry and Yunomi.Life. Should you want to find out more about Yunomi you can find their website here. As a thank you for sticking around until the end of this post here’s a discount code to use on the Yunomi website! it’s START20 and will get you 20% off your first order with them.
Speak to you all again soon. I promise there won’t be this much time between posts again. Happy Steeping – Kimberley