What separates blah matcha from the most amazing matcha you’ve ever tried? It mainly comes down to where it is grown, the time and manner it is harvested, and how it is ground. We’ll break down why matcha from Uji is the most coveted matcha throughout Japan and the world. There are good reasons it is harder to find outside Japan and a touch more expensive. Here we go.
Uji matcha is the original matcha. It began with Eisai, a Japanese Buddhist Monk, who lived and studied in China much of his life until returning to Japan in 1191. During his time away, he fell in love with the green tea of China, so he brought seeds back with him. These were promptly planted at the Kyoto temple, in the Uji region of Japan. Zen Buddhists at the temple continued to cultivate these plants and experiment with how they were grown to maximize the calming yet invigorating Zen benefits of the tea. In the 13th and 14th century, this specially prepared tea made its way from the temple to the homes of Japanese royalty.
As happens in many countries when royalty enjoy something, the rest of the country wants it too. By the 15th century, “ujicha” meaning “Uji Tea” was a term used amongst the elite for this coveted tea. By the 16th century, innovations had been made, including shading the leaves, harvesting early, and stone grinding the leaves. The word “matcha” or “ground tea” began to filter out to more and more of the population. At this time, the tea ceremony was also introduced. It remains in practice today for special occasions, such as welcoming a dignified guest to the home. Matcha from Uji is better quality partly because it was perfected there over centuries. The people who grow it in the region have a deep connection to this green tea, many farms going back two to five hundred years.
Uji has a unique climate that makes it perfect for growing matcha. Uji lies at the heart of two river basins, surrounded on all sided with rolling hills between two mountain ranges. This geography traps river fog and mountain mists over the fields, supplying the ideal moisture to the tea plants and helping to create the unique flavor of matcha. Matcha is sweeter with hints of umami, unlike regular green tea.
This region is supplied with extra nutrients from the rivers, a lake, and the mists that roll down the mountains. Matcha needs these nutrients to get a rich, dark green color out of leaves that are grown in shade. The soil is also more acidic in Uji than much of Japan, which is ideal for the tea plants that crave a less alkaline environment.
Matcha is harvested in early spring and summer, unlike many other types of green tea. More time and sunlight make for a hardier leaf, which works well for steeping teas, but isn’t ideal for matcha. This early harvest means the leaves are more tended, sweeter, and perfect for grinding into a fine powder. Uji, with its rolling hills and mountainous terrain, doesn’t make harvests easy, but that also makes Uji matcha is better in many ways. Big harvesting machines cannot be used, so much of Uji’s tea leaves are picked by hand and then hand selected before grinding. Only the youngest, most tender leaves are picked. The best of these get set aside for ceremonial use. Stiffer, more bitter leaves get set aside for culinary use, where their more potent flavor works well in pastries, ice cream, candy, and more. All this results in less pollution from machinery and a higher quality matcha for you.
Grinding is also done in a more traditional way in Uji, using local granite millstones to pulverize the dried leaves into a powder fine enough to dissolve easily in hot water with a simple bamboo whisk. Other regions of Japan often use more industrialized methods to save time and manpower, but the end result suffers.
We have established that the way matcha is grown, harvested, selected, and ground in Uji makes it a more labor intensive and higher quality product, but there is another reason Uji matcha tends to fetch a higher price. This matcha is also the most desired matcha within Japan. Uji is one region with a limited surface are for farming. The majority of matcha produced here stays in Japan where it will be used in traditional tea ceremonies or enjoyed more often. Tea shops throughout Japan serve matcha delicacies from this region. Only a small percentage of Uji matcha makes it to the United States.
Most companies that sell matcha on this side of the ocean get their matcha from regions that have a harder time selling their product within Japan itself. They can sell it at a lower price because it is often harvested later with machines and rushed through a grinding process at a factory. Ujido is lucky enough to have been born out of 200 years of matcha history in Uji. Our connections there make it possible to get the highly coveted Uji matcha here at a price that is more reasonable than other Uji suppliers. We are happy to share what makes matcha truly special with you here in the States.