While the production of matcha green tea is a demanding and laborious task, tea makers from Uji, a small city about a 20-minute train ride from Kyoto, have mastered the technique and methods of cultivation to produce the best green tea in the world. Uji is also blessed to have the highest quality green tea leaves. Uji matcha i.e. matcha from the Uji region is synonymous with the highest grade matcha, and Uji is also the birthplace of Japanese matcha and the oldest and most prominent green tea producing region in Japan.
What Is a Good Matcha?
One of the most compelling indicators of a good quality matcha is the colour of the powder, which should be a vivid spring green. This feature not only signals excellent flavour properties but also a higher antioxidant intensity than what is found in other teas. Antioxidants help to neutralize harmful free radicals, protecting the body from inflammation and associated disorders. The antioxidant in matcha green tea is also effective for people who want to diet and detoxify their body.
To produce this colour, the tea trees in Uji are straw shaded from the sun for around 10 to 20 days during the final growing weeks before harvest. A few days before harvest more straws are added to increase the shading to around 95%. This shading process increases the young leaves’ chlorophyll content, which gives a striking dark colour before processing, and the unique sweet umami taste when consumed.
Uji tea leaves are harvested by hand and not by machine. Only the youngest leaves are picked and are immediately steamed for about 20 seconds to prevent any oxidation. This unique technique prevents any loss of flavour and colour, and preserves the nutritional content of the leaves.
The final step is to grind the tea leaves into super-fine powder. To ensure that there is no loss of taste and to retain the intense pigment, the grinding temperature must be kept below 45C. It will not be machine ground, but done manually on a stone mill.
These unique and painstaking processing steps are just some of many reasons Uji matcha is the highest quality produced. This complex process also means that harvesting tea in the Uji area only takes place once a year, usually in May.
Another important indicator of quality is the country of origin. Many reviews and studies have reported the best quality matcha come from Japan, and the best of that, from Uji.
Ceremonial grade is ultimate top quality matcha and is reserved for the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Culinary grade matcha is the lowest grade and commonly used in cooking. But don’t be fooled by a “low grade” label from Uji. In certain instances, a test of culinary grade Uji matcha has shown to be superior in quality to that of “ceremonial grade” matcha from other countries.
Why is Uji Matcha Known as a High-Quality Matcha?
There are many reasons why Uji matcha is the best in the world and the most important reasons are:
Uji is between Kyoto and Nara, Japan’s two major ancient capitals and famous historical and cultural centers. When green tea was first brought to Japan by the Zen priest Eisai in the late 12th century, Uji became the area for tea planting thanks to its proximity to the former capitals.
Eisai also taught tea cultivation and preparation methods to the local priests. The techniques refined here later earned Uji the status as the area of excellence for tea production. But matcha came into existence only in the 16th century after tea growers developed the sun-shade growing method.
Geographical & Climatic Conditions
Uji lies in a basin surrounded by mountains, lake, river and small streams, and the soil is abundant in minerals. The climate is extremely hot in summer and severely cold in winter, but there is never frost. Because of Uji’s unique topography, there is always a gentle wind. The locals believed the wind is the blessing that blows the frost away.
Uji is about 50 km inland, shielding it from storms, and it has a relatively low rainfall compared to other parts of Japan. While in other parts of Japan tea plantations are on steep slopes, in Uji tea is planted on gently sloping hills or on hilltops.
The misty climate, warm days and cool nights, and gentle slopes provide the ideal settings to grow the highest grade tea bushes in Uji.
Different soil types will give out different characteristics of tea products. In the Uji region, the soil is mostly acidic which is perfect for matcha cultivation. Nearby Lake Biwa supplies the Uji region humus and old sediments that also contribute to the resulting dark coloured leaves with strong flavours.
Uji Matcha Manufacturers
Regardless of the natural bounties that give rise to the tea characteristics, the final stages of matcha excellence lie with the impeccable care taken by the tea farmers themselves. Some of the leading Uji matcha manufacturers are:
Consistently cultivating and harvesting high-quality tea, Marukyu-Koyamaen has won many top prizes for their tea in annual competitions.
Horii Shichimeien is both a tea grower and a tea blender and has been in the tea business since 1879. Horii Chōjir, the third generation owner of the Horii Shichimeien brand invented ‘tencha-ro’ a method of balanced drying of the tea leaves without loss in quality, replacing manual processing with a machine conveyor belt. This improves production even further of the high-quality Uji teas.
Hekisuien, founded in 1867 in Kuse, Kyoto, is known for its long-standing commitment to the traditional values of Japanese green tea. It is a popular brand among the Western tea aficionados, especially for the premium ceremonial and culinary grade matcha.
Hokoen, a wholesaler of Uji tea that was founded in Nagaike, Kyoto in 1867. It also operates retail outlets with a large selection of different types of tea.
Uji Region for Tea Plantation
Uji matcha or Uji tea refers to tea products that are grown and harvested within the Uji city area. But due to the time-consuming methods of cultivation and production, tea produced in the Uji area is available only in small quantities. To meet the increasing demand for Uji tea, in 2006 the Kyoto Tea Cooperative redefined Uji tea as follows:
- Tea grown in the Kyoto, Nara, Shiga, and Mie prefectures; and
- These teas must be processed inside the Kyoto Prefecture by a tea manufacturer based in the Kyoto Prefecture.
Where to Buy Uji Matcha
Matcha is a fragile product and will lose its deliciousness and unique antioxidant properties if not properly stored or kept for too long. It is recommended to buy matcha directly from the manufacturers through their websites if you are comfortable with Japanese. For overseas buyers, there are several reputable Japan-based companies with English websites that you can explore, compare and buy the Uji matcha green tea of your choice.
You can browse Sazen Tea, a Kyoto-based company for the reasonably priced high-quality teas including Uji matcha sourced from these reputable tea manufacturers. Whether you’re making a matcha latte, or hosting your own tea ceremony, you can find the right grade of matcha, from culinary to ceremonial, for the perfect matcha indulgence.