At the pinnacle of matcha quality sits ceremonial grade matcha – the gold standard appreciated by matcha connoisseurs and traditional Japanese tea masters. But what exactly makes ceremonial grade matcha so special?
In this article, we’ll explore the definition of ceremonial grade matcha, its origins and production process, how it stands apart from other matcha grades, its exquisite flavor and texture, reasons behind its high price point, and when you should and shouldn’t use this exclusive tea. You’ll learn how to identify authentic ceremonial grade matcha and understand why traditional Japanese tea ceremonies always feature this top-tier tea.
- What’s the definition of “ceremonial grade matcha”?
- Origins and production process of ceremonial grade matcha
- Distinguishing it from other grades of matcha
- How do the taste and quality compare to lower-grade matcha?
- Why ceremonial grade matcha is so expensive
- Finding authentic ceremonial grade matcha
- When to use it and not use it
What’s the definition of “ceremonial grade matcha”?
Ceremonial grade matcha refers to the highest quality, most premium matcha, which is typically produced in Japan. It represents the pinnacle of the matcha world, showcasing exceptional flavor, texture, and visual characteristics. Ceremonial grade differs considerably from other matcha grades in several important aspects that we’ll explore in depth in this section.
All matcha is made from green tea leaves, but the quality can vary tremendously depending on factors like where and how the tea plants are grown, how the leaves are harvested and processed, and how selectively the leaves are picked.
Matcha grades provide a way to distinguish this wide range of quality. The major grading criteria involve the origin, growing methods, processing techniques, and leaf characteristics.
Ceremonial is the highest-grade matcha (more on this below).
Ceremonial grade’s exclusivity
Ceremonial grade matcha is extremely exclusive, crafted only from the finest, youngest tender tea leaves picked during the first spring harvest.
Typically, only the youngest leaves at the very top of each bush are selected. Ceremonial grade accounts for less than 1% of total matcha production globally. This exclusivity is a key reason for its lofty status.
Cultural implications of the term
The “ceremonial grade” classification refers to this matcha’s premier role in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies for hundreds of years. Ceremonial grade matcha is deeply intertwined with cultural practices and connotes great prestige. The term communicates both provenance and quality.
Evolution of matcha classifications
While today’s common commercial grading system normally categorizes matcha into four main tiers, traditional Japanese classifications recognized 10 or more distinct grades. Ceremonial grade occupied the apex as the absolute highest quality.
Modern grades consolidated some of those original nuanced distinctions between the finest levels of ceremonial grade matcha.
Origins and production process of ceremonial grade matcha
The specialized cultivation, harvest timing, processing steps, and tools used to produce ceremonial grade matcha all contribute to its exceptional character and unmatched quality. This section provides an in-depth look at the origins and meticulous production process.
Shade-grown tea leaf importance
The tea plants used for ceremonial grade matcha are grown under shade for 20-30 days before harvest. Farmers use specialized reed canopy screens to block direct sunlight during this time period, which increases levels of chlorophyll, L-Theanine, and amino acids like theanine and glutamic acid in the leaves.
These compounds boost the rich umami flavor, vibrant green color, and relaxed alertness that ceremonial grade matcha is highly prized for among tea connoisseurs and masters. The shading technique also slows the growth rate, increasing nutrients and sweetness. Only the most skilled tea farms in Japan’s main matcha-producing regions have mastered these meticulous shading techniques honed for centuries.
Traditional stone grinding
After the careful shading process, only the youngest, most tender tea shoots are hand-picked at their peak flavor and texture. The prime leaves are then steamed to stop oxidation, stemmed and deveined to remove fibrous material, slowly air dried to preserve color and aroma, and traditionally stone ground in granite mills to a fine, silky powder. The slow grinding action minimizes heat buildup, which preserves the delicate flavors, nutrients like catechins, and bright green color, which are easily damaged.
Lower-grade matcha often uses faster metal blades and industrial mills that degrade quality. The ultra-fine stone grinding produces smaller particles that dissolve and mix smoothly for the perfect cup.
Ceremonial matcha production vs. other matcha production
Ceremonial grade matcha undergoes an intensive artisanal production process using traditional techniques that slowly and gently bring out the tea’s peak flavors, textures, scents, and visual vibrancy. In contrast, lower grades of matcha emphasize efficiency, speed, and volume using more robust, high-yield industrial processes like cutting leaves with metal blades and coarsely grinding by machine to maximize outputs.
These methods damage delicate flavors and textures. Ceremonial grade depends on masterful producers patiently coaxing out quality, while lower grades prioritize quantity over quality.
Tools and equipment used
Ceremonial production involves specially hand-crafted granite grinding wheels, bamboo whisks, wood-clad storage containers, and porcelain bowls that protect freshness without imparting other tastes or smells.
Lower-grade matcha relies on metal, plastic, and other mass-produced equipment that can degrade the flavor. For example, ceremonial grade is often stored in custom hinoki wood boxes. These meticulous differences in tools and overall production philosophy maintain the integrity and balance of ceremonial grade’s flavor.
The significance of harvest seasons
Only the most tender young leaves from spring’s first flush harvest go into ceremonial grade matcha. Other lower grades use older leaves from later summer and fall harvests.
The early spring leaves have higher free amino acid content, including L-theanine and glutamic acid, higher catechin levels, lower astringency, and smaller particle size – all contributing to the sublime umami taste, vibrant color, and health benefits of ceremonial grade.
Distinguishing it from other grades of matcha
Ceremonial grade stands clearly apart from other types and tiers of matcha across a number of key quality indicators and characteristics. This section provides an in-depth exploration of how premium ceremonial grade compares to lower commercial matcha grades.
Matcha grades in a nutshell
Matcha is commonly grouped into four main quality grades: ceremonial, premium, café, and culinary.
The top two tiers, ceremonial and premium, are considered higher grades suited for drinking, while café and culinary grades are lower quality, mainly used for adding flavor to drinks, baked goods, or other recipes. It’s similar to black teas, where the lower-quality leaves are used for flavored teas and flavoring. But unlike black teas, with matcha, you actually consume the powdered leaves.
Ceremonial grade sits at the apex as the gold standard – the absolute highest quality matcha produced. It accounts for less than 1% of total production annually.
You will find similar three-grade and five-grade systems, but they all start with culinary and have ceremonial at the top.
Why ceremonial is the highest
Ceremonial grade earns the top spot because it comes from only the youngest, most tender tea leaves hand-picked at the peak of freshness in early spring, receives the most careful treatment and attention throughout every step of the meticulous production process, and inherently has the most well-balanced, nuanced, and pleasant flavor.
It also has a vibrant emerald green color and an ultra-finely ground, smooth powder texture made possible by stone grinding.
Matcha grading indicators
The key indicators used when classifying and grading matcha quality include the harvest season and leaf age (newest spring vs. older leaves), shading technique used, grinding method (stone vs. industrial), particle size (fine vs. coarse), color vibrancy, natural aroma, multidimensional taste, and market price.
When judged across all these indicators that reflect overall quality, ceremonial grade matcha consistently ranks the highest by a significant margin compared to other grades.
Flavor profiles of different grades
Ceremonial grade has a complex, inviting flavor profile characterized by prominent savory umami qualities, fresh vegetal notes, and a smooth, natural sweetness.
Premium grade matcha still offers high quality and deep umami flavors, but slightly more bitterness. Café grade may have decent umami but also more bitterness and astringency from higher catechin content.
Culinary grade is distinctly bitter, astringent, and less enjoyable for drinking as plain matcha. It can, however, get the job done in a latte or a casual fruity iced tea.
Aesthetics and visual differences
Ceremonial grade matcha is distinguished by its vivid, rich emerald green color, indicating higher chlorophyll levels and freshness. It also has an ultra-fine, silky powder texture, and pleasing visual appeal.
Lower grades appear duller green and have coarser, grittier textures. These visual differences stem from older leaf age and industrial grinding methods unable to produce fine powder particles.
How do the taste and quality compare to lower-grade matcha?
The singular taste, texture, and overall drinking quality of ceremonial grade matcha is markedly different and superior compared to lower commercial grades. This section provides an in-depth exploration of the distinct flavor, mouthfeel, finish, and appearance.
Ceremonial grade’s softness
Ceremonial grade matcha has an incredibly smooth, soft, creamy mouthfeel and texture. The fine powder readily dissolves in water without any grittiness or chalkiness on the palate. This desirable soft texture comes from the traditional meticulous stone-grinding technique that pulverizes the leaves into microscopic particles. Lower grades feel distinctly more abrasive, gritty, and coarse on the tongue due to impatient, incomplete grinding methods.
Ceremonial grade matcha delivers a rich, layered, savory umami flavor with great depth, complexity, and near-perfect balance. The specialized shading technique boosts the natural levels of certain amino acids like L-theanine and glutamic acid, contributing to the enjoyable natural sweetness and fulsome umami qualities. Lower-grade matcha has far less developed umami and a flat or harsher taste.
Refined finish and lightness
The exquisite flavor of ceremonial grade is refined and light on the palate. Despite the multidimensional robust taste, it finishes cleanly without any heaviness, bitterness, or unpleasant astringency. Lower commercial grades have a harsher, more acrid aftertaste and less pleasant, coating finish due to imperfect processing and older leaves.
High-quality ceremonial grade matcha has very minimal bitterness, even pleasantly complex notes. Lower grades increasingly have more pronounced bitterness that detracts from enjoyment. Bitterness comes from using older, inferior leaves and inadequate processing methods.
Ceremonial-grade matcha in its powdered form has a rich, deep emerald green. If it’s a pale green, it’s likely a bit older or not ceremonial-grade. If there’s even a hint of yellow, it’s probably years old or fake/inferior. You’ll see a yellowish tint in many Chinese brands. Anyone who’s been into matcha for more than a short while will get a chuckle out of YouTubers going into raptures about their matcha purchases, zooming in on flaccid, yellowy bowls they whipped up.
When properly whisked into a frothy bowl of matcha, using water at the right temperature (not boiling!) and a fine Japanese bamboo whisk, ceremonial grade maintains its vivid green color and has a fine, smooth texture. It is the ideal matcha you see in the tourism photos. You have arrived.
Lower grades appear duller, and muddier in color with larger bubbles due to lower quality, older leaves with less chlorophyll, and improper grinding. Appearance impacts the drinking experience.
Why ceremonial grade matcha is so expensive
Several critical factors help explain the higher price point of top-tier ceremonial grade matcha compared with more commonly available lower grades. This section dives into the important reasons why authentic high-grade ceremonial commands a premium cost.
Selection of the finest leaves
Ceremonial grade matcha is made using only the most pristine, tender, young leaves hand-picked in early spring. These newest growth leaves intrinsically have superior flavor, texture, color, and nutritional properties compared to leaves picked later in the season.
Only about 1% of the tea leaves harvested each year meet the exceptionally rigid quality standards necessary for ceremonial grade matcha production. This is 1% of what is already a limited harvest under precisely controlled conditions.
This ultra-selectivity when sourcing the raw ingredients is a major driver of cost.
Limited production runs
Each year’s limited release of authentic, high-grade ceremonial matcha is small and restricted in quantity by the top producers. Demand amongst matcha purists and ceremonial practitioners for the highest quality ceremonial grade always far outpaces the tight supply.
The annual output volume is strictly limited to protect ceremonial grade’s exclusivity and premium brand positioning. Production cannot easily be scaled up without compromising quality. The low supply and perpetually high demand enable ceremonial grade to command exorbitant pricing.
Experienced artisan producers hand-craft ceremonial grade matcha using traditional meticulous techniques honed and perfected over many generations. This is specialized manual labor, not mass mechanized production. The intensive shading methods, careful hand-picking of leaves, traditional stone grinding, and other manual steps require true expertise and time. This overall labor intensity restricts total volume able to be produced and increases expenses.
Unique harvesting and processing
The hyper-targeted harvesting of only the most tender young tea leaves and slow, meticulous processing methods used exclusively for ceremonial grade maximize quality but are far less efficient and productive than large-scale industrial matcha production. The unique practices inherently limit yields while increasing production costs.
Scarcity drives value perception
The scarcity and exclusivity of real ceremonial grade matcha increase its perceived value and prestige. Well-informed consumers are willing to pay extremely high prices for the rare opportunity to experience the finest Japanese matcha. Its lofty reputation for unparalleled quality commands a very substantial premium compared to common matcha.
Finding authentic ceremonial grade matcha
With matcha’s surge in popularity, how can you identify genuine high-end ceremonial grade matcha and avoid counterfeits or misleading products? This section provides comprehensive guidance on where to find authentic Japanese ceremonial grade matcha.
Japanese matcha only
Authentic traditional ceremonial grade matcha can only come from Japan. Other countries like China, the US, and Australia now produce matcha. But true ceremonial grade, with its millennia of history, must be made in Japan by Japanese producers. Japan’s singular climate, terroir, cultivation techniques, processing skills, and tea tradition ensure its matcha remains unparalleled in quality, especially for super-premium ceremonial cultivars. Insist on Japanese origination.
Trustworthy Japanese tea suppliers
Seek out specialist retailers or suppliers of Japanese tea that have direct relationships with producers in Japan’s main ceremonial-grade matcha-growing regions, like Uji (Kyoto), Nishio (Aichi Prefecture in central Japan), and Kagoshima (on the southern tip of Kyushu). These reputable importers or online stores can reliably access authentic ceremonial grade matcha that is unavailable through regular commercial channels. Carefully vet their credentials and claims.
Certifications and other labeling
Genuine ceremonial grade matcha from Japan will indicate the specific harvest season (first flush), origin area or tea farm, tea master or producer name, and tea cultivar on the package. Exercise caution with any matcha generically labeled “ceremonial grade” lacking these critical details. Certifications like JAS organic certification also provide further assurance of authencity and care in production.
Detecting fakes and phonies
A high degree of skepticism is warranted in the matcha market. Bargain-priced matcha touted as ceremonial grade is almost surely fake. If you can, assess the price, color vibrancy, and taste since real Japanese ceremonial has high pricing, vivid emerald green color, and a divinely smooth umami flavor. If an alleged deal on ceremonial seems too good to be true, it invariably is.
It sounds like a sweeping generalization, but avoid all Chinese brands, avoid all US brands, and generally trust all Japanese brands.
Chinese brands are to be avoided because Chinese matcha processes are highly unregulated, and the country is notorious for counterfeits.
In the case of US brands, they may be trying their best, but in the U.S., you’ll also see “fat-free” jellybeans, “sugar-free” (and chemical-laden) drinks, and “high-protein” everything. Understand the US is prone to exaggeration of benefits and features. Don’t get me wrong, there are some commendable US brands of green tea, just as there’s some excellent Japanese-style rice from California. It’s just not at Japanese levels of honed craftsmanship yet.
Stick to established specialty Japanese tea suppliers to avoid counterfeits.
Carefully read through buyer reviews of any new tea supplier before purchasing matcha, looking for any reports of poor quality, authenticity concerns, or counterfeits. Exercise caution when purchasing matcha through third-party marketplaces like Amazon or eBay, where fakes proliferate. And keep in mind that fakes will often stuff their profiles with short, fake reviews praising the product effusively.
That said, purchasing from Amazon Japan is recommended if shipment is available to your area. The site features a relatively small but good-quality selection. By far, the best way to purchase ceremonial-grade matcha, if you’re not in Japan, is from the suppliers themselves. A few top names you can’t go wrong with are:
- Ippodo Tea (Kyoto), not to be confused with Ippudo ramen
- Tsujiri (Kyoto), which has branches around the world
- Aiya (Nishio, Aichi), a personal favorite
Sadly, most Japanese matcha purveyors are lousy marketers. If you’re lucky, you’ll make it to Japan and, even better, go buy your matcha at the source. Uji, Kyoto, is easily the most accessible major matcha region in Japan. Uji is also a delightful and historic little city within an hour of central Kyoto. Spend at least half a day there.
When to use it and not use it
When should you consume or utilize premium ceremonial grade matcha? This section provides recommendations on the ideal uses as well as when not to use this high-end tea.
For tea ceremonies
Ceremonial grade matcha is the quintessential choice for properly preparing and serving matcha in the traditional Japanese way, such as for rituals like chanoyu or sado tea ceremony. The extraordinarily refined flavors, vivid emerald green color, and frothy texture deliver the ultimate bowl of matcha optimally suited for mindfulness, presence, and the spiritual essence of this time-honored tradition. Authentic Japanese ceremonial grade will enable the fullest traditional matcha experience tea ceremonies offer.
For special occasions
Given the justifiably elevated cost per ounce, pristine ceremonial grade matcha is likely best reserved only for the most special occasions like holidays, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, and baby showers, or as an impressive luxury gift.
Slowly sipping ceremonial grade matcha can help make these already memorable moments feel even more magical and special through its uniqueness and ability to heighten focus on being present. Just don’t wait too long because matcha is served below boiling and is meant to be slurped down in about 3 or 4 gulps.
Not for lattes or mixed drinks
While convenient and increasingly popular, avoid using your limited precious ceremonial grade matcha as a mere ingredient in lattes, milk-based drinks, espresso cocktails, or baked desserts. Its flavor’s incredibly subtle nuances, and balance will mostly get drowned out or altered by other strong ingredients. Ceremonial grade is meant to be respectfully appreciated on its own sensitive terms, not obscured or distorted.
Not for everyday drinking
At a typical stratospheric price point of $50-100 per ounce, ceremonial grade is clearly far too expensive for regular daily consumption for most people, no matter how devoted a matcha drinker is.
The premium cost stemming from artisanal production necessarily limits the enjoyment of ceremonial grade to special mindful occasions, not quotidian use. For routine drinking, an affordable yet high-end premium daily matcha is a reasonable alternative that balances quality and value.
Worth the occasional splurge
While prohibitively expensive for many, pristine ceremonial grade matcha is absolutely worth the cost as an infrequent splurge for serious matcha purists to experience at least once. Even enjoying a single supreme bowl prepared properly allows one to fully appreciate the pinnacle of matcha’s potential for flavor subtleties, texture, and visual aesthetics. Don’t neglect the preparation, either. Even the finest instrument needs someone to make beautiful music with it.
Ceremonial grade matcha stands in a league of its own. It’s the best of the best, for special occasions. Ceremonial grade represents the absolute peak of matcha in terms of quality, prestige, and price. It has no equal when authentically produced following tradition.
The combination of supreme taste and cost means enjoying ceremonial grade is best saved for meaningful occasions, not everyday drinking. Sip it slowly to appreciate the experience. True ceremonial grade matcha will always hail from Japan. No other origins replicate the expertise, terroir, quality control, and painstaking production methods needed.