In modern times, Matcha is often made of blends of Tencha tea-leaves grown on different farms. Manufacturers buy these leaves from multiple farms and grade them according to quality. The highest quality leaves are used in the premium and most expensive Matchas. There are multiple companies in Japan that manufacture Matcha and some have done so for more than 120 years. Living Qi Matcha is produced on farms that have been growing and making Matcha for over 400 years.

Manufacturers of Matcha hire a person very experienced with tea quality for a position called the “tea sommelier.” One of the roles of the sommelier is to combine the Tencha leaves in particular ratios to create complex and subtle flavors. The finest Tencha leaves will make the finest grade Matcha, and though each year’s harvest might vary slightly due to weather conditions or changes in the soil, the company will utilize very specific parameters to assure that the different grades of Matcha they provide remain consistent in color and quality.

High quality Matcha is bright green with a fresh scent. Poor quality green Matcha tea is often yellowish with the poorest qualities turning a dull brown-green.

In a very general way, it is accurate to say that the more bitter a tea is, the more catechin content that tea possesses. Catechins play a huge role in the health benefits of Matcha and green tea. Catechins are antioxidants. On the other hand, the more sweet a Matcha tea is, the more theanine it contains. Umami is a Japanese word that means savory or delicious and is applied to good tasting teas. The word was also borrowed from the Japanese language to indicate and differentiate a distinct taste from other flavors: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Umami is the 5th flavor, synonymous with savory in the culinary arts. Monosodium Glutamate, or MSG, is a synthesized version of the umami taste used in Chinese cuisine to enhance flavor artificially.  Theanine however, has an all-natural umami flavor.

It is glutamic acid that gives the umami flavor its character. Theanine is present in all green tea in varying degrees and is an ethylamide of glutamic acid. Therefore it is theanine that gives Matcha its umami-sweet taste delightfully. So when a Matcha is said to have umami, it means specifically that is has this 5th distinctive flavor, and generally that it is delicious and savory. The delicate balance between bitter and umami is found in the Living Qi Matcha blend.

Some Matcha companies that overly focus on making a very sweet Matcha use synthetic nitrogen fertilizers to artificially drive up the theanine in their tea plants, but we at Living Qi don’t believe that synthetic fertilizers make the best tasting or healthiest Matchas.

When someone has a flair for style and fashion we often say they have good taste. Taste means a discriminative sense. In the culinary arts, taste might mean a perceptive tongue and perhaps a good nose. In fact for wine connoisseurs, a good nose and tongue are a necessity. Yet in modern times taste is often subjected to fads: whimsical diets, fast food trends, and ads focusing on tasting good. In some ways, as westerners, our taste buds are severely limited by our over-focus on sweet and salty foods. The essence of umami as a flavor is balance.

In fashion, we sometimes counter and say someone has a timeless sense of taste. Being timeless often reveals a life in accord with enduring values, someone not swayed by the superficialities of fluctuating movements of what is in vogue at a particular time. Being timeless in the usage of tea might mean being neither overly concerned with the good taste of tea, as in wanting things to taste like a sugary Matcha Lattte, while also not reacting to the evolving modern usages of Matcha from a place of superiority, spiritual arrogance or being overly self important about the formalities of traditional tea culture.

Just as modern American and Japanese people can judge the old values of the tea ceremony as antiquated and carelessly ignore them, or perhaps even be blind to them altogether, so too can the elite of the tea ceremony not practice their own wisdom tradition as they turn up their noses to forms of Matcha consumption not fitting the mold of tradition.

Most authentic tea masters are not snobs or connoisseurs so much as people of wisdom who realize the forms and customs of the tea ceremony are ephemeralities to be transcended in the beautiful qualities of the moment: friendship, beauty, kindness, simplicity, purity.

The English tradition of tea time typically includes black tea (which as we know is only green tea that has been fermented) that often includes a cube of sugar and some cream. It is rich, and sweet, a complex flavor and texture with good cream and sugar balancing any bitterness in the tea. Most people find it delicious. This custom of taking tea arrived from Britain in America in the seventeen hundreds. In fact the Boston tea party was a reaction to the British crown levying more expensive taxes on tea imported by America from Britain.

We have a custom of taking tea sweetly here in the US, especially in the south, which which either invented sweet tea, or excels at its constant consumption. And certain saccharin social qualities of etiquette in the south often annoy people of other parts of the country or cultures as insincere. The incessant sweetness and manners of people of the south, what a bother!

It is the bitter taste that people in the west most often try to avoid. The ability of a person to handle the bitter taste of food or even life, was in ancient days, a sign of depth and awareness in the Far East.

Bitter, in East Asian medicine, is the taste associated with the heart, which is the house of the shen or the spirit of a person. Why is this so? Why is sweetness not the taste of the heart? To understand this paradox is to unravel some insight into the entire wisdom tradition of East Asian medical thought. Since eastern medicine was influenced by the trinity of Taosim, Confucianism and Buddhism, many Buddhist thoughts show up in the medical tradition.

To keep things simple let’s entertain the notion that there is a relationship between the word bitter and the emotional state it is often is used to describe. We use the word bitter to mean resentful or morose. To taste bitterness and still be able to genuinely and authentically remain in happiness is a sign of emotional maturity and wisdom. Perhaps we grow by learning to stomach a little bitterness and adversity.

I often tell the story of the encounter between the diamond merchant and the Buddha to patients who are having a hard time not getting entangled in the immaturity and anger of those they are in relationship with.

It basically goes like this: A very wealthy diamond merchant was about to retire. He had groomed his son since a young age to take over the family business in time. Just as the son turned 18 and was ready to take the helm, the Buddha came to town with a large retinue of followers. The diamond merchant’s son went to hear him speak and that was it, he was converted. He returned home and told his dad he was going to follow the Buddha and left town with the other disciples to learn true and lasting wisdom. To say the father was bitter would be an understatement; he was enraged. He had worked his entire life for the day he could comfortably retire with his son in charge.

So the father waited, month after month, rehearsing what he would say to the Buddha when he finally got his chance.

A year passed and the father got word that the Buddha and his retinue were coming through town the following day. All night the father worked up his rage and revenge plotting how to give the Buddha a piece of his mind.

The next morning as the Buddha walked through the town with his followers, the father rushed up to him and unleashed his anger in torrents. While this verbal thrashing was taking place, the Buddha’s followers, shocked at this outrage and disrespect, were curiously observing that the Buddha did not move, but stood silent, listening to the man with a slight smile on his lips. In fact, the strange thing was that the Buddha even looked a little happy.

As the man realized that the Buddha was so calmly and patiently listening without an ounce of defensiveness or anger and when it dawned on him that the Buddha’s eyes were radiating peace and joy while he was burning in anger, the man had an epiphany.

That day the Buddha won another follower as the man realized all his seeking for wealth through the diamond business was nothing without his peace of mind. He went to give the Buddha a piece of his mind, but he got the peace of the Buddha-mind instead.

Now, the Buddha was a master, and it is not easy to stay non-attached and peaceful when someone is raging at us, so this takes lots of practice and meditation. But this ideal of peace in the face of bitterness is a reason why the masters of the tea tradition are not attached to the taste of bitter tea. They know that the effect of healing will still be available to them as a quality of consciousness rather than as a matter of taste.

In regards to the taste of Matcha, for most tea masters, it is not the greatest concern. Making a good tasting blend is more a matter of being a professional and being good at what you do than a matter of extreme importance. While certainly they are conscious of the taste, over-concern with taste belies a mind overly concerned with the superficial, with appearances. This does not mean they might not feel embarrassed if a bad tasting Matcha was served in ceremony, but that emotion would be as a result of not wanting to displease the guest, as the foundation of the tea ceremony is based on serving others in a unique moment in time: “one meeting, one moment.” The time that a guest comes to tea will be the only time, never again to arrive in that particular moment.

The shakuhachi is a Japanese bamboo flute that was often played by Buddhist monks as early as the 8th century. It has a guttural beauty that a musician can play as though it is mimicking rain, wind and thunder. In the diary of a certain Buddhist monk, a shakuhachi composition called “Mujô Shinkyoku” was found. The name means “that single tune which brings the changing heart of things to mind”, a demonstration of the Buddhist value of transience. A good Matcha and the ceremony brings this same understanding to mind: all things change and eventually disappear, why not enjoy them?

© James Whittle, All rights reserved