Matcha & The Judgement of Paris
The Judgement of Paris may be a tale sprung from Greek mythology, but the story reveals the perennial contest between the established leader and the under-appreciated alternatives. When the saga played out in the wine world (conveniently located in Paris), French wines (the undisputed best in the world) got beat out by unknown, backwoods California wines in blind tastings. One French judge was so embarrassed at being duped by the California wines that she demanded her score card back. The French press tried to deny the event ever occurred. Nevertheless, the door was opened, and new wines from new regions took their place in the sun.
The same is happening with matcha. Articles here, and here try to make the case that Chinese tea powder is vastly different from Japanese matcha. This is comparing “Two Buck Chuck” (Charles Shaw) to Lafite – although both are made from fermented grape juice, no one honestly expects the same level of drinking experience from these. When you compare premium and ultra-premium shade-grown, stone-milled green teas from China and Japan, the distinction blurs. The term “matcha” applies to both. Here’s why.
Reasons Why “Matcha” Is Not Exclusively Japanese
1. “Matcha” is not a term exclusive to single origin.
As a term, “matcha” is the Japanese pronunciation of 2 Chinese characters that were incorporated into the Japanese language. The word actually comes from Chinese characters that mean “milled” or “rubbed” tea. In fact, it was the Chinese who originally developed the process – the Japanese carried the technique back to their homeland. Subsequent imperial decree in China brought stone-milled teas into disfavor, but the process is historically established as Chinese in origin.
2. Matcha tea is not limited to a single-origin tea processed in a region-specific manner.
Japanese matchas, like many other forms of Japanese green teas made on a commercial-scale, may incorporate a blend of leaves. There are no rules that say matcha must only be created from a single cultivar (e.g. saemidori) or sourced from a single location. Nothing prevents a matcha producer in Uji from using leaf from Shizuoka (or other locations) to create matcha. Hence it is possible to have a combination of tea leaf ingredients (e.g. various cultivars sourced at the producer’s discretion) used in a milling method that has been influenced by centuries of historical tradition that span two different countries (i.e. China and Japan).
3. “Matcha” does not have Protected Designation of Origin or similar status.
Chinese tea producers and manufacturers are pushing back against limiting the definitions on a processing technique that spans two cultures (and originated in theirs). Unless they lose significant ground in this battle, don’t expect an official statement that “matcha” refers only to Japanese tea.
4. Finally, and of significant importance- premium, shade-grown, stone-milled, Chinese matcha has already fooled the experts.
Although there hasn’t been a published Judgement of Paris for Chinese and Japanese matcha, anecdotes already confirm that expert palates have praised Chinese matcha – thinking they were drinking Japanese matcha. There is enough of this superior Chinese matcha in the market for the industry to conduct its own blind tasting – a Judgement of Paris for matcha.