As I’m living in Japan and getting more and more acquainted with Japanese tea cultivars, and styles of matcha, I’m also sliding deeper and deeper down the Japanese tea rabbit hole.
Here in the rabbit hole I’ve been learning that as much as there is staunch tradition, rules, and ‘ways of doing things,’ there is also a ton of tea innovation and re-imaginings of classics being done by young entrepreneurs in the space.
It’s with that that today I want to talk about Material Matcha Uji, a company founded by two Frenchmen expats living in Japan, who are working with traditional tea farms in Japan using ancient blending techniques, to create modern, daily drinkable matcha blends.
Getting to know Material Matcha Uji
I first noticed Material Matcha Uji (let’s call them ‘MMU’ for short) on Kickstarter, where more than 1,300 people pledged more than $130,000 to get their company started. At the time of publishing, I think it’s still the most funding ever received for a ‘drink’ on the Kickstarter platform.
Right away I noticed their sharp branding—beautiful photos and a bold, minimalist design with a restricted colour palette that let the matcha stand out. “Green is the new gold,” read one of their early taglines.
I was curious to see whether their matcha quality would hold up to the same level of branding and talk they purported. A lot of what they talked about resonated with me, especially after living here for more than a month and seeing it firsthand.
Preserving quality matcha and traditional blending techniques
These guys speak about wanting to protect the tradition of extremely high-quality, artisanal matcha production. And about wanting to preserve the cultural traditional of high quality matcha making, a part of which gets lost every time one of these older Japanese tea masters retires. And that really speaks to me.
Japan’s aging population means that many Japanese tea farmers are over 60 years old, how younger generations are not wanting to farm, instead moving into cities for work. And how as older Japanese tea farmers retire, their land is being bought by larger food companies who mass-produce lower quality matcha.
Leave it to the French, amirite?
Here’s a great video from them explaining more:
Japanese matcha cultivars
Even during my time living on a tea farm in Wazuka, most of the matcha I’m tasting here is single cultivar matcha. For example, goukou matcha, or samidori matcha.
Cultivars are basically clones. Most Japanese tea farmers use cloned tea, because it all grows at the same pace, and has the same strengths and weaknesses. This makes it easier to harvest. There are many, many types of Japanese cultivars, including popular ones like the goukou and samidori I mentioned above. The most popular throughout Japan is yabukita, known for its ‘balanced’ profile and frost resistance.
The sample I received from MMU was their MMU01, which blends Okumidori, Samidori, Yabukita, as well as Zairai tea leaves to create a complex flavour profile.
I was super curious about the inclusion of Zairai, because unlike the other ‘cultivars,’ Zairai isn’t really a cultivar at all, it’s just the term used for seed-grown, native tea bushes.
Because I had fallen so in love with the packaging and company message and goals of MMU, I was really hoping this tea wouldn’t let me down. They even had a ZINE, guys. A ZINE. What ‘90s kid could resist that?
Luckily, I was in for a treat.
Taking the matcha powder out of the packaging, tasting it and smearing it around a bit, you can instantly tell it’s high quality. The tea smears kind of like a pastel, a super-fine powder with a really rich, blue-green colour.
Whipping it up in a chawan with a whisk, you get a lot of aroma, and immediately taste the fresh, sweet, and umami smell. Although there were some static clumps in the tea from shipping, I put it through a fine mesh to break it up and it sorted itself right back into a fine powder. It blended really well, and easily whisked up into a nice froth.
The creators describe this tea as being ‘sharp,’ and I get that. It’s a very distinct flavour, like it knows what it is. It’s not trying to be rounded out.
Interest in Japanese tea innovation from the west
I’m super interested to watch what these guys do and look forward to seeing how they continue to grow their business in Japan and around the world. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if matcha’s popularity as a health food drink in the west continues, that we might see more western entrepreneurs like these two making close relationships with Japanese farmers.
They might even save small Japanese tea towns, like the one I’m living in in Wazuka. For MMU to focus on a high-quality blend, which is normally a risky enterprise for tea farmers who don’t know if they can sell it, the guys instead bought a whole year’s worth of tea production from select plots in the farms they work with, thus giving financial security to the farmers and allowing them to focus on quality.
It’s so interesting to me to see all the tourists we have coming into Wazuka—most of whom are westerners. Japan currently only exports only about 5% of their tea. I think that number will increase as international interest in Japanese tea increases, and I’d love to see more international collaborations like this one, preserving the traditions of Japan, while using modern entrepreneurship techniques to spread the love of the drink in the west.
What else do you want to know about Japanese tea?
Thanks so much for reading today. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Have you ever tried blended matcha? Are you interested in hearing more about Japanese tea cultivars? Leave a comment below and let me know.