Single Origin Matcha
The term “single origin” is a common one heard from upscale food and beverage professionals including third-wave baristas, elite chocolatiers, spice masters, vintners and even coconut milk companies. The term is often used as a selling point, but there is still misunderstanding about what single origin is and isn’t. It is easier to understand what single origin is by first understanding the blended tea, which is the tea more commonly available.
1. Why Blend?
A blended tea comprises two or more tea cultivars that, together, offer a complementary set of characteristics. To compose a blend, tea masters taste numerous leaves from a number of farms or regions and make selections based on the desired flavor, aroma and color profile of the imagined tea blend.
This process can enhance and stabilize the flavor of a matcha. It allows blenders to create consistency from year-to-year, composing blends based on changing seasonal varietals. It can highlight certain notes and can quiet others. It is similar to a painter’s process of creating the precise color needed for a vivid sunset painting. The painter remembers an exact color and adds a little of this and that hue until it matches his or her recollection. The difference is, a tea master is creating a profile that engages multiple senses with developing stages: taste, mouthfeel, aroma, vibrancy and even the way these elements unfold. It is easy to see how such an art would require training, study and experience.
Indeed, tea blending is a mastery that requires years of training under a tea master. Similar to the artistry of wine and coffee blending, tea blending is a highly-specialized craft that some masters have studied from childhood. Despite the technique and intention passed down, with devotion, through generations of teachers and students, not everyone has safeguarded this tradition. It is now common for companies to use blending as a way to cut production cost rather than to offer an elevated tea composition. We hope that informing tea drinkers will allow them to make better choices and to support the companies honoring our rich customs.
2. What is single origin?
In reference to matcha, single origin simply means the tencha (leaves that are ground to make matcha) were grown in a single place. The place could be as large as a country or region, as big as a prefecture, or as small as a family farm. Often but not always, the origin is the same as the name of the tea. For example, Uji matcha is grown in the historical Uji area (currently Kyoto, Nara, Shiga and Mie prefectures). However, not every tea labeled with a region is single origin. Some teas are named after the place where they were blended.
Single origin does not indicate the leaves came from a single harvest A single harvest comes from one harvesting season. Single-origin is also not the same as single batch tea. Single batch is made of leaves that went through the entire production cycle together. Here is a glossary of terms for quick reference:
BLEND: A tea mixed with more than one cultivar from different locations.
SINGLE HARVEST: A tea of leaves collected from a single harvesting season
SINGLE BATCH: A collection of leaves that went through one production cycle together.
Some of the most popular Japanese locations for single origin teas are Uji and Kirishima in Kagoshima Prefecture. Kagoshima, the source of one of Cuzen’s three Single Origin Okumidori varieties, yields the most tea of those locations. Kagoshima is favorable to tea cultivation because it has abundant rainfall, ocean fog, plenty of sunshine and rich soil fed with volcanic ash. Kirishima has a high altitude, which makes for an environment with few pests, and thus, simplifies organic farming.
Above the Tenryu River in Shizuoka sits an organic farm where a second Cuzen Single Origin Okumidori is sourced. Negative ions travel up from the river fog and surrounding swamp areas, allowing plants to grow quickly despite the shortage of available sunlight in the mountains. Though the soil is full of stones, it is nutrient-rich, making it an unexpectedly fertile place for cultivation.
Uji, Kyoto, the growing place of Cuzen’s third Single Origin Okumidori, is known as the birthplace of Japanese green tea. Perhaps the climate contributed to this history, as it is a unique one, ideal for tea-growing. Uji sits in between two river basins with a panoramic view of rolling hills. It is home to regular fog with humid summers, making it a wonderfully wet place for tea plants.
Although certain reputations and standards of quality are connected to different regions, and sometimes there are a few common characteristics found in teas from a given region, tea qualities are not generally consistent across a location or even from year-to-year. Maybe a certain region is known for bright green varieties because of environmental factors, for example, but most qualities vary based on annual conditions, the particular techniques of different farmers and many other determinants.
Single origin tea is often cherished due to the reputation carried by its origin. There are a number of places famous for hosting centuries of cultivation knowledge resulting in high-quality tea. Certain landscapes or islands are also known for their soil type, climate or other environmental factors that contribute to high-grade tea varieties.
Knowing where a set of tea leaves comes from also allows the drinker to know about the culture, the landscape and the sustainability that is attached to their tea. The smaller the named location is, the more easily a person can ascertain this information. Every part of the process, from seed to sip, matters in the tea-drinking experience. With knowledge of a specific sustainable farm, one can more deeply feel the calm generated by a warm bowl of matcha or can call on lush mountain imagery that is as vivid as the foamy tea in hand.
Single origin teas are unique because they have strong and unmasked characteristics. The sensory palette of a single origin tea is a solo actor on an empty stage. Each smell, flavor, color and finish is wholly credited to that one variety. This is in contrast to tea blends, which operate more like multiple actors in dialogue, reflecting and complementing the qualities of each other based on the director or tea master’s wisdom and preferences. (In the context of the tea industry, those qualities are largely based on the whims of a target market.) There is something elegant and skillful about presenting a sophisticated, complex taste from one solitary place. It celebrates the beauty offered naturally, in its most original form, unmasked and unchanged.
3. Cuzen’s Single Origin Okumidori
Okumidori, our organic, single origin matcha, is similarly unique, with strong and consistent qualities, based on the farm locations from which it was sourced. Okumidori was first cultivated in Shizuoka Prefecture as a hybrid of Yabukita and a native Shizuoka variety, in an effort to extend the growing season. It buds later than other teas, which means it is more resistant to frost. The leaf is small, elliptical and frequently used for sencha and gyokuro teas. It is often praised for having no real flaws or drawbacks.
The Shizuoka variety begins with a toasted rice fragrance, followed by the crisp, clean notes of cool mountain fog. Our Uji Okumidori is fragrant with a long finish and a hint of bitterness, thanks to a common Uji-style steaming process. The Kirishima Okumidori is reminiscent of green peas, has a three-dimensional quality and leaves a pleasant, lingering scent of incense and faint coconut.
These three varieties exhibit how even the same tea can vary, depending on local soil and air qualities, along with post-harvest steaming and processing traditions.
4. A Suitable Choice for Ceremony
Oiemoto-okonomi is the Japanese term for “the grand tea master’s favorite” and refers to a treasured, high-quality tencha used for ceremony. Because the tea ceremony is characterized by simplicity, nature and beauty, it follows that the oiemoto-okonomi is often selected from only one farm, making it even more special. Certainly, a single origin tea has strong and direct qualities, unadulterated with other cultivars. The localized notes and aroma become centered and easily identified when made into koicha, the thick, ceremonial tea. For this reason, we decided to offer our first single origin tea with our Ceremonial Set. Our Matcha Maker features a grind-only setting so the freshest powder can be hand-whisked immediately after whole leaves are ground. The convenience of the Matcha Maker’s whisking component is perfect for a morning routine, but it’s also important to take time and savor the slower, thoughtful ritual of tea.