What is “shade-grown” tea?

In the world of tea, especially when it comes to describing green tea and powdered green tea, the term “shade-grown” is often used to describe the environment in which the tea leaves were grown.

What does “shade-grown” mean?

Some shading is naturally provided by surrounding mountains and/or dew or fog from the ocean.

Some loose leaf green teas and all malcha require the leaves to be at least partially shade grown. In order to control the amount of sunlight that the tea leaves are exposed to, this step is usually done manually. A large net is placed over the tea field to control the amount of sun/shade that the leaves are exposed to. The degree of shading and period of time before harvesting will vary depending on the farmer/company. Hankook Tea’s malcha (ceremonial grade powdered green tea – photo below) is shaded for approximately 2 weeks before harvesting.

How does this affect the tea?

All tea leaves are made up of the same components. Where and how they are grown and processed will change the level of each component within the tea leaf.

Tea leaves grown in shade for longer periods of time will have higher levels of chlorophyll and amino acids. This is why shade-grown teas will be brighter green in color.

Increasing the length of time of shading will also increase the level of caffeine, as well as the level of theanine. Theanine is the component in green tea that is responsible for the sweet, savory flavor. Teas that have a higher content of theanine will have a sweeter flavor, and are considered to be of higher grades.

Exposure to sunlight will increase the level of vitamin C, as well as the level of tannins. Tannins are the components in green tea (same as in wine) that is responsible for the smooth texture, as well the astringent, bitter taste. It is also one of the main components that fight cancer. Sun grown teas will generally have a more full-bodied flavor.

One method is not necessarily better or worse than the other. It really depends on what you are looking for. For specific health benefits, these are the factors that one should pay attention to, especially when looking for malcha and/or powdered green tea. (Read about: Malcha vs Powdered Green Tea)

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Malcha vs. Powdered Green Tea

What is Malcha?

Malcha is the Korean pronunciation of the Hanja characters 抹茶 (matcha in Japanese, muocha in Chinese), directly translating to “powdered/ground down tea”.

How is “Malcha” different from “powdered green tea”?
The two are essentially the same – green tea leaves ground down to powder form.
All malcha is powdered green tea, BUT not all powdered green tea is malcha.

So what’s the difference?
Any type of green tea that is ground up can be qualified as “powdered green tea”. The green tea can be sun-grown, shade-grown, steamed, pan-fired, etc. As long as it is ground up into powder form, it can be called “powdered green tea”.

In order to qualify as “Malcha”, it MUST follow these rules:
(1) The green tea must be “연차” (yeoncha 碾茶 – “tencha” in Japanese). Yeoncha is made of tea leaves that are shade-grown (partially or fully), steamed and dried (some may roll or chop the leaves to make it easier to grind).
(2) The yeoncha must be ground to a fine powder with a stone mill.

Malcha will also foam well upon whisking. In Korean, we call this process of whisking and foaming malcha “격불” (khyuk-bool). In the photo above, one can see whisked malcha in the bowl on the top right (right of the bowl with the tin canister).

In order to produce such fine foam, two things are necessary: fine powder and technique. The latter is a skill that must be honed over time, through practice and experience.

The finest powder comes from tea leaves that are ground down slowly using a stone mill. While other methods (ceramic-ball milled, machine ground, etc.) are used to produce powdered green tea, the stone mill is what gets Malcha to this ultra-fine state, without destroying the essence or health benefits of the leaves. This is also the factor that limits the quantity that can be produced in a certain amount of time, making fine malcha such a high-priced commodity.

Like a great cup of latte, the smoothness and fineness of the foam at top can make all the difference.