How a tea tastes can be a very subjective thing. What tastes delicious to one person may taste unremarkable or even unpleasant to another.
Various factors influence the flavor of a matcha, including the cultivar of the tea plant, the terroir in which the tea plant is grown, the skill and care of the tea farmer, the harvest in which the tea leaves were picked and the methods used to process the tea.
A matcha may also not taste the same twice. You may taste new flavors the second time you drink it that you missed the first time around. As the tea ages or gradually becomes exposed to air, its flavor will alter ever so slightly over time as well.
Perhaps the most critical factor in determining the flavor of a matcha from the outset though is the quality of the tea leaves used to make it.
So before describing how matcha ought to taste, it’s important to briefly describe the grades of matcha and what they mean for how your matcha may taste.
How Grades Of Matcha Tea Affect Its Flavor
Broadly speaking there are two grades of matcha used in the West — “ceremonial-grade” and “culinary-grade” matcha.
These grades do not actually exist in Japan but they have become widely used in the West so they are helpful for current purposes.
Ceremonial-grade matcha is a term used to describe good quality matcha that would be reserved for the Japanese tea ceremony. Culinary-grade matcha is a lower quality matcha that is best used for cooking - if drunk on its own with hot water it will taste bitter and unpleasant but when used in cooking the other flavors in the food mask any unpleasantness from the matcha.
For the purposes of this article therefore, we’re only talking about how ceremonial-grade matcha should taste.
The quality of a ceremonial-grade matcha (and therefore the cost) can vary enormously which is why it can be difficult to ascertain which matcha might be right for you. Similar to wine, whiskey, chocolate and other fine commodities, there is a broad spectrum of different quality ceremonial-grade matcha available ranging from the good to the sublime.
Needless to say, you should only buy your ceremonial-grade matcha from a reputable merchant so that you can be sure you’re drinking a matcha that meets a certain level of quality. The quality of our products means everything to us and we have worked hard to develop strong and trusting relationships with our farmers to ensure our matcha is of the highest quality.
Breaking Down The Flavor Of Matcha
Now that we know we should only be drinking ceremonial-grade matcha if we want to appreciate the matcha’s flavor, we can move onto the more exciting subject of how matcha should actually taste!
Matcha is often compared to wine for a good reason — much like wine, there are hundreds of ways to describe the taste and character of matcha.
The flavor of the matcha comprises two things — its aroma and its taste.
Aroma is what you can smell from the matcha when it is mixed with hot water. The aroma may be distinctive or it may be complex (like a bouquet of flowers) and reveal many different smells.
The freshness of the matcha is also apparent in the aroma. Over time, the volatile aromatics contained in the matcha slowly diffuse and the richness of the aroma mellows as a result. We describe how smell is one of the factors to look out for in a good quality matcha in our article on choosing quality matcha here.
As you first begin to whisk the matcha with hot water, the aroma will begin to waft up from the bowl. Take a deep inhale and savor the matcha’s aroma. Does it smell delicate or rich? Floral or toasted? Or brothy like a rich stew?
The aroma is incredibly important to the overall flavor of the matcha. This is because smell plays a much more dominant role in our perception of flavor than what you actually taste and is why you may have thought your food or drink tastes bland compared to normal when you have a cold — your taste buds haven’t changed, it’s the congestion in your nose which has impaired your sense of smell and altered the flavor.
Try a simple experiment to experience this for yourself. Have a mouthful of matcha while pinching your nose and then have another mouthful without pinching your nose and notice the difference. I would bet a lot of money that your second mouthful tastes completely different to the first!
Now take a sip of the matcha. What do you notice? Take another sip and see if you notice anything different.
The flavor profile of the matcha gradually develops as you drink more of the tea. Often the first sip lays the foundation for the flavor and the others build on top of it. If your matcha has a lot of froth, you may only taste the flavor of the froth for the first couple of sips before the full flavor of the matcha reveals itself.
People often ask if matcha tastes bitter. While some people like a certain degree of bitterness in their matcha, the highest-quality matcha will taste naturally sweet without any bitterness. The natural sweetness shines through without requiring sugar, honey, agave or other additives to mask any bitterness.
Generally a good quality matcha will either taste nutty and malty or will have a floral and refreshing flavor profile. The highest grades of matcha will also have plenty of umami which gives the tea more savory notes and is why the matcha may have a brothy aroma.
Umami is one of the five basic tastes that the human mouth can detect (along with sweet, sour, bitter and salt). It is commonly found in broths, gravies, soups, shellfish, smoked salmon, mushrooms, yeast extract, cheeses and soy sauce and was identified by a Japanese chemist as a distinct taste in 1908.
The umami in matcha comes from the amino acids in the tea leaves which increase in concentration while the tea leaves are shaded. The higher the quality of the matcha, the higher the concentration of amino acids in the leaves and therefore the greater the intensity of the umami.
The Mouthfeel Of Matcha
How matcha feels when you taste it is an important part of the experience of drinking a matcha tea and worth taking note of. Does it feel smooth, buttery, thick, velvety? Does it feel full, with strength and substance, or light and delicate?
A notable component of mouthfeel is astringency. Astringency is not strictly a taste (unlike bitterness which is) but rather a mouth-drying effect on the tongue which gives the matcha a particular mouthfeel.
Astringency is a clean and refreshing quality which is caused by the tannins in the matcha. Some people like their matcha to have a lot of astringency while others prefer less. Astringency is also a feature of wine (and another reason why people often compare the qualities of the two).
As with wine, astringency in matcha is very much a personal preference and the amount of astringency one person likes another may not. Being able to recognize that sensation in your mouth though will help you in deciding how much astringency you like in your matcha.
Vocabulary To Describe The Taste Of Matcha
It can be hard describing what you can taste if you struggle to find the right vocabulary. Most people struggle to find the words to describe the flavor of a new wine but as soon as someone tells them that they can taste honeydew melon, buttered toast or wet leather, they immediately recognize the flavor themselves.
Having a vocabulary to describe what you can taste can help you to communicate what you like about a matcha and allows you to engage in a conversation with other people who appreciate fine teas.
Below are some categories of flavors that you might use to describe matcha:
Matcha will almost always have a vegetal quality and may taste like spinach, garden peas, green peppers, green beans or asparagus. It may also have earthier notes of leather, peat, freshly-cut grass or pine.
Nuttiness is a hallmark of a good quality matcha. The matcha may taste of hazelnuts, cashew, almond, nougat, praline, pine nuts or roasted nuts.
Certain blends of matcha may display more floral notes than nutty ones. There may be hints of garden flowers, wild flowers or corn fields.
A good quality matcha will have a natural sweetness and little or no bitterness. The natural sweetness may reveal notes of malt, toffee or brown sugar.
Some matcha has a marine quality to it. Japanese green tea is notable for having hints of seaweed, oyster and ocean air and many attribute this to the close proximity of Japanese tea fields to the sea.
A defining characteristic of any good matcha is a certain amount of umami. This pleasant savoriness will taste like broth, yeast extract or shiitake mushrooms and there may even be a mineral quality to it giving an almost metallic taste.