Matcha Grades: Ceremonial vs. Culinary Explained

Jill Caren

If you buy matcha of lower quality and use it for tea, you’ll end up with a bitter beverage and start wondering how come people …

Categories Matcha

If you buy matcha of lower quality and use it for tea, you’ll end up with a bitter beverage and start wondering how come people like matcha so much. But if you are familiar with matcha grades and know what type of matcha to buy, then it is another story.

By knowing matcha grades, you’ll know that not every matcha type is used for tea. There are types that are designed to be used for tea and types designed for cooking, baking, or today’s popular lattes and smoothies.

According to Fact.Mr, the global matcha tea market crossed US$ 2 billion in 2020 and is predicted to exceed US$ 5 billion in revenue by 2031. This is a 2.5x increase for the projection period 2021-2031.

These numbers show that matcha is already consumed all around the world and that the demand for matcha will rise in the future. So, before you begin incorporating matcha tea or matcha powder into your diet, it is important to understand what to look for when purchasing it.

Matcha Grades

Matcha is often classified into two grades:

  • Ceremonial grade matcha
  • Culinary grade matcha

Culinary grade matcha is further divided into:

  • Premium
  • Café
  • Classic
  • Ingredient
  • Kitchen

Ceremonial Grade Matcha

Used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies for centuries, this is the highest grade of matcha available, made from hand-picked first-harvest tea leaves. 

The leaves from the first harvest are the least exposed to sunlight. They are shade-grown, which increases their chlorophyll, caffeine content, and the amino acid L-theanine.

Tannin levels are also lower compared to the second harvest (culinary matcha). Low levels of tannins result in lower bitterness.

These young tea leaves are processed into a fine powder by slow stone-grinding, also known as stone-milling. Dried tea leaves are gradually funneled between the stones and extruded.

This method is extremely slow, producing only 30 grams (about 1 oz) of matcha powder per hour. This is roughly the quantity of matcha in a ceremonial grade matcha tin.

This is the only process available that ensures quality. Despite attempts by sophisticated machinery to replicate this process, the traditional stone-grinding technique is still reserved for ceremonial grade matcha.

New technologies have yet to match this necessarily delicate process. Modern powdering machines or high-speed grinders generate too much heat that will quickly oxidize and burn the powder, resulting in lower-grade matcha.

The difficulty of manufacturing is one of the reasons why matcha is so expensive but definitely worth the price.

Ceremonial grade matcha is always consumed with only hot water.

When you whisk a cup of this grade of matcha, you’ll get a vibrant dark green color that looks emerald.

It offers a complex flavor profile with sweet vegetal grassy notes, and satisfying umami finish. The characteristic ceremonial matcha flavor is lost if you add milk or sugar.

Culinary Grade Matcha

It’s a slightly lower grade of matcha than the ceremonial grade, but this doesn’t mean it’s of low quality. Culinary-grade matcha is designed to be used for baking and cooking. You can drink it plain, but that’s not what it’s intended for, and the flavor may be too strong.

Culinary grade matcha is usually light green to yellow-green because the tea leaves are from the second harvest (a few extra months for growing). Due to the later harvesting date, the tea leaves are more exposed to sunlight.

When tea leaves are exposed to sunlight for an extended period of time, the L-theanine (an amino acid source of relaxing effects and sweet flavor) converts into catechins and then to tannins. More catechins mean more astringency. More tannins equal more bitterness. So, each later harvest is more bitter than the last.

As a result, culinary grade matcha offers a distinct grassy flavor with increased astringency and bitterness, which makes it great for use in savory and sweet dishes.

Due to this slightly bitter taste, culinary grade matcha is not suitable for drinking on its own as tea. It’s designed to be mixed with other ingredients for cooking.

Additionally, culinary grade matcha is divided into five subcategories.

Culinary Grade Matcha Subcategories

Premium: This matcha is thought to be the best matcha for everyday use. It’s either a second-harvest green tea or a combination of first and second-harvest green teas. Its flavor is less bitter than that of culinary grade matcha because it contains at least some first-harvest matcha.

Higher grades of premium matcha may be good enough to be used as a plain tea, although most of it is used in lattes. This is high-quality matcha that is significantly cheaper than the ceremonial grade.

Premium grade matcha has a medium yellow-green color and a mildly grassy flavor. This is your best bet if you enjoy drinking lattes. Premium grade matcha is an excellent tea at an affordable price.

Café: As its name suggests, café-grade matcha is usually used in cafes for coffee beverages, smoothies, lattes, and other drinks. It’s made from less delicate leaves than the premium grade and offers a more robust flavor. For matcha-based beverages, high-end coffee shops often use cafe-grade matcha.

Classic: This matcha grade has a strong and distinct flavor and is usually less expensive than premium or cafe-grade matcha. Classic grade matcha is commonly used in a variety of food and beverage recipes.

Ingredient Grade: This matcha has a slightly thicker consistency and is usually added to dairy recipes, sauces, and desserts.

Kitchen Grade: Produced with less delicate leaves, with an astringent flavor and thicker consistency, kitchen-grade matcha is used for large-scale food production. It is also darker in color.

Two different grades of matcha On the left is the ceremonial grade, with a rich green color. On the right is culinary grade matcha with a yellowish-green color.
Ceremonial vs. Culinary Grade Matcha Powder

Is Starbucks Matcha Ceremonial or Culinary Grade?

Starbucks doesn’t reveal exactly what type of matcha they use. However, it is known that it is pre-sweetened matcha, similar to instant matcha powder. Regular matcha doesn’t really dissolve in water as Starbucks matcha does. The main ingredient of this Starbucks matcha powder blend is sugar, and less than 50% is actual matcha.

I assume that they use lower-grade matcha because high-quality matcha is really expensive, so the cost of the Starbucks Matcha Green Tea Latte will be very high. Despite the fact that they use lower-grade matcha, their Matcha Latte has been a huge success in terms of popularizing matcha.

The Key Differences Between Ceremonial and Culinary Matcha

I’ve shown you in detail the characteristics of ceremonial and culinary grade matcha, but here are their major differences. This comparison will help you to better understand what each of these matcha types has to offer.

Ceremonial Grade MatchaCulinary Grade Matcha
ColorRich dark greenLight green or yellow-green
FlavorGrassy, sweet, umamiGrassy, astringent, bitter
Best ForDrinking plain (warm tea)Baking, cooking, lattes, smoothies
BenefitsMore L-theanineLess L-theanine, more tannins
Ceremonial vs. Culinary Grade matcha

Is Ceremonial Grade Matcha Healthier Than Culinary Grade Matcha?

When compared to green tea or other teas made from the Camellia sinensis plant, no matter if it is culinary or ceremonial grade, matcha offers the most health benefits. This is because you consume the entire leaf in powdered form.

If I compare the health benefits of ceremonial and culinary grade matcha, I must say that ceremonial grade matcha is healthier. This is because it is from the first harvest, which means the leaves contain more chlorophyll and L-theanine than culinary grade matcha (second harvest).

The amino acid L-theanine plays the most important role in this comparison. This amino acid is known to reduce stress, and promote well-being, and, in combination with matcha’s caffeine, helps to promote cognitive function and the ability to focus.

Is Ceremonial Grade Matcha Worth the High Price?

Ceremonial grade matcha can cost up to $3 per gram (0.035 oz). It’s usually from $0.75 to $1 per gram, depending on the brand. In comparison, culinary grade matcha is significantly cheaper, typically costing $0.25 to $0.50 per gram.

In my opinion, ceremonial grade matcha is worth the price. You won’t get that flavor and vibrant green color in your tea with other types of matcha. When you try it, you’ll know it’s worth the money.

Is a higher price always better? Unfortunately, some companies distribute low-quality matcha and label it as “ceremonial grade” on the package when it is not. So simply because matcha is more expensive does not always imply that it is of higher quality. You should be careful and only buy ceremonial grade matcha from trusted brands.

How Do You Know If the Matcha You Buy Is High Quality?

Here are a few tips that will help you better choose high-quality matcha:

Color: This is the most obvious factor in determining matcha quality. High-quality matcha should have a rich, deep green color. Usually, the deeper the shade of green, the higher the quality is.

If the matcha powder is yellowish, brownish, or dull green, it means it is lower-quality matcha.

When purchasing online, brands typically display images of the packaging and the inside content. Pay attention if the powder’s image has been edited, so you don’t get ripped off and end up paying more for low-quality matcha. In most situations, the photo’s hue is changed to make the powder appear more intense than it is.

Origin: Many people agree that Japan’s matcha is the best. Other countries like China and Taiwan also produce matcha, but most matcha enthusiasts agree that matcha produced in Japan is of the highest quality.

Feel: Good quality matcha should feel fine and smooth when rubbed between your fingers. You can perform a quick test by putting a small amount of the powder onto a piece of white paper. Then place your finger in the powder and smear it. It is good matcha powder if it leaves a long, clean line with no breaks.

Simple matcha quality evaluation. Matcha on paper and smearing to check if it leaves the whole long line.
Medium-quality matcha

Aroma: When you add high-quality matcha to water, you should notice a strong, fresh, sweet aroma. It is of poor quality if it smells like stale, dried hay.

Taste: Because of the high L-theanine content, good-quality matcha should taste sweet. It should also have a lot of umami, which is an emergent characteristic of outstanding matcha’s high amino acid content. It is of lower grade if it tastes bitter or very astringent.

Finish: High-grade matcha must have a long and delightful finish that lasts at least 30 seconds.

What Are Uji and Industrial Matcha Grades?

Uji Matcha refers to where the matcha is from. Uji is a city in Japan situated between Kyoto and Nara, two of Japan’s most famous historical and cultural centers. This city is well-known as a center of green tea production, so Uji Matcha should be of high quality.

Of all the matcha produced in Japan, Uji Matcha is considered to be the finest. The region’s hilly terrain, good-quality soil, moderate temperatures, and frequent mist all contribute to what many consider to be the world’s best matcha.

Industrial grade matcha, as the name suggests, is meant to be used in industrial products and it is not meant for consumption. This matcha grade has high levels of acidity and a yellowish tone. The major uses are in vitamin supplements and beauty products. 

The Takeaway on Matcha Grades

The two key grades of matcha are ceremonial and culinary, however, the culinary grade is further subdivided into five subcategories: premium, cafe, classic, ingredient, and kitchen grade.

This classification of matcha is helpful because different grades of matcha are designed for different uses. For example, ceremonial matcha is best for plain tea, and culinary matcha is best for cooking, baking, lattes, and smoothies.

You can also try culinary grade matcha for tea, but the tea will be a bit bitter, very different than matcha tea made with ceremonial grade.

Furthermore, the ceremonial grade is always more expensive, 2-3 times more expensive than the culinary grade. The reason for this is a more complicated production process and hand-picking leaves from the first harvest.

But I also must reiterate that price is not always the most important factor when choosing matcha. Some brands may try to sell you lower quality matcha for a higher price just by labeling it as “ceremonial grade”.

So always be careful when you buy high-quality matcha and look carefully at its color, country of origin, aroma, etc.

In the end, I want to share my experience with both matcha grades. I’ve tried culinary-grade matcha for tea and for sure it doesn’t offer the sweetness and fresh grassy flavor of ceremonial matcha. On the other hand, it is great for making matcha lattes.

Perhaps you’ve wondered why people enjoy plain matcha tea so much. You’ve tried it and maybe didn’t like it. Ask yourself: did you use high-quality or lower-quality matcha?

I’m sure you didn’t enjoy the taste since you used low-quality matcha. Next time, try higher quality or ceremonial grade matcha and you’ll be surprised by its excellent aroma, color, and taste!

Looking for more matcha tips?

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