Sencha refers to the largest category of Japanese green teas. At its core, sencha is tea leaves that have been harvested, steamed and then undergo a series of drying, rolling, and shaping steps. Categorically, sencha is made in almost every area of production in Japan from as far north as Saitama prefecture to as south as the southern island of Tanegashima. Sencha encompasses a world of stylistic differences and flavor profiles with each region focused on a different point of importance. The sheer volume of sencha produced in Japan means you can discover endless variations much like red wine in France.
Depending on the area in which the sencha is coming from, the final product can vary drastically. Even within a single prefecture, micro regional styles exist. For example in Shizuoka prefecture alone buying sencha can mean getting completely different styles of tea - light steamed single cultivar sencha from the Kawane district, deep steamed blended sencha from Kakegawa District, or medium steamed, curled leaf “Guricha” style sencha from the Izu peninsula. Sencha’s strength is that there are so many styles to choose from and learn about.
Spring: the season of Sencha
Sencha prior to harvest
Japan’s growing season for tea begins in the winter months as the plants wake from winter dormancy and begin to grow in mid February. Slowly growing through the cold of February and March, the new spring buds begin to appear in early April and depending on the the latitude of the area, harvesting begins between mid April and early May. This season is famous for “shincha” or “new tea” (See our article on shincha here). Shincha is an indicator of the arrival of spring and this young, fresh green tea is sold for only a small window of time - roughly a month. Shincha is in fact sencha but is referred to as shincha during that small time frame.
Aracha - crude, unfinished tea
To understand sencha, it helps to understand the Aracha production of making tea. Sencha is harvested by machines that shear the leaf and collect it or in the case of very high quality teas, hand picked. After harvesting the teas are sent to the factory where they are steamed, rolled, and dried transforming them into a crude, unfinished tea called Aracha. The benefits of aracha is that it is quite stable as the moisture levels of the plant have been lowered to around 4-5%. This Aracha is capable of being stored in vacuum sealed bags in cold storage for long periods of time and stocks can be drawn upon and run through additional machinery to finish it - aracha after it is completely finished is referred to Shiagecha. The sencha you would drink in your home is actually Shiagecha - fully finished tea.
Single Cultivar vs. Blends: What is the difference?
The majority of sencha in Japan are blended. What does that mean exactly? Much like wine can be made from many types of grapes, Sencha can be produced from many cultivars of the tea plant. Most farmers only have a small amount of land to grow tea and by blending their leaves with another growers leaves allow them to create a larger volume of tea. Additionaly, blending helps to add constiency to the flavor of a given sencha month to month and year to year so a customer will always get the flavor profile they expect. One of our favorite blended teas is our Miyabi Sencha - made from both the Saemidori and Okumidori cultivars.
Sencha is also available in single cultivar offerings as well. You may hear these teas refered to as “single origin” meaning 100% of the leaves in the bag are grown in the same field. Unblended sencha is fascinating in that you can taste not only the profile of a single cultivar of the tea plant, but you can detect much more easily the unique characteritics of Terroir (where the tea was grown) and how seasonal variations in weather also affect the teas flavor. While most single cultivar sencha is made of particularly high quality leaf, one should never discount blends as well. Both can be delicious and represent the very best of what Japan has to offer.
Some Regional Styles of Sencha
Uji is known for producing fresh light steamed (Asamushi) senchas that brew up slightly lighter colored in the cup but maintain the qualities of the tea plant. I like to think of Uji Sencha as showcasing the true flavor of the fresh, just picked leaves. They also generally possess an intoxicating almost floral note referred to as “Uji Ka” - the aroma of Uji.
We Recommend: Uji No Sato - a field blend from throughout the Uji area
Shizuoka is the land of Sencha. The mountainous areas produce some of the most sought after single cultivar, light steamed sencha. The flatland areas of Makinohara and Kakegawa focus on deep steamed Fukamushi teas - often made from the Yabukita cultivar which was first produced in Shizuoka.
We recommend: Light steamed Yamakai Sencha from the mountains of Shizuoka
Teas from Fukuoka prefecture, primarily Yame, are medium steamed (Chuumushi) and full of rich umami. Sweet and savory are the keywords in Yame. Teas here tend to undergo higher levels of Hiire which can translate as a gentle firing balancing their sweet umami with a gentle nuttiness akin to roasted hazelnuts.
We Recommend: Miyabi Sencha - a medium steamed sencha with a deep umami
Kagoshima in the southern tip of Kyushu island is a powerhouse of sencha production. I find their teas to be some of the deepest green I have come across. Generally, the teas here are deep steamed and possess a one two punch of sweetness and freshness. If you head north to the Kirishima district you can find lighter steamed single cultivar sencha as well.
We recommend: Satsuma 100 - A sweet and fresh deep steamed sencha from Kagoshima
How to Brew Delicious Sencha
1. Bring your water to a full boil and then pour into a small cup to cool slightly
2. Add roughly 5-6g of shincha tea leaf to your tea pot
3. Once the water cools to around 170°F (80°C), pour it over the shincha leaves
4. Allow the tea to brew for around 45 seconds to 1 minute then pour into your cup. Enjoy!
Pro Tip: Using higher temperature water with a shorter brew time will draw out the pointed, grassy aroma of sencha. The directions above will draw out sencha sweetness.
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