Sencha | The Tea of Japan

Posted by Zach Mangan on

Sencha refers to the largest category of green teas produced in Japan. Most simply, sencha is made from tea leaves that have been harvested, steamed, and then processed into aracha, or crude tea, and finally finished into shiagecha. Sencha is made in almost every tea-producing area in Japan from as far north as Saitama Prefecture to as far south as the southern island of Tanegashima. Sencha truly encompasses a world of stylistic differences and flavor profiles with each region producing teas that highlight its many different qualities. Because of the sheer volume of sencha produced in Japan there are endless variations to discover, as with the red wines of France or the whiskies of Scotland. Simply put, of all the types of Japanese tea, sencha probably boasts the widest range of styles.

Aracha can be loosely translated to “crude tea.” Aracha is produced by a special method developed in Japan that turns fresh tea leaf into stable, storable green tea. What makes it so unique? A small producer in China, for example, might harvest the leaves, heat them, and shape them to create the finished product. That product will not undergo any further processing or blending—the tea is now completely finished and could begin to suffer the adverse effects of light, heat, and moisture— all enemies of green tea’s subtle flavors and aromas. Tea that undergoes the aracha process, on the other hand, is shelf stable and storable, giving resellers and manufacturers choices for how to blend or process the final product. In short, aracha is a uniquely Japanese way of processing tea leaf and in the first step in making Sencha.

GROWING AND PRODUCTION

With so much variety among senchas, it is paramount that those who farm it understand the complexities of local weather and soil, and know which cultivars will do well in their fields. For example, a farmer must be tuned into which cultivars will be ready at what times so they can create a harvest schedule and not be overwhelmed on any particular day. Or, when it comes to soil, a farmer’s field may be naturally deficient in one nutrient and have too much of another, requiring careful management of the land. It is this combination of weather, cultivar, and soil, along with the choices of the farmer, that creates the fascinating terroir of Japanese sencha.

Precisely because of these factors, sencha is really a myriad of styles and flavors as opposed to one fixed style of tea. Even within a single prefecture, micro-regional manufacturing styles exist. For example, in Shizuoka Prefecture alone, buying sencha can mean getting completely different teas, depending on where you are shopping: Light-steamed single-cultivar sencha from Kawane, deep-steamed blended sencha from Kakegawa, or medium-steamed, curled-leaf guricha style sencha from the Izu peninsula.

Sencha’s strength is that there are so many versions to choose from and learn about. Whether you like a golden brew that’s lightly floral, a deep green cup brimming with umami, or a nutty and layered tea perfect after a meal, you can find what you’re after in the world of sencha. As you learn to enjoy sencha, it begins to reveal itself like an onion—layer upon layer of nuance with endless styles to try. When I hear someone say “I don’t like sencha,” it actually excites me, for there is surely a version of sencha out there for everyone. The key to sencha is to try as many styles as possible from as many regions as you can.

THE SENCHA FIELD

If you have seen tea fields in Japan—perhaps from the window of a speeding shinkansen, or bullet train—you have most certainly seen sencha. The rows of emerald hedges poised on the mountainsides, along with terraced rice paddies, make for some of the most idyllic views in rural Japan. While these sencha bushes are manicured to appear as a single hedge, they are in fact a network of small tea saplings that have grown close together, with each individual sapling fusing to create the appearance of one long row. While the height of the bush is fairly standard (about hip height), the width can vary depending on how the tea bushes will be harvested—either by hand or machine. Depending on the cultivar of the bush, its overall shape—as well as the shape of the leaf—will differ. But through uniform pruning, the bushes can be hard to tell apart. A healthy sencha bush will contain waxy, dark green leaves from which the tender buds of the new crop will sprout in spring. The roots of sencha bushes do well in nutrient dense, well draining soil. Soil accounts for a large percentage of the personality of a sencha. Even within a small area, teas can vary quite drastically. Certain hills in small towns in Shizuoka are famous for the unique flavor they impart, and tea grown on them may fetch one and a half to two times more than the tea from across the road. Fertilizing, pruning, and general maintenance of the field also impact the ultimate quality of a tea.

BLENDED SENCHA

Most typically, sencha is blended. Blending affords a tea producer both consistency and scale. As mentioned, many tea resellers grow a portion of their own tea. But Japan’s strict land use laws make it difficult for any one company to own vast amounts of land. To illustrate this point: most of the large tea fields you see in Shizuoka look like one large plantation but are in fact subdivided into zigzagging cross sections that belong to multiple owners. To grow a reselling business, more tea than what is available to one farmer is needed. Additionally, tea is an agricultural product and, like wine, will change year over year. Customers often come to expect a certain flavor or profile from a tea brand, and for a farmer to rely on one cultivar each year to produce that flavor is not realistic. Weather, changes in soil conditions, and manufacturing difficulties mean a tea producer cannot guarantee that one year’s tea will taste like another. To mitigate this, blending is the norm. A chashi, or tea blender, is tasked with creating the “cuvée” blends that represent a company. To do this, the chashi blends the teas that are carefully selected at auction each year in different ratios to reproduce the established flavor of the company’s products. It is hard to overstate the expertise required to faithfully match flavors by blending. And remember: chashi must make split-second decisions at the tea auction. Misreading the leaves can lead to a company ending up with a literal ton of tea that can’t be used.

Teas are blended in the aracha state and then processed into shiagecha. Sencha made from blends can be incredibly delicious. They often have a wonderful, layered harmony. I think of the chashi as building the teas like a pianist builds a chord on a piano: stacking flavors like notes to create a splendid harmony of flavor. Oftentimes, a bit of the previous year’s tea is also blended in to maintain consistency. And the most incredible part is that if the chashi is doing his job, you would never know the difference.

In recent years, as farmers have stepped into the spotlight, the public’s desire to experience the unique flavor of each individual cultivar has increased. And along with that consumers are now welcoming each year’s subtle differences and eccentricities. That leads us to a newer phenomenon: single cultivar sencha.


UNBLENDED SINGLE-CULTIVAR SENCHA

Blending is the traditional way that tea has been prepared for sale for years. The farmer grows tea and makes aracha and takes it to the marketplace where it is sold at auction. A reseller buys the tea and then a chashi blends it and it undergoes final processing. In the end, customers are treated to a standardized offering.

Somewhat recently, farmers have begun to grow their tea and process it all themselves in an unblended state—meaning the finished tea is 100 percent single-cultivar. Every leaf in your cup hails from the same garden. These teas are like single-vintage wines made from one grape varietal. They represent a unique moment, and are a celebration of the subtle differences of the year and the idiosyncratic components of the cultivar. These have yet to find huge commercial appeal as most teas are made to satisfy the Japanese market, which has a taste for consistency. But it is easy to see the appeal from the farmer’s point of view. Imagine the dedicated artisan who toils the whole year to coax out the most divine expression of her crop before someone buys it and blends it in with numerous other farmers’ teas. The expression of the grower’s art can get lost in blends.

Enter the single-cultivar offering. At Kettl, we carry more than fifteen varieties of single-cultivar sencha. I am fascinated by the seemingly endless range of flavors and aromas that fall under the umbrella of sen- cha. Tasting a tea and beginning to understand the factors that have impacted its flavor: this is something I, and our customers, have come to appreciate. Blends cannot teach one the differences between teas from towns in the same prefecture, for example. Just a decade ago, it was not possible for the average drinker of tea to discover how the same cultivar can change in the hands of two different tea producers. We are lucky to now have access to single-cultivar teas—and I hope to continue to celebrate their unique flavors and fascinating stories for years to come.

SENCHA: ONE TEA, MANY STYLES

Steaming has a profound impact on the profile of the sencha. And regionally, teas undergo different lengths of steaming to suit the tastes of the locals. Steaming can be broken down into three main categories:

Asamushi: Asamushi refers to tea that undergoes the least amount of steaming. Asamushi is easily recognizable by its long, slender, needle shaped leaves. A steaming time of less than fifteen seconds would be considered asamushi. Teas that are less steamed maintain more cellulose in the leaf, allowing them to stand up to the repeated rolling of the aracha and shiage process. The flavor of asamushi can best be summed up as fresh and invigorating with a lively aroma reminiscent of just harvested leaves. Asamushi is prized for its pristine dry leaf shape and also its fine, light, and radiant yellow liquor. Most competition level senchas, known as hinpyoukai, are asamushis. Notable areas of production include Uji in Kyoto Prefecture; the mountainous areas of Shizuoka Prefecture including Kawane, Honyama, and Shimizu; and the Kirishima area in Kagoshima Prefecture.

Chuumushi: Representing most likely the largest swath of senchas, chuumushi, or futsumushi, is medium- or “regular” steamed sencha. This tea is steamed for about twenty to thirty seconds and produces a deeper colored tea. Chuumushi can run the gamut from low quality to very high quality. If you have had sencha, it is quite likely you have drunk this style. Depending on the exact processing methods, the dry leaf of chuumushi sencha tends to be very aromatic. The brewed tea can range from neon green to nearly opaque. Notable areas of production include Yame in Fukuoka Prefecture; Shizuoka Prefecture; Mie Prefecture; Kumamoto Prefecture; and Miyazaki Prefecture.

Fukamushi: Fukamushi translates to “deep steamed,” and fukamushi senchas are steamed the longest. Fukamushi has grown in popularity for its soft taste, wildly deep green color, and ease of brewing. The tea leaf is broken into smaller bits with more surface area exposed; therefore more of the vibrant green chlorophyll comes through in the brew. Fukamushi is a great entry point to sencha as it is an easy brewer with a mild, approachable profile. Notable areas of production are Shizuoka Prefecture, primarily Kakegawa and Makinohara; Saitama Prefecture, especially Saitama city; and Chiran in Kagoshima Prefecture.

BREWING SENCHA

Brewing a proper cup of sencha is the first thing any Japanese-tea enthusiast should learn to do. When brewed correctly, it can provide that “ah-ha” experience. Sencha provides all of the touch points of a classic Japanese tea experience—sweet, savory, astringent, aromatic, and visually appealing.

A note on brewing: without making things overly complicated, I must stress that every tea you brew will have its own sweet spot. Kettl provides tailored brewing parameters for each tea we sell. So please take the guidelines we present here as—well, guidelines. Our suggestions will provide you with an experience that is what you would get in Japan—more leaf, less water, and a richer profile. While everyone has the freedom to make tea the way they like, I suggest trying our method to understand how sencha is meant to be experienced.

A note on water: Water could be a chapter unto itself. We suggest using soft, natural spring water where available. Otherwise, always use fresh filtered water and bring it to a rolling boil in either a traditional stovetop kettle or an electric kettle. Notice we say boil first. The act of boiling the water fully helps to oxygenate it and will lead to a richer, more flavorful brew.

Recipe

SENCHA FOR TWO

DIRECTIONS

  1. Boil water and let it cool a bit. If you have a temperature- control tea kettle, set it to hold the water at around 190°F (90°C).

  2. Pour 220 mL (7.5 fl. oz.) of hot water into your empty teapot and allow it to sit for one minute.

  3. Pour the water from the teapot into two empty tea cups. This will preheat the cups and keep the brewed tea at the proper temperature.

  4. Add 5–7 g of leaf to your teapot. I like 7 g for a richer taste.

  5. After the water has cooled in the cups to around 175°F (75°C), pour it into the teapot that contains the leaves.

  6. Brew for 45 seconds.

  7. Pour the tea, making sure to alternate between the cups

    as you pour.


Looking to explore Sencha? Start Here


To learn more about Japanese Tea, please consider reading my book

STORIES OF JAPANESE TEA: The regions, the growers, and the craf t

← Older Post Newer Post →

Leave a comment

Kettl Tea Blog

RSS

2024 Sourcing - Miyazaki, Takanabe

By Zach Mangan

You could do a lot worse than ending up in Miyazaki. It holds little acclaim to foreigner visitors aside from perhaps its famous beef -...

Read more

2024 - The New Harvest Begins

By Zach Mangan

Greetings from our 2024 sourcing trip. While it is only the very beginning of the harvest season, with many areas yet to begin harvesting, my...

Read more