A fleeting glimpse of Spring - the seasonal delight of Shincha
Shincha (新茶) refers to the new first green tea harvested for the year (Shin = New, Cha = Tea). Shincha is a celebration of the spring season - a sure sign it has arrived - and it is enjoyed for a short period of time between mid April and mid June. While regional teas reflect unique terroir, manufacturing processes and cultivars, all shincha from throughout Japan shares one thing in common: a focus on freshness.
[88th Night Of Spring | Hachijuhachiya]
Japan's tea harvest begins in the middle of Spring and unfolds from the south to the north in a weekly or bi-weekly schedule. The southern island of Tanegashima, in Kagoshima prefecture, is most often the first shincha to appear on the market with Chiran, Nagasaki, Saga and Fukuoka following shortly after. Mie, Uji, Nara, and Shiga come next with the northern and mountainous areas of Shizuoka, Gifu and Saitama generally being harvested later - around the first few weeks of May. It is said that teas picked on the 88th evening of Spring (as counted from the Holiday Setsubun on February 3rd - so generally around May 2nd) are the most delicious. While that may not be entirely true, tea producers often attempt to harvest some portion of leaf on that date as it still considered auspicious. You may see it marketed as 八十八夜 - an indicator of the the lucky date.
Tea Bushes Slowly Growing During The Month Of March
Shincha | Step One - Growth
Tea leaves begin their life cycle during the cold winter months. The plant draws energy from the soil and begins to slowly and deliberately store nutrients from the coming Spring. New leaves begin to show in the month of March - still biding their time. After continued slow maturation, more explosive growth is seen under the warm sun of April and by the middle to end of the month, the leaves are ready for harvest.
"Shinme" - the green glow of new growth in Uji, Kyoto
Shincha | Step Two - Tea Harvest
The new spring leaf and bud begins its transition to shincha during the harvest. Only the young, tender leaves and buds are gathered. The highest quality teas are harvested by hand, a practice known as Tezumi (手摘み) while the majority of Japanese tea is machine sheared. Of course, mechanical shearing can be also be found on prestigious farms as well.
Tezumi - handpicking shincha in Shizuoka Prefecture
Shincha | Step Three - Manufacturing
After picking, the leaves are quickly transported to the factory where they undergo initial processing. Processing time and specifics vary by region and reflect the general style of the locale as well as the specific tastes of the producer overseeing the manufacturing. Case in point: making tea is a personal pursuit and will vary from factory to factory, even within a single region. Below is a general step by step of how tea is processed.
- Humidifying: Tea is allowed to stay cool and hydrated over humid air before steaming.
- Steaming: The leaf is steamed to stop oxidation and the breakdown of the plants volatile compounds. Steaming locks in the teas green color and fresh aroma. Length of steaming plays a big part in the teas final appearance, taste and aroma.
- Cooling: Teas are allowed to cool immediately after steaming.
- Kneading: Leaves are kneaded by machine to both lower and balance moisture content in the leaf.
- First Rolling: Leaves are rolled to breakdown fibers, release aromatic compounds, and lower moisture levels
- Secondary Kneading: Moisture is continuing to drop and leaves are softening considerably.
- Secondary Rolling: This allows shincha to begin to take on its needle shape and deep, dark luster. At this step, deeper steamed teas would begin to breakdown making for smaller leaf shape - Fukamushicha for example.
- Final Rolling: This precision rolling gives the sencha its final needle shape.
- Final Drying: To achieve stability, leaves are dried one final time. Tea is now in a stable condition called Aracha, a crude tea that still contains uneven leaf and stem. Aracha can be refrigerated and then pulled out and finished - thus making fresh tea available all year. Note that shincha refers to tea that is finished and sold immediately. Aracha is what is sold at the tea auction in Japan. The Aracha is bid on and then generally the processing below is done by the winning bidder.
Cutting, sorting, drying/firing are all applied to Aracha to finish the tea into Shiage cha or finished tea. Once complete the tea is packaged and sold.
[A Note About The Tea Auction]
Land use law in Japan makes it impossible for one person or organization to own a monopoly on land and to be honest, usable land for tea is not endless in Japan. So the system of auction allows farmers a marketplace for selling their products and larger tea manufacturers a place to select tea that suits their needs. A good portion of Japanese tea is blended meaning the leaves of several growers are combined to create the final product - much like a blended scotch. Single cultivar teas represent one cultivar, from one field, from one farmer just like a single malt. These are unique every year and reflect seasonal differences in weather, soil health, and manufacturing consistency. The market place is a gathering space that is run with rules and precision. It is a wonderful time to experience the anticipation of the new teas and get a sense of how the years crop has turned out.
Shincha | Step Four - Enjoying
Shincha is not the most complex of Japanese teas but contains a fragrance only available for a short time each year. Like any seasonal delicacy, it's a celebration of time and place. Enjoying the color and aroma of the very first spring tea is a simple joy. Below are some parameters for brewing a great cup of shincha.
How To Brew Delicious Shincha
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 shincha. The directions above will draw out shinchas sweetness
Photos by Zach Mangan
All words and photos © Kettl Tea, Inc / Do not use without permission