Mid May in Japan. Right about now is when tea farmers are busy packing and shipping out the very first green tea harvest of the year. Many wait an entire year to try this first flush tea — shincha. How could they not? The lack of any bitter notes, the undeniable umami, and all the nutrients that the tea bushes have been storing up all winter long. Shincha is well worth the wait!
What Is Shincha Sencha?
Shincha means "new tea" in Japanese. It is indeed the very first spring harvest of tea in Japan each year. Technically it is the first harvest of sencha green tea. If the tea leaves are not harvested early and are allowed to grow, it will become sencha tea.
Shincha is highly prized and gets sold out quickly. Japanese green tea enthusiasts wait patiently for their favorite tea vendors to release pre-order forms for the tea each year. Often, it is sold out before it is even harvested. Once sold out, shincha is not available until a year later.
Shincha harvest lasts only a few days in a year. Once the sprouts reach a mature enough age to harvest, they must be picked immediately. The span is usually no more than three days. Wait a day too long, and you will be harvesting sencha instead. The farmers must work fast to harvest all the fresh leaves. Some farmers will even work through the night to ensure the leaves don't overgrow.
After the shincha tea leaves harvest, they are processed immediately—the same day.
Read more: History of Sencha
Shincha Processing Steps
Steaming is the most challenging step when it comes to shincha processing. Although the steaming lasts only a minute at most, temperature control is crucial. If the temperature is too hot, the tea's freshness and the gentle tannic taste are destroyed. If the temperature is too low, the taste will be flat and unexpressive. Before steaming, farmers carefully examine the size of the tea leaves and other characteristics to determine the correct steaming process.
Drying and Bruising
Farmers dry and bruise the tea leaves to allow for the oils and flavors of the tea leaves to be released into the water during brewing. This is one step that separates tencha (used for matcha) from other Japanese green teas. Tencha, for example, does not undergo this process.
Farmers check the tea leaves for further imperfections, de-veined and de-stemmed.
Called "hi-ire", this is the final step when the tea leaves are given a last very quick roast. This rids the tea leaves from any extra moisture, making them suitable for storage.
Read more: How To Store Japanese Green Teas
When is Shincha Harvested?
In the South of Japan, particularly Kagoshima prefecture, the spring harvest starts mid-April. As you travel north through Japan, the first harvest may vary by a few weeks. In Shizuoka prefecture, the spring harvest begins near the end of April or early May.
In Japan, there is a tradition of drinking Shincha that was harvested on Hachiju-Hachiya. This is the eighty-eighth night counting from the beginning of spring (which falls on May 2nd). Shincha harvested on this day is believed to bring you good health throughout the following year.
Rain During Shincha Harvest
Japan becomes fairly rainy around April and May, the months of shincha harvest. Raindrops fall over the lush green tea gardens, spreading the soft scent of yet to be harvested tea leaves across the neighborhood. The inevitable rainy season can work both for and against shincha farmers. It all comes down to the exact day when the tea leaves must be harvested. As we've mentioned before, this span is but a few days.
If it rains right before the tea leaves are to be harvested, the leaves will yield a more profound, more refreshing, more aromatic shincha green tea. These teas are sought out and can often jump higher in price.
However, if it is raining throughout the shincha harvest, the tea leaves have the potential of over-growing at a more rapid pace. These tea leaves are no longer suited for premium shincha tea and are sold as "tsuyume", meaning raindrop tea.
A good quality shincha is characterized by its most vibrant green color, fresh leafy taste, and unmistakable sweetness since the tea had no time to develop a high caffeine content or astringency.
What Is Aracha?
Aracha is a common form of shincha tea. It is shincha that isn't fully processed. While it undergoes steps 1 and 2 of the processing methods, it is usually left as-is and does not get de-veined and de-stemmed.
How To Brew Shincha Japanese Green Tea
- Use 1/2g of tea leaves per 30ml of water (5 grams of tea for every kyusu teapot (350 ml)).
- Brew using water of 175℉ / 80℃
- Brew for 30 seconds
During the winter dormancy period, the shincha tea bushes stock up on essential nutrients and theanine (amino acids), which makes shincha such a highly prized tea!