A Guide to Japanese Shincha (First Plucked) Green Teas

May 05, 2021

by By Diana Rosen

Spring buds open to
greet the sun, bitter
cold of winter fades.

The tender expectancy of spring is never more evident than in this season’s harvests of Japanese green teas. Their perfection is reflected in the cup: clear golden yellow to pale green liquor, delicate yet distinguishable flavors of a sweet grassy essence or a lighter vegetal taste that is clean, palate-pleasing, with little or no astringency. These delicious results are all due to steam fired techniques versus wok firing which give the leaves of Sencha and Gyokuro, in particular, a shiny appearance, a slightly iodized taste, and no oxidation which may contribute to their distinctive edge of umami.

Japanese green teas are high in vitamins, particularly Vitamin C, antioxidants, EGCG, low in caffeine, and are ideal stand-alone teas or a wonderful accompaniment to a variety of cuisines.
tea photo

Shizuoka Prefecture

Although Japanese teas grow in several areas of this small country, Shizuoka Prefecture grows nearly 40% of the ocha, or green tea. Located on Honshu’s Pacific coast with its spectacular view of the picturesque now-capped Mt. Fuji, Shizuoka has tea terroir: mineral-rich soil, four distinct seasons, and benefits from dense coastal fog between the necessary rainfall. Tea has been grown here since 1241 when, allegedly, the monk Shoichi Kokushi planted seeds there which he brought with him after visiting China. Another legend names the monk, Eisai, as the transporter of tea seeds, a sample of powdered green tea, and Rinzai Zen Buddhism from China to Japan.

Over the centuries, the Chinese influence was seen in tea planting, harvesting, and processing techniques. While readily adapted, these techniques evolved into a genuine Japanese aesthetic of exceptionally skilled processing providing both beauty in the leaf and in the cup. Gyokuro and Sencha are the best examples of Japanese attention to detail and the varieties of each category are coveted by tea enthusiasts everywhere. A third Japanese tea, the hugely popular Genmaicha, is both amusing and unexpected, yet like all things Japanese, made with careful intention. We tell you more below:

Elegant heirloom
teacup holds liquid jade for
your sweet open lips.

Shincha Gyokuro (Jade Dew)

The most elegant, most flavorful, and most sought-after Japanese green teas, Gyokuro was first developed and sold in Japan in 1835 by the venerable Yamamoto Tea Company. The signature quality of Gyokuro is its dark green color in the leaves and its deeply rich flavor. These qualities are a direct result of intentionally shading the tea bushes for at least three weeks prior to harvesting to increase the chlorophyll levels in both leaf and imbued liquor. The infusion is a pale greenish-yellow, beautiful against white porcelain or clear glass, and the taste is buttery/nutty, soft and smooth on the tongue. While low in caffeine, Gyokuro is high in amino acids, particularly L-theanine.

With only one harvest per year, Gyokuro is a limited crop yet it serves two duties: as a luxurious, full-leaf tea and, steamed for an even shorter time, to become “tencha” the step where the leaves are then oven-dried to be separated and to remove excess moisture. The final step for tencha is for these now-dried leaves to be ground into a fine powder for an entirely different tea, matcha.

restored! The ancient purpose
of tea continues

tea photo

Shincha Sencha (New Tea)

Shincha is the first harvest often referred to as ichiban-cha, and our Shincha Sencha are plucked from March to May. Considered the finest of the Sencha (Infused Tea) category, these bright emerald needle-like green leaves are steamed, rolled, dried, then folded flat. When infused, they offer up a flavor profile of sweetgrass, light, nutty notes plus a tender apricot aftertaste that gives a liltingly lovely, fruity finish.

It’s not unusual for some tea masters to include the dust left over from the processing to contribute body to the cup. In Japanese culinary terms, this also adds the 5th taste, umami, a combination of separate flavors that make something completely different and totally satisfying. (The four other tastes are salty, sour, bitter, and sweet.)

Second flush of Sencha, (niban-cha,) is plucked in June and July and is less delicate yet still retains the sweet, satisfying flavor.

Bowing to the guests
the host rises to fetch hot
water, sweets for tea.

Shincha Genmaicha (Brown Rice Tea)

A fun, flavorful, and universally-enjoyed tea, Genmaicha is refreshing as a stand-alone tea, and perfect with any cuisine because of its rice-sweet flavor calms the palate while enjoying spicy foods yet does not compete with more nuanced recipes of savory or sweets.

The fresh green leaves are grilled or roasted over fire to develop its unique thirst-quenching, soft taste. Low in caffeine, it’s ideal for drinking with dinner or as a late night beverage.

It’s also a charming tea to introduce family and friends who might be hesitate to sample green tea. The brewing is best in a glass cup or teapot to experience the visual delight when corn kernels “pop” and the rice “puffs up” or blossoms in the cup.

The tea leaves in our Masters Teas blend are sweet tender Sencha. Originally, genmaicha was created for those who could not afford the more expensive first or second flush senchas and that tradition of affordability continues with other producers who use Bancha, the larger lower leaves, plus stems to make a less refined beverage.

All haiku by the author.