Shincha (新茶), or “new tea,” is a highly prized Japanese green tea that comes from the first harvest of sencha during the spring. This tea is only available in limited quantities during the springtime due to its popularity and unique flavor.
Different Harvests of Japanese Green Tea
In Japan, green teas are classified based on the time of their harvest, with the first tea being the earliest harvest of the season. The following are the types of green tea based on the time of harvest:
- Ichibancha or Shincha – first harvest from early April
- Nibancha – second harvest from early June
- Sanbancha – third harvest from early July
- Yonbancha – fourth harvest from late September
- Akibancha or Shuto-Bancha – a third harvest done in autumn from late September onwards.
The Importance of First Tea Harvest
The first tea harvest is unique and special because it includes the best of the highly-coveted first-harvest leaves. The tea season in Japan generally begins in April and extends into May, with the first harvest extending from the southern tip of Kyushu to the Kanto plain just north of Tokyo. Harvests can extend into October in some places, with the later harvests noted as yonbancha or “fourth tea.”
While it may seem odd to classify teas based on the time of their harvest, it is important to do so as each harvest produces tea with a unique flavor profile. The first tea harvest produces the most sought-after tea due to its fresh and delicate taste.
History and Significance of Shincha in Japanese Tea Culture
In the past, before modern refrigeration, green tea in Japan would quickly lose its freshness over time. As a result, people had to resort to drinking stale tea after the summer harvest, and March was considered the worst time to drink unroasted green tea. To cope with this, people would either roast the old tea into Hojicha or add roasted rice to make Genmaicha.
Despite these methods, nothing compares to the fresh umami flavor of newly-harvested green tea, which is why tea lovers eagerly awaited the April spring harvest. To distinguish this newly-harvested tea from the previous year’s tea, the term “Shincha” was used.
Harvesting and Processing of Shincha
Shincha is a prized Japanese green tea that is made exclusively from the first flush or first harvest of leaves. The earlier the tea is harvested, the higher its quality and price. The spring harvest season starts in mid to late April in Kagoshima and slightly later as you travel north. The season lasts for several weeks and ends in May.
After harvesting and steaming, Shincha is not sold as raw or unfinished tea. Tea makers finish the tea similar to how regular sencha is finished. The leaves are separated from the stems and leaf fragments, and are given a final roast known as “hi-ire.” This removes excess moisture so that the tea can be safely stored for several months without going stale and perfects the flavor.
Tea Master Hiroyuki Sugimoto suggests that Shincha should be given a gentle hi-ire roasting to preserve the natural flavor of the fresh tea. This helps in distinguishing Shincha from other green teas.
Temomi Shincha – The Art of Hand-Rolling Tea Leaves
In Japan, the art of hand-rolling tea leaves into thin, needle-like sticks is known as Temomi. This traditional practice is becoming increasingly rare, as modern production methods have taken over. Today, it is common for tea leaves to be processed entirely by machines, without ever being touched by human hands.
Temomi Shincha is a variety of Shincha that has been hand-rolled by skilled artisans. Unfortunately, the art of hand-rolling tea leaves is slowly dying out, with most of the remaining artisans being over 70 years old. Despite this, there are organizations like Sugimoto Tea Company that are dedicated to preserving this tradition and keeping it alive for as long as possible.
What make it Unique?
Winter Nutrient Storage
During winter, tea plants store essential minerals and nutrients, such as amino acids, which are then released into various parts of the plant as it starts to bud. This process provides Shincha with its characteristic sweet taste compared to other Japanese green teas, as well as a lower level of astringency.
Freshest Tea You Can Enjoy
Shincha is not only made from the best quality leaves, but it is also the freshest tea you can enjoy. Tea plants north of Tokyo, for example, are modified to withstand cooler temperatures and are often darker in appearance. The buds begin to develop their new leaves, and the year’s first harvest is set in motion. Farmers will then begin to harvest the tea leaves, which are quickly moved to processing plants as the process of oxidation begins immediately after and begins changing the leaves.
Higher Nutrient Content
The uniqueness of Shincha tea is further defined by its aroma and chemical makeup. The tea buds can accumulate nutrients and a chemical makeup distinct from its later counterparts. As the cold season comes to an end, the tea plants have the most nutrients, which is why the new leaves that sprout in the beginning of spring have the highest level of nutrient content.
Ichibancha, the first tea harvested, contains approximately three times more theanine than its brother, Nibancha. Besides being associated with benefits such as better mental focus and improved sleep quality, theanine is what typically provides sweetness to the leaves, giving green tea its unique flavor. The considerable collection of nutrients gives the taste of Ichibancha a higher level of umami, contributing to the more notable aroma and color of Shincha.
Distinct Flavor, Aroma, and Color
Shincha’s flavor is described as full-bodied and sweet, with a refreshing aroma reminiscent of invigorating rain in a verdant forest. Its color is luminous or glowing bright green, a testament to the richness of the tea, thanks to the plant’s long winter’s labor. The flavor, aroma, and color do not present a subtle difference; it’s quite obvious, making it easy for tea connoisseurs or seasoned tea drinkers to note the distinction.
Less or No Pesticides
Shincha is free of pesticides as farmers don’t start spraying until the summer when bugs come out, and Shincha leaves are picked in the early spring.
Vintages and Availability
Much like high-quality wine, Shincha has a vintage factor, placing importance on the year and place where it was produced. Every year, the taste and aroma of Shincha are nuanced to be peculiar to that time, making its availability limited. Once a batch of Shincha is sold out, it’s gone and cannot be reproduced. Its high-grade property and limited availability augment its value, hence its loftier price.
The 88th Day of Spring
In Japan, the first tea harvest is celebrated through the traditional practice of Hachijuhachiya or the 88th day of spring, which falls around May 2nd. This is considered the ideal time for tea harvesting as the tea buds have just started to sprout, and it is believed that drinking tea made from these leaves can protect one from paralysis.
Several markets in Kyushu, including Nagasaki, sell this tea and believe that drinking it will provide protection from sickness throughout the year.
Ichibancha, the tea harvested during this period, has a unique biochemical makeup due to the accumulation of nutrients in the winter months and the release of amino acids when the plant starts to bud. This gives it a distinct sweet taste and lower astringency compared to other Japanese green teas.
If you are in Japan during the spring season or looking for unique teas to try, ichibancha is a must-try for tea enthusiasts. Its aroma and flavor are unlike any other tea you will experience for the rest of the year, and its traditional significance adds to its value.