There's good reason why shincha— a scarce and seasonal Japanese green tea available annually for just a couple weeks—is so in demand this time of year. This first-harvest sencha tea is one of the year's prime pleasures thanks to its earthy, vegetal richness that drinks sweet and smooth. But the tea is also extremely rare. Shincha, meaning "new tea," is not just the first-to-cup Japanese tea of the season: it's around for the shortest time, too. This year's shincha, harvested at first new bud in April, has recently arrived on merchants' shelves, but these scant early bounties sell out quickly.
Lauded Japanese tea purveyor Ippodo describes shincha, which it stocks for about three weeks every spring ($48/255g), as a "limited season" tea with a "youthful fragrance" that's "made using only the first flush of leaves picked in the sencha fields."
Shincha's deep expression of flavor is owed to all that the tea plant's saved up over a long winter's rest.
Shincha's deep expression of flavor is owed to all that the tea plant's saved up over a long winter's rest. While dormant, tea bushes build up a rich collection of the soil's nutrients, which present with vivid intensity in these first-harvest cups. The tender, young buds and leaves called shincha will have not only the characteristic fresh, grassy flavors of later-harvested Japanese greens, but will pack an additional punch of vibrant amino acids, robust catechin polyphenols, and fresh flavor. These nutrients are more present in shincha than any subsequent harvest from the tea bush that year. When brewed, one will notice a liquor of bright green to herald the invigorating delivery of the fruits of a long winter's labor beneath the surface. Tea drinkers often describe shincha's color in the cup as "glowing" or "luminous."
In Japan, and really anywhere tea is appreciated, the shincha harvest is a time of celebration, as it marks the reawakening of both a cultural and economic season in tea farming. Leaves are harvested by hand immediately once the first buds are ready, and the work of picking and processing may be done without pause until the tea is primed for consumption.
This first phase of the year's tea harvest is both speedy gratification and the stoking of further anticipation. Sencha's sweetness will follow next in the spring with the ichibancha harvest (first-picked sencha), followed by the summer's nibancha harvest (second-picked sencha), and the denouement of harvest time, sanbancha (third-picked sencha). Flavors present in the leaves shift and diminish over the year, and it can be edifying to trace the journey season to season.
If you move quickly enough to find shincha to brew yourself, its gentle depths are best when brewed at lower temperatures—from around 160 to 175°F in a series of short infusions.
- Read more on Japan [Meridian]