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Sencha tea

Sencha tea

My personal sencha tea experience - introduction

I'll never forget my first sip of Japanese sencha tea: the fresh, green taste almost exploded in my mouth, which I couldn't compare to anything before. It was sweet, tart and very fresh! My mouth stretched into a wide smile! I remember that it was summer - but it was definitely a warmer period - because that's when you usually like green tea the best.

Although its history only goes back a few hundred years, sencha consumption is 3/4 of all fiber tea consumption in Japan. In addition, we can say: sencha tea is one of the most sought-after Japanese teas worldwide.

Sencha tea history - how did the tea plant come to Japan?

The first tea plant seeds were planted at the beginning of the 9th century AD by Japanese Zen Buddhist monks returning from China. 
At that time (based on the Chinese custom of the time) only powdered tea was made from the leaves that were mixed with water and consumed as such. 

At that time, only the monks, some high-ranking politicians and the emperor could know tea in Japan. The monks used this drink to support their daily meditation practices and it has remained so for several hundred years.

Thanks to the Zen monk Eisai, tea becomes more widely known in Japan

At the beginning of the 12th century, a monk named Eisai, returning from a trip to China, planted tea seeds on several coasts of Japan and thus the wider spread of tea began.
Eisai mainly emphasized the beneficial health effects of tea and wrote a book about it. (Entitled "Kissa Youjoki" - "Drink tea for health").

He planted tea seeds north of Kyoto (Kozan-ji temple), from where he later moved to Uji (more precisely, Ujitawara) (in 1271).
Later, Uji became the birthplace of the "real" domestic tea ("honcha"), and everything else was called "hicha", i.e. "not tea". – this was due to the fact that the microclimate and natural conditions around Uji produced above-average teas.

It is interesting that the prestige of Uji tea has not diminished since the 12th century until today.

In Eisai's time, tea (in powdered form - matcha) was still consumed by members of the Japanese upper classes and the clergy. We can say that it was considered a real luxury item back then.

The grand masters of the Japanese matcha tea ceremony - a little detour

In the 15th century, a Buddhist monk Murata Juko, followed by an influential merchant Takeno Joo, laid the foundations for a more modest, natural tea ceremony (wabi-cha) - breaking with the luxurious tea-drinking customs, which in the 16th century a Sen no Rikyu teamaster included in a unified system - this system is still a living Japanese tradition and is taught worldwide. 
However, the consumption of fiber tea had to wait until the 17th century in Japan!

Sencha history continued - 17th century

A Chinese Buddhist monk named "Ingen" who moved to Japan founded the Manpuku-ji temple in Uji, which can still be visited today, and which also became the starting point for the consumption of fiber tea. Ingen brought from China not only Buddhist teachings, but also the habit of drinking fiber tea, which had already replaced the consumption of powdered tea there. A monk of the "Obaku" Buddhist order named "Baisao" spread the Buddhist word and string tea throughout Japan, much to the delight of the literati and upper classes, who considered the matcha ceremony too rigid and cumbersome. 

18th century; Nagatani Soen - creator of the sencha processing method

The development of the "sencha method" is attributed to the tea merchant Nagatani Soen, who in the 18th century developed the method of processing green tea and rolling it into a flat, needle-like shape, which made it possible for "ordinary" people to drink green tea, as well as also boosted the trade of Uji in Kyoto Prefecture.

Nagatani Soen's House - The "Inventor of Sencha"

His thatched house still stands today and can be visited in the picturesque small village of Ujitawara. Before Nagatani, fiber tea was actually simple, unshaded Bancha / Houjicha. It was toasted harder, which is why it had a brown color. Nagatani Tea Garden next to a beautiful forest in Ujitawara.

Nagatani Tea Garden in Ujitawara

What is sencha tea?

Japanese sencha tea is a type of green tea processed by steaming the leaves and twisting them in several stages.
Steaming can be shorter (asamushi), medium (chumushi) or longer (fukamushi) and its primary role is to stop the oxidation of the leaves.
This is how they retain their freshness and beautiful green color.

This is a special Japanese processing method! Other countries prefer 'wok' cooking or hot air to stop oxidation.
Another important role of steaming is to soften the leaves for the subsequent twisting in the process.

Two types of steaming – asamushi and fukamushi

After processing, the shorter steamed leaves (asamushi) give a brew with a lighter flavor, while the longer steamed ones (fukamushi) – because they break into smaller pieces when dried – get soaked very quickly, the tea will be deep green in color and have a strong, substantial taste. (There is also a grade between the two, medium steaming: “chumushi”)

You can find our fresh sencha teas here:

The fresh tea leaves arrive in the steamer.

The taste of sencha tea ranges from fresh, astringent to sweet, rich in umami, and we find them in an extraordinary variety in the land of the rising sun.

Steaming tea leaves – They are extremely soft and fragrant, reminiscent of buttered spinach.

In addition to the variety called "Yabukita", which accounts for 1999/3 of the cultivation since 4, nowadays sencha tea is made from more and more old and new plant varieties - the variety is great. In the past, mostly blended teas were in fashion, tailored to each taste, but nowadays we can also find many teas representing only one production area (single origin) or one plant variety (single cultivar) on the market, which beautifully show the unique face of the given landscape unit or plant. They prefer to make "single cultivar" teas from plant varieties with a sweeter character, such as e.g. "Okumidori", "Gokou", "Saemidori" or "Samidori", etc. and there are, for example, local versions that give lighter, fresher tea, such as the "Nanmei" which is, for example, a variety of plants from Kagoshimai.

Sencha is also grown in the shade

The bushes of the "gyokuro" - another well-known type of Japanese green tea - tea plant are always shaded during cultivation (for at least 3 weeks) in order to keep the leaves sweet and vibrantly green. 
This was not traditionally characteristic of sencha teas.
They were nicely baked by the sun, so the sweet-tasting amino acids found in the leaves were transformed into catechins under the influence of sunlight, which gave the teas a more tart taste. Recently, it is also fashionable to make sencha from leaves picked from tea plants that have been shaded for a longer or shorter time before picking, which balances sweet and sour flavors nicely. 

If a sencha tea shadedak, it is also indicated by a separate name.
Kabuse sencha shorter-, a Kabusecha denotes tea that has been shaded for a longer period of time. 
The shading of tea plants is a Japanese method born in Uji in the 16th century for matcha and later gyokuro.

Our Sencha teas

In the picture on the left, you can see tea leaves in the basket that were shaded for 3 weeks before picking - which we picked in Uji, and in the picture on the right, unshaded leaves. You can see the difference in color and the difference in their taste and content is also significant.

Similar to the cherry blossom (sakura) a tea harvest also starts from the southern part of the island country and moves nicely towards the north of Japan. 
On Okinawa, it can start as early as March, and in areas close to Tokyo (e.g. Saitama pref.) only in the middle and end of April.

Shincha - the "new tea"

Shincha (新茶) is the new tea. Literally translated, this is what it means. After the winter period, as the good weather arrives, we are usually hungry for a bit of fresh, spring green taste. These first teas are usually dried more gently, at a lower temperature and for a shorter time in order to preserve their freshness as much as possible. The price of this will be shelf life, since the moisture content of the leaves is a little higher. These should always be consumed fresh and as soon as possible, they should not be stored for many months. (similar to the new wine, by the way.)

The first spring-harvested (ichibancha) teas released on the market in late spring or summer already have a longer shelf life, in fact: as time progresses, the grassy, ​​rawer flavor notes begin to disappear and sencha tea becomes a little sweeter, deepens in flavor and smooths out nicely. Here we experienced a little "confusion" as to what "shincha" actually is. The same word is used for this and that. 

making sencha tea simply

When we hear or search for shincha, we always have to clarify whether it means a faster-processed, very fresh, new tea, or the first tea of ​​the new year, which we can store longer. 

Nowadays, retailers also try to launch their teas on the market as soon as possible, which is why there can be misunderstandings.
In the past, the new spring tea was often only marketed in the summer when it was sufficiently ripe. The best quality senchas are only available on the market in autumn, after the announcement of the results of the great Japanese national tea competition. 

Tea can be harvested several times a year in Japan

The name of the first harvest, the first tea, is therefore "ichibancha". This is used to make the tender spring sencha tea. This can be followed by the second picking, at the end of spring - beginning of summer. This is the "nibancha" from which the "bancha" is made. Bancha tea is a green tea with a coarser leaf structure, a more tart, stronger taste (and a more affordable price). The interesting thing is that - since the sun baked it longer - the polyphenol content will be higher, which in practice means that it is more sour, but healthier! The third picking can be "sanbancha" - in the middle of summer. This is also called summer sencha. (Already where they make it) Some places have a fourth picking, in the fall, this is "yonbancha" or also known as "shutobancha". Autumn tea, autumn "sencha". Each has its own unique character. But of course, the first picked leaf has the tenderest and richest taste. 
There are areas (e.g. Uji) where leaves are picked only twice, in some areas four times.
In Uji and several other places, for example, during the second post-harvest period, leaves that emerge are cut off and left on the ground to return to the soil as natural organic fertilizer.

In Japan's two largest tea-growing areas, in Shizuoka, located approximately 130 km from Mount Fuji, and in Kagoshima, located on the southern island of Kyushu, the leaves are picked and processed 4 times into sencha and bancha, respectively .

Kagoshima

The lowland tea bushes of Kagoshima, with a "tea harvester" - a very efficient way of harvesting. 

Organic plant protection. The spiders resting on the cobwebs will soon be washed away by the self-propelled red Japanese miracle, the machine that "sprinkles bugs with water".

The first spring picking is always the tenderest, sweetest and most valuable. This is understandable because it contains all the nutrients and energy collected by the plant during the winter. 

This is reflected not only in the price, but also in the limited quantities available. In fact, you can find differences even within the first intake, and you can feel a difference in time for a few days. Mainly the taste and color provide feedback on this. (On one occasion, we did not understand why our tea, which was so popular the previous year, did not taste so good this year. It turned out later that we received a sample from the second half of the first picking.)

Sencha vintage

The sencha harvest (ichibancha) is therefore generally completed by mid-June everywhere. 
From here on, the "bancha" leaves are slightly larger and have a rougher structure. Some people really like its astringent, robust taste. 
In mid-summer and autumn, machine-mown leaves are either returned to the ground as organic fertilizer or processed into low-value fiber tea or - and this is increasingly common - into bottled drinks (Ready to Drink drinks - RTD). Today, domestic tea consumption in Japan shows a declining trend, and a good number of young people are no longer even familiar with "classic" tea and its traditional preparation.

Sencha is a true Japanese genre and despite the fact that it is already made in China, with a little experience you can easily distinguish between the two.

When we were there, we experienced that a Japanese tea processing plant is always very clean and orderly, the processing must be very fast and efficient, because the raw material is sensitive. During factory visits, we always had to wear slippers and hair nets, in Kagoshima the procedure was multiple disinfection of hands and clothes. 

Just to be clear... the picture shows the warehouse area of ​​the tea auction in Kagoshima. One of the signs that you are in Japan: the trucks are sparkling clean from the chassis to the cab...

Buying sencha tea

Its main feature - which is a freshness - you have to be careful! Several aspects of this can be revealed at the time of purchase.

Tea processed in "industrial" quantities is noticeably of lower quality compared to "limited" lots made by smaller producers and processors. When buying, it is worth paying attention to where and how the tea is stored! If the trader takes our Japanese green tea from a refrigerated place, that can be a good sign. Feel free to ask for information about our tea: when it is picked, where it comes from, what type of plant it is made from. How was it transported here? (The teas delivered by ship, in a container - by the time they get here they are at least half a year old and they arrive in Europe in large batches) The more special teas are usually brought by plane - and this means extra shipping costs. 

If they are measured out of open bags, maybe the sun is shining, or they are offered alongside flavored teas: don't expect too high a quality. It is good if these teas are packed in advance, even at the place of processing, in zip-lock bags, possibly with a vacuum.

At home - unless you want to store it for a long time without opening it - do not put it in the fridge, because when you open the bag, the moisture content of the air will condense on the cooler leaves and this will damage the taste and aromas and reduce the shelf life.

So how to choose Japanese sencha tea?

We mostly rely on the expert's recommendation! Let's tell him what kind of flavor we want: fresher, more citrusy, lighter, net tarter or maybe a thicker, sweeter flavor that we like. Based on this, you can start in the world of Japanese teas. 

Over time, as you get to know more types, it will become easier to choose. Whether based on tea region, tea type or even plant variety.

Sencha is made in many places in Japan.
A tea from a lesser-known production area has often caused pleasant surprises.
Of course, we can also find real specialties from the regions of Shizuoka and Kagoshima, which have the largest annual emissions. There are also small producers who process their teas themselves right up to packaging. (Japanese producers very often only sell their fresh or semi-finished processed tea leaves to larger factories and processing plants.)

Japanese tea areas - surprisingly many and varied, also due to the big differences between north and south

The pictures show the areas of Kagoshima (Shibushi) and Kirishima. The first is flat and the second is mountainous, but a lot of organic tea comes from both. 

organic tea garden where bugs and spiders feel good

Processing of sencha tea

In Japan, the farmer grows the aracha, the semi-finished tea, and the factory or the trader processes it.
It is rare for a company to carry out the entire process itself. (such as our traditional matcha suppliers)
("Aracha” is the name of semi-dried tea, but still waiting for further processing and sorting.)

shiage-cha ready-made, selected tea, the moisture content of which is already sufficiently low (below 5%). This is actually what we buy in the store.

After picking, the leaves are transported to the processing plant as soon as possible, where they are sent to the steamer with the help of a conveyor belt and auger. Here it is steamed for a longer or shorter time. An exception is the areas of Kagoshima that are often covered with volcanic dust, where the leaves are washed in many places before steaming.
(Steaming stops the oxidation and softens the structure of the leaf for subsequent spinning.)

After that, they are blown into the air in mesh towers with fans to separate the stuck together leaves.

after steaming, wet, hot leaves are blown into the air by fans in mesh towers to separate them.

Then follows the multi-step (usually 3) steps drift at the end of which the leaves acquire their thin, needle-like shape typical of senchas.

The leaves remain relatively together only in the very rare case of hand-twisting, but this can almost only be seen in traditional groups. The mechanized processing breaks these into smaller pieces, but this makes our tea stronger and fuller when steeped - since they are steeped with a larger surface area.

Twisting first phase. (The leaves shown in the video are so yellow because we went through the stages of processing on tea leaves thawed from freezing in the tea farm of the agricultural department of Shizuoka University.) Of course, the students are not practicing on the precious shinchan. 🙂

During each phase of spinning, moisture leaves the leaves as the spinning machines are heated.

2. drift

Here they opened the winder for us so that we could see what was happening with the leaves inside. During processing, the top is closed and the weight is usually set on it, according to the condition of the leaves. (They also use very similar machines in China for their different types of tea.)

Phase 3

The third phase, which is not really drying, is more shaping and moisture removal. This is where the sencha leaves finally acquire their characteristic needle-like shape.

The first phase of sencha tea processing therefore lasts until "aracha" - which means tea that has not yet been selected - where the moisture content of the leaf is already low but requires further drying later: to bring it below 5%. It also contains leaves, stems, and smaller pieces. It is difficult to make a good tea from it, because different sized pieces of leaf soak differently. 

It is interesting that approx. 5 kg of fresh leaves will make 1 kg of ready tea.

The second processing - post-processing

Finished aracha are usually sold at closed auctions, where registered dealers can bid on the entire lot. (each bag in the picture contains 30 kg of tea)
They then further sort, chop, sort, toast, and dry the purchased items based on their customers' needs. These work processes are called secondary processing.
Beautiful appearance and harmonious taste, as well as other economic aspects, are important.
The different mixtures (blends) allow countless variations in this regard.
A uniform leaf size is desirable when making tea, since pieces of the same size dissolve in the same time. (This is why we say about aracha that it can be exciting, but it is "not stable" in terms of preparation - it is not predictable)

Tea auction house warehouse in Kagoshima. Each bag contains 30 kg of tea.

Final baking

The final roasting (Japanese: kiire) gives the tea a slight toasted aroma, but still not as much as a real roasting (e.g. Houjicha), since it takes place at a much lower temperature and for a shorter time. Fresher, higher quality teas are usually roasted at a lower temperature to preserve their fresh taste. The slightly weaker ones can be baked at a higher temperature to give it additional flavor intensity. 

The composition of the mixtures is also necessary because, due to the changing weather, the tea can be different from year to year, which customers typically do not tolerate. Since leaves come in from many different areas, by mixing them you can create consistent quality and distinct flavors.

"a machine that thoroughly mixes up letters from different places" 🙂

If you like more variety, feel free to choose "single origin" and "single cultivar" teas. Sooner or later you will find out which varieties suit your taste anyway. 

The Okumidori, Gokou, Samidori or Saemidori plant varieties are sweeter, and the best-known and most widely planted Yabukita has a pleasantly tart, fresh, grassy and rich aftertaste. Of course, only if it comes from a good place, has been properly processed and the weather has been kind to it. 🙂

Simply about production areas and types of sencha

Uji/Ujitawara in Kyoto prefecture is mostly famous for matcha and gyokuro, but the origin of sencha also goes back here, so it is easy to find premium quality sencha from here.

Shizuoka is the largest production area in total. regarding the amount of Japanese production, but some of its more secluded parts (e.g. Kawane, Tenryu, Fujieda) also produce premium tea.

The situation is similar with Kagoshima and its surroundings, which is a region blessed with very good properties, volcanic soil and larger flat areas, but if you go a little further, you can find more exciting "mountain tea" here. (e.g. Kirishima). 

Also on the island of Kyushu, Fukuoka and Miyazaki are well-known and well-known areas worth mentioning.
In addition, sencha tea is made in countless small and large areas in Japan, we encourage everyone to discover it, we try to be a healthy filter for European people. We taste and know a lot of tea and well... not all of them are good. 🙂

Tea EÜ - the effect of sencha tea

From this point of view, we can examine 4 different water-soluble components: catechins, theanine, caffeine and vitamins.

The healthiest effects of tea are attributed to catechins: effective cell regenerator and antioxidant. 1/3 of the leaf contains this and the plant produces it from its own proteins with the help of sunlight.
(Shaded teas therefore have less catechins, but sencha is not shaded by default).
In terms of taste, this substance is no longer so popular, as it is a bitter, astringent and drying compound.
It is worth looking into Epigallocatechin (EGCG) - if you are interested in more.

You can read more about the effects of green tea in general and about green tea itself here.

Scientific article published in English

How do I store sencha tea?

The beneficial components of tea can be preserved for the longest time by protecting them from these external influences: light, heat, moisture, smells and if possible it is oxygen..

Making Japanese sencha tea

  1. Water quality
  2. Water temperature
  3. Soaking time
  4. Tea / water ratio
  5. Quality of letters
  6. Tool used for making

A sencha usually has 3-5 pours, but the first and second are the richest. In every aspect. (flavor and active ingredient)

How to make it?

  1. For green teas - especially fresh Japanese greens - use soft water with a low mineral content (spring water if possible) or the commercially available "Norda" brand water.
  2. We can use 60-90 degrees Celsius (it is best to boil and cool down in a separate container), here only personal taste can be authoritative. The Japanese like the more tart flavors produced by higher temperatures, and the Europeans prefer the sweeter ones produced by lower temperatures.
    Of course, you can also strive for balance in this, let's experiment!
    We indicate the recommended temperature on our teas. Of course, you can deviate from this. 
  3. The first pouring usually takes 1-1,5 minutes.
    The second approx. half a minute - shorter because the wet leaves are "working" in the meantime.
    The third can be 1 minute again. It is worth raising the temperature a little as we progress with the number of pours.
  4. There is no wonder: more leaves - less water = stronger tea. With fewer leaves and more water, the brew is easier. If there are a lot of leaves, the soaking time can be a little shorter!
  5. Of course, the better the quality, the tastier the finished tea will be, and possibly the more pours it can take. There are more "ordinary" teas and there are "celebratory" teas that are worth saving for special occasions. This is also a matter of taste - and wallet.
  6. 3 classic Japanese tools can be used for this: 
    shiboridashi,
    where
    kyusu kanna.
    It is worth using a device specifically just for green tea. (The stronger flavor of darker teas can soak into the device's pores.) In addition, sencha tea can be prepared in many other modern devices.
    Our Japanese tea making tools
Steps for making sencha tea
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