Updated: Sep 18, 2021
In Japanese tea-drinking culture, tea is often divided by the harvest time of the tea and therefore is referred to with different names such as Shincha, Ichibancha, and others. The harvest time is also used as an indication of the quality and other factors. In Japan, it is a tradition of celebrating freshly harvested tea in Japan.
What exactly is Shincha?
The tea tree is in a kind of hibernation during the cold Japanese winter months from late autumn to early spring. During this time the tea tree does not sprout, the tea trees store nutrition in order to sprout strongly in the spring. When spring arrives and temperatures rise above a certain level, it begins to sprout. The first tea leaves harvested that year are referred to as Ichibancha what means First-grade tea or first picking. The land in spring is considered to be the most fertile, therefore the first harvested tea has the best flavor of all tea harvested throughout the year. Leaves picked later in the year are called Nibancha or Sanbancha.
In Uji, most tea farmers harvested up to Nibancha, the second harvest, but there are regions in Japan like Shizuoka and Kagoshima where even a fourth harvest or Yonbancha takes place. Either way, everything to do with tea depends on the climate.
Depending on environmental conditions the tea picking season for Ichibancha starts in Japan in April and May from the south to the north of Japan. The first harvest during the first flush season is called Shincha, but there is no clear definition of Shincha. When we talk about Shincha we are referring to Sencha, even there is Shincha Gyokuro and Shincha Matcha as well. Unlike Gyokuro or Matcha which accumulate their aroma over time, the aroma of Sencha is at its best right after harvest.
The new pickings of the other teams are referred to as Ichibancha. Even though the tea drinking culture in Japan has changed in recent years, Shincha is still very popular. It is still a strong statement for a tea store to offer Shincha. Every year, it's a huge competition for companies to get their Shincha to market as quickly as possible, and so it's often more about marketing than the taste of the tea. Only the Ichibancha sold specifically to celebrate the first harvest of the year is called Shincha. It is a seasonal product and was traditionally picked 88 days after the first day of spring. And even if the leaves are picket as Shincha, in Japan you won’t refer to it as so in July.
Why is Shincha so important to the Japanese?
Shincha is also popular as a gift in Japan because it is a good luck charm that is said to "keep you healthy for a year by drinking new tea." The annual celebration of Shincha also fits into the general Japanese tendency to favor freshness and seasonality in food and beverages, from Shincha to Shinmai (freshly harvested rice) to freshly brewed sake. This explains also why the annual release of Beaujolais nouveau became such a national craze in the 1980s when this wine was first introduced in Japan. Since then, it has been a successful annual event, although it has recently lost popularity.
Before the invention of modern storage methods such as refrigeration and vacuum packaging, tea and especially the unfermented green tea quickly lost their freshness. People had to drink stale tea after the summer harvest and especially in March, the following year was the worst time to consume unroasted green tea. Therefore, it was very gratifying for the Japanese at that time to enjoy new, fresh and delicious tea after a long time. Nowadays, thanks to modern preservation techniques, you can drink wonderful tasty fresh green tea.
Is Shincha worth the money?
Because Shincha contains more moisture than later harvested tea, it is usually not steamed at high temperatures for as long as other teas. Shincha is a seasonal product and its taste is described as strong-bodied, close to that of a full-bodied wine. The tea is full of numerous nutrients and the concentration is actually significantly higher than the amount in later harvested teas.
This leads to the fact that the tea has a higher proportion of umami. However, since the flavor and aroma are delicate, they do not last very long. To enjoy the fresh aroma, Shincha should be drunk within two to three months, till around mid-July. After that, the tea is still good to drink, it is still Ichibancha tea, but the unique freshness will gradually disappear. Therefore, we no longer refer to the tea as Shincha.
Another considerable advantage over later-harvested teas is the reduced use of pesticides. In modern agriculture, organic farming and the use of pesticides is a big issue, even in Japan. Unfortunately, it is still very difficult and requires high investment to produce aromatic and flavorful teas using only organic farming methods. It is a logistically difficult and expensive task that most tea farmers simply cannot pull off. For example, avoiding pests is one of the biggest challenges in tea cultivation. Pesticides are still commonly used in tea production in Japan.
However, even non-organic tea, like Shincha and Ichibancha, which is obtained in the first harvest season, is usually free of pesticides. This is because the harmful bugs do not appear until after the first harvest season. It is only after the spring harvest that tea farmers start using pesticides to prepare for the second harvest (Nibancha) which usually takes place around 40 days after the first harvest. So, there is a great advantage to drinking a Shincha or an Ichibancha.