Japanese Green Tea Harvest
Finally, after all the work the farmers have put into growing the tea, it comes time to pick the leaves. The tea harvest is something that comes a few times a year and it can actually determine the quality of a tea in many cases. The quality of a tea is not just determined by how the tea is grown and processed, but also how it is picked.
If you are producing a premium quality Japanese green tea, it has to come from the first harvest. The tea plant is harvested up to 4 times from April, all the way to November and the quality declines with each harvest. After the last tea harvest in November, the tea plant has all winter to build up nutrients and it releases those nutrients in the first sprouts of the spring time. These fresh spring leaves are the most flavorful, and therefore they command the highest price.
Tea picked during the first harvest is called “Shincha” and it is one of the highest regarded teas in Japan. Serious tea drinkers will wait around all year to be among the first to purchase the new Shincha harvest in springtime. This practice used to be more common decades ago, but now with the widespread use of refrigeration, the tea can be kept fresh all throughout the year. Shincha tea, like the Shincha from Mr. Nuruki can be quite flavorful, with a light sweet and savory flavor.
After the tea is harvested for the first time in early spring, it can then be harvested a second time in June or July. Tea from the second harvest is the second highest in nutrients and flavor, so it is often used for more inexpensive teas. Farmers may also combine leaves from the first and second harvest to lower the price of the tea, while still providing plenty of flavor. During the summer, the temperatures in much of Japan can get quite hot, so it is a lot of work to harvest during this time.
The tea plant can be harvested a third time in late summer, but this is really more common in southern Japan. The third harvest of the plant will produce very low quality tea that is lower in nutrients. The tea plant needs sufficient time to pull nutrients from the soil and when it is harvested in such a short amount of time, it is unable to produce as strong of a flavor.
In mid October or mid November, some tea plants will be harvested for a fourth and final time. This is known to some as Aki Bancha, or fall harvest. Some farmers choose to sell this tea to customers, but farmers like Mr. Watanabe in Yakushima have a different plan for the leaves. He harvests the leaves in fall and then actually uses them as a fertilizer for the plant. His thought behind this is that the tea plant has absorbed nutrients from the soil all year, so now it must return some at the end of the year.
Once fall comes around in Japan, it becomes especially important for farmers to fertilize their tea crop. The soil must be set up for the long winter ahead, so the tea plant can rest and absorb nutrients ahead of the spring harvest. A lot of farmers will use a type of straw on the base of the tea plants. This serves a few important purposes. First, it allows the tea plant to retain moisture by locking in water. It also fertilizes the tea plant and keeps the roots warm through the winter.
After a long winter, the sprouts of the tea plant will begin to come up in the spring and soon they are able to be harvested. The most common way to harvest the tea plant in Japan is with this motorized tea harvesting machine. This is the most efficient way to harvest tea, and it's one of the reasons why the tea plants are organized in these neat rows. The harvester will trim these like hedges and overtime they will develop a neatly carved shape.
Occasionally, tea like matcha and Gyokuro will be made with hand picked leaves. These teas are extremely expensive in Japan, but the benefit is that the leaves are picked perfectly. On one day out of the year, people from all around the town will gather on this field to pick the fresh sprouts of the tea plant. There is a precise method to their picking. They want to select the top 3 leaves of the tea plant, so they will pick slightly underneath the third leaf. Once the leaf has been picked, they will drop it into their basket and then look for the next one.
If a farmer wants to produce a more inexpensive tea like Bancha (left), they will select leaves lower down on the tea plant, along with some stems as well. These leaves are more mature, and not quite as flavorful. The more mature leaves of a Bancha are lower in caffeine and they can produce a quite pleasant citrusy flavor, with notes of cereal, popcorn and wood.
As you can see, the harvest can be an important factor in determining how prized a tea is. Depending on when it is picked, how it is picked and where on the tea plant it is picked, the tea can be in a completely different category.