What is Sencha?
Sencha is the most common type of green tea in Japan, and it can take on a wide variety of different forms. Even though sencha is seen as a “basic” tea type, producing this tea is anything but simple.
Before a new tea is made, of course the plant must first be grown and harvested. This may seem simple, but there is actually a lot of thought that goes into it. First, the farmer needs to decide what type of tea plant to grow. 70% of the Sencha tea in Japan is from the Yabukita cultivar. This tea plant produces a broad spectrum of flavors from grassy, too sweet, to savory. It also produces some of the toughest leaves. This is important in Japan, as the winters can actually get quite cold here and tougher leaves are more resistant to frost. If the farmer is trying to produce a lighter or sweeter tea, they may use a more rare cultivar like Saemidori or Okumidori. These tea plants will require more labor, and may have a slightly smaller yield. In order for a farmer to grow these teas, they must be sure they can sell them for a higher price. After the tea plant is planted, it will then take 3-4 years before it can be harvested. You may often see younger tea plants growing alongside larger fields. This is a sign that farmers are making an investment for the future.
What type of tea plant is grown is not the only decision that the farmer needs to make. Before the tea is harvested, the farmer needs to decide whether or not to shade the tea plant. Shading is perhaps one of the biggest factors when it comes to Sencha. When the tea plant is shaded, it retains higher levels of chlorophyll, caffeine and theanine. When the tea is exposed to sunlight in the final days before the harvest, it will produce more catechins. This decision comes down to taste preference. If the farmer wants to produce more of a sweet and savory Sencha like a Kabusecha, they will shade the plant for a longer time. If they want to produce a drier and slightly more bitter Sencha, they will leave the plant unshaded. Although shading is not necessarily a mark of high quality tea, the most prized teas in Japan all tend to be shaded. Kabuse Sencha, Gyokuro and Matcha are all shaded for a longer time, and these teas are noticeable for their intense sweet and umami flavors.
In Late April or early May, the tea plants in Japan are typically harvested for the first time. The last time these plants were harvested was likely in the fall of the previous year, so the plants have been able to store up nutrients for many months. The most desirable leaves are these light green ones on the top of the tea plant. These leaves are the most nutrient dense as well as the lightest and sweetest leaves on the whole plant. These tender young leaves are then harvested and brought directly to be processed. Once the leaves are picked, the farmers' work has only just begun! What separates green tea from black tea is that green tea is unoxidized while black tea is fully oxidized. Once the leaves are picked, the enzymes will begin to oxidize the leaf over time, leading to a more complex floral and even fruity flavor. In order to lock in the natural, grassy and vegetable flavors of the leaves, the leaves need to be heated within a few hours of being picked. In China, these leaves would be heated in a large pan, but what makes Japanese Sencha unique is that the leaves are actually steamed. These leaves are steamed for only around 1 minute, but in that time the enzymes that cause oxidation are deactivated and the leaves are softened. If the leaves are steamed for a longer time, the Sencha will become a Fukamushi or deep steamed tea. During this extra steaming time, the cell membranes of the leaf are broken down even further and more of the leaf is able to flow into the cup. These teas are famous for their incredibly vibrant green color and their smooth and round taste. This is a technique a farmer can use to soften their tea even further. Deep steamed tea leaves are also a little bit more brittle, and you may notice smaller leaf particles in the leaves. This increases the surface area of the tea and can lead to an even more intense brewing.
After the tea leaves have been steamed, they then need to be dried. This is done in a series of small ovens (above) that bake the leaves over time at a lower heat. The humidity content of the leaves needs to be between 4-7% so that the leaves can infuse properly. While the leaves are still pliable, they can also be rolled into the proper shape. Japanese green teas are quite unique for these tightly rolled needle shapes. This is one of the reasons why the leaves need to be infused for a full minute. The leaves are so tightly rolled that in order to extract the flavor properly, they need to be in water for at least a minute. With Gyokuro, a special type of green tea, the leaves are even more tightly rolled. For this tea, we recommend a steeping time of 2 minutes, ensuring that these needle shaped leaves are fully opened up.
After lots of hard work, the Sencha is finally done. This loose leaf tea can either be packaged and sold as a single cultivar tea, or made into a blend. Tea blending is a very precise art, and takes a lot of skill. The idea is to blend multiple tea varieties together to capture the best aspects of each. The Gyokuro Sasa Hime is a good example of a successful tea blend. Mr. Sakamoto takes 3 distinct tea cultivars and crafts them together beautifully. The vegetal flavor of the Yabukita, the smooth, round and fruity flavor of the Okumidori and the light sweetness of the Saemidori all combine to create a perfectly balanced tea.
Sencha is such a diverse category of green tea, but that means that there is a little something for everybody. If you like milder, drier Sencha, you should go for an unshaded one like the Sencha Isagawa. If you like lighter and sweeter Sencha, you should go for the Kasugaen Asatsuyu Sencha. If you prefer these intense bold flavors, perhaps you may enjoy the Murasaki Sencha. With Sencha teas being as broad as they are, they are difficult to get tired of. There are so many different flavor profiles that can be explored all at once through the same tea.
In Saryo, there are many different varieties of single origin Sencha teas. These teas are prepared with a unique method, similar to how you might prepare coffee. While most Japanese green tea is prepared in a small clay teapot like this Kyusu, the tea at Saryo is prepared using the slow drip method. 5 grams of tea leaves are placed into this ceramic cone and then some warm water is added in.
Typically, a Japanese green tea like Sencha is brewed with 160 degree water for 1 minute. The lower temperature and shorter steeping time actually ensures that the sweeter components of the leaf are extracted into the water. At Saryo, this is taken one step further with an even shorter brewing time. The tea leaves are brewed for only a few seconds and then the tea is drained into a pitcher. The result is an even sweeter tea, with less of the astringency or bitterness. In Japan particularly, all aspects of the tea are appreciated. A green tea like Sencha can be described as sweet, savory, grassy, citrusy, floral, earthy, vegetal and bitter and sometimes all at once! This diverse array of flavors are celebrated, and Japanese tea farmers often blend tea leaves to capture multiple flavor profiles.
Different flavor profiles of a tea can also be seen in later brewings. Once you brew the tea leaves once, you shouldn’t throw them out. Instead, you can use them 2-3 more times to make completely unique cups of tea. The first steeping tends to be the sweetest and most savory. This is because the theanine is the easiest component to extract. The second steeping tends to be more grassy, vegetal or citrusy. This means that the catechins in the tea are starting to be extracted at a higher proportion. When steeping the tea a second time, you’ll want to use the same temperature water, 140-160 degrees Fahrenheit, but this time only let the tea brew for 20 seconds. With the first steeping, you are brewing it for longer to fully open up the leaves, but in the second steeping, the leaves are already open so it is easier to extract flavor from the leaves.