The Tea Detective
Uncovering and Exploring the Facts About Tea
Sencha-Japan's Favorite Tea
Sencha is Japan's most popular tea, drunk in most Japanese homes and restau-
rants, and accounting for more than 80% of its total annual
tea production.  
Sencha is the first spring tea to be harvested, following the shincha preharvest
pluck, and heralds the beginning of the main spring flush season.
Called first-flush sencha, this first
sencha of the season has all the
sugars and compounds stored up
over winter, and contains all the rich, satisfying
sweet goodness you'd expect from a first flush
green tea.  

And, it also comes with a much higher price tag as
well, about 30% higher than later harvests.

As the season wears
on the flavor becomes
stronger and the color
darker, as each suc-
cessive flush yields
lesser quality teas.  
There are several qual-
ity grades of sencha
produced, including handpicked artisan made senchas, made in smaller quantities and usually
costing more as well.

                                                Starting in mid May is the first plucking of sencha called ichiban-
                                                cha, the second plucking, beginning around the end of June is
                                                nibancha, the third, starting in mid August, sanbancha, and the
                                                fourth beginning in late September, yobancha.

                                                One style of sencha that's particularly prized in
Japan is
                                                Kakegawa Ichiban Sencha, made from the very first leaves
                                                plucked during the beginning one to two days of the first
                                                
shincha harvest.

These teas contain the best compounds
that have been stored in the plant over
winter, giving them exquisite flavor.

To improve the quality of mass produced
teas (like sencha) made from larger, poorer
leaves, the fukamushi method of deep
steaming was invented by Kakegawa tea
producers after WWII.

This method steams the tea for an addition-
al 30 seconds longer than the standard,
traditional steaming, breaking the leaves
into much smaller filaments, allowing the
tea to brew faster and stronger.

Ichiban means "the first," meaning the tea
was made from the first, most tender leaves,
harvested around the beginning of May.

                                  The Kakegawa area is totally
                                  devoted to tea production.  The hills surrounding Kakegawa are blank-
                                  eted with row upon row of perfectly trimmed tea bushes, and at the top
                                  of one hill there is even a large topiary in the shape of the Japanese
                                  
character for tea.

                                  Kakegawa's tea production is some of the most sophisticated in the
                                  world, with giant fans outfitted on the hills overlooking the tea fields to
                                  protect the leaves from frost (the fans prevent cold air from settling
                                  down low near the leaves where it could kill the tender new shoots).

Tea factories are located every few miles throughout the region,
ready to process the tea harvest on a moments notice if need be.

Another style is Kagoshima Sencha, a good quality blend that has
a lively, vegetal, mouth filling flavor, something the Japanese call
umami.  Kagoshima sencha is grown in the port city of Kagoshima
on the southern tip of Japan's
Kyushu Island, the second largest
tea producing area.

                                                Spring comes earlier here than to Japan's other tea producing
                                                regions, so Kagoshima sencha is usually one of the first spring
                                                flush teas available.

                                                This area is mainly a flat plateau, so many of Japan's largest tea
                                                farms are situated there.  Because the farms are large and flat
                                                and the rows of tea wide set, they are able to accommodate the
                                                large, high volume mechanical shearing machines that pluck
                                                hundreds of pounds of tea a day.

The mechanical harvesting means Kagoshima sencha can be produced more economically, and
therefore costs less.  The downside, if there is one, is that rather than producing one field of
high quality sencha, Kagoshima tea makers blend several varieties
of individually inferior plants from many fields, to produce one good
quality sencha.

One of these senchas is called a "natural
gyokuro."  It is an entirely
sun grown tea, yet it is still able to produce the additional amino
acids as that of a
shade grown plant.

The end result is a lemony flavored sencha with the rich, mouth
filling, vegetal brothiness, the umami, of a gyokuro.  
Enjoy.
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