What is Shincha? Exploring Japan's Freshest Tea

Every year, around April and May, the Japanese tea world is thrust into “Shincha Season”. If you’ve been around Japanese green tea for some time, you’ve doubtless come across the term shincha. Confusingly, this word is used rather loosely and inconsistently, leading to some confusion and misconceptions. Here I’ll try to clear up what shincha actually refers to and why it causes so much fervor.


Defining Shincha

To be clear from the start, shincha is not a type of tea, in the same way that sencha, gyokuro, matcha, black tea, etc. are, but rather a description applied to a tea. Translated directly, shincha (新茶) simply means “new tea” in Japanese, and is used to describe freshly harvested, first-flush green tea—predominantly sencha. 

What sets shincha apart from ‘regular’ sencha is simply the freshness — shincha is processed, refined, packaged, and sold as soon as possible so that the ephemeral aromatics of spring are preserved. In contrast, the sencha that is available throughout the majority of the year is placed into cold storage either as aracha or shiagecha, ready to be taken out and sold when it is needed.

Shincha vs. Sencha vs. Ichibancha

For those new to Japanese tea, the nuanced difference between these three terms can be quite confusing as there is significant overlap between them:

Ichibancha (一番茶 - First Flush Tea): This term is applied to all tea picked during the first flush or first picking of the year in spring. Strictly speaking, all ‘real’ sencha, matcha, kabusecha, and gyokuro are ichibancha. About a month or two after the first picking, the tea bush will grow new fresh leaves which some farmers will choose to harvest as nibancha (二番茶 - second flush tea). This lower-quality material can be made into bancha, black tea, etc. Some farmers will also harvest again in summer and autumn.

Shincha (新茶 - New Tea): As defined above, shincha is ichibancha that is placed in the market immediately after processing, without being placed into cold storage. As gyokuro and matcha are traditionally aged until autumn, ‘shincha matcha’ and ‘shincha gyokuro’ are not common. As such, the vast majority of shincha is sencha, with some kabusecha.

Sencha (煎茶): First-flush green tea that is steamed and rolled into needles (for a more thorough definition, see the sencha section in Types of Japanese Tea, as well as the How Sencha is Made blog series). Although some might label summer harvested teas as ‘sencha’, these should technically be bancha. All sencha, narrowly speaking is ichibancha, but not all sencha is shincha.

What Makes Shincha Special?

In the modern era of refrigerated storage and deep freezing, we are luckily able to enjoy fresh-tasting green tea all year long. However, before these technological advances, the bright and fresh aroma of tea quickly faded. As such, the arrival of spring and a fresh harvest of tea was particularly special as it was the only time that these fresh tastes could be enjoyed.
Even though we can preserve the vast majority of these fresh aromatics with modern refrigeration, there are still some that are quickly lost, only to be found in the freshest of teas.

Scientifically speaking, there are a few compounds that are responsible for this unique “shincha aroma”. One predominant compound is cis-3-hexenal, a very volatile leaf aldehyde with an intense ‘green, cut grass aroma’. 

In the tea industry, this shincha aroma is further broken down into ‘young bud aroma’ (mirueme ka - みる芽香) and ‘new fresh aroma’ (shinsen kō - 新鮮香). Younger tea leaves and buds have higher concentrations of (2E,6Z)-Nona-2,6-dienal (aromas of cucumber and fresh cut watermelon), as well as the sweet smelling coumarin (sakura, vanilla, cinnamon aromas), and vanillin

The ‘new fresh aroma’ is primarily due to higher levels of 3-Methylnonane-2,4-dione (notes of straw, fruit, and vanilla) and linalool (various floral aromas).

For more about the science behind tea flavour and aromas, check out this blog post.

When is Shincha Season?

Shincha season is more or less synonymous with the first tea harvesting season in Japan, which roughly spans from late-March to mid-May. Tea grown in warmer climates begins to sprout first, meaning it is also harvested, processed and sold first. Said warmer climates typically equates to lower altitude, southern tea growing regions. As a result, shincha season washes over Japan like a wave, starting from the southern tip, and rising up the country.

Due to their southerly nature, the first regions to harvest tea in Japan are the islands off the south of Kyūshu, namely Tanegashima and Yakushima. These areas are perhaps most well-known for being the first teas on the market, with Tanegashima being home to a specially bred early-budding cultivar that harvests as early as late March. Due to a combination of being the first shincha available and the small production yield of these two island, these teas can be relatively expensive, at least for their quality (although they can be quite good). As these Tanegashima and Yakushima teas are generally released as shincha, they are often light-steamed and given a gentle hi-ire in order to preserve the freshness and delicate volatile compounds (such as the aforementioned hexanal).

Next up is Kagoshima, which is the fastest-growing tea producing region in Japan, consisting mostly of flat, low-elevation tea fields that are suited for large-scale commercial agriculture. The tea produced here usually hits the market in early-mid April and is the first major influx of shincha on the scene. Though styles vary from producer to producer, Kagoshima tea is often heavily steamed and given a stronger hi-ire which can be detrimental to a shincha experience, so some producers might opt to steam shorter and fire weaker for special shincha releases.

While there are many smaller tea producing regions in the north of Kyushu, the next large area to release shincha is Shizuoka, first from the lower-elevation flatlands, and then from the cooler mountain regions. Stereotypically, the flatland tea is deep-steamed while the mountain tea is light-steamed. 

After Shizuoka, the last major tea region to release shincha is Uji, or rather the areas around Kyoto, such as Uji, Wazuka, Ujitawara, Shirakawa, etc (which all sell tea branded as “Ujicha”). As the greater Uji region is smaller than both Shizuoka and Kagoshima, and is primarily known for shaded teas, namely matcha and gyokuro, they don’t produce as much shincha. The shincha they do make is often slightly shaded and very lightly steamed with a very light hi-ire, which results in a very fresh and vibrant tea, balanced with a little more umami. 

What Teas are Released as Shincha?

As mentioned above, the vast majority of shincha is sencha. Not only is this because this is by far the most produced and most popular type of tea in Japan, but also because sencha’s transparent processing is specifically well suited to capturing the unique and fleeting aromas of spring.

Conversely, in other Japanese green teas, such as gyokuro and matcha, this bright spring aroma goes against the desired mellow, round, and umami-centric taste profiles. Because of this, these teas are classically aged until autumn or late summer, so that the bright, grassy aromas can dissipate and the flavours can mature. As such, it is very uncommon to find these teas as shincha.

Of course, oxidised teas, such as oolong and black tea, may also be released straight after harvest, but they are not typically seen as shincha.

Brewing Shincha

While you can definitely brew shincha the same way you would a normal sencha, there are a few alterations I would suggest that help bring out its unique qualities.

Generally, I like to brew shincha with hotter water and with shorter infusions. If you’ve read our blog post on the effects of temperature on sencha brewing, you’d know that this style of brewing is balanced more towards aroma than umami, which I think is perfect for shincha. Additionally, I like keeping brew times shorter for shincha as these leaves can be a little more potent than your regular sencha. If it is a particularly good shincha, you could get around five tasty infusions out of it.

Here is a rough guide of what this might look like. Of course, each tea is different and these are just some general recommendations:

First Infusion: 80-85°C (176-185°F) | 4g/100mL | 35-45 seconds

Second Infusion: 80-85°C (176-185°F) | 0-5 seconds

Third Infusion: 80-85°C (176-185°F) | 35-45 seconds

Fourth Infusion:  85°C (176-185°F) | 45-60 seconds

Fifth Infusion:   85°C (176-185°F) | 60-90 seconds

To learn more about tea harvest and production, check out our series on how sencha is made.



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