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Bancha is a type of Japanese green tea characterized by a woody, sometimes nutty flavor. It is traditionally made from tea leaves gathered during the last harvest of any given season. The leaves are often considered lower quality, and for this reason are generally less expensive. Bancha tea still carries the same health benefits of other green tea varieties, though, and has a similar, but distinguishable, flavor. It is listed as a “preferred” beverage on traditional Japanese macrobiotic diet plans, in part because of its earthy wholesomeness.
All green teas come from the same sort of plant. Differences in variety owe largely to harvest time and leaf processing and drying techniques. Most Japanese tea estates begin harvesting leaves in the early spring, as soon as the frost has dissipated and leaves begin to bud. Harvest continues throughout the summer to the brink of fall. Bancha is tea made from leaves collected just before the frosts come again, rendering the plants dormant.
Bancha tea leaves are often characterized by a ruddy, olive green color. This is in sharp contrast to the bright green characteristic of earlier harvests, particularly shincha. It is not uncommon to find bits of leaf stems and twigs mixed in with bancha blends. Harvesters are often less discriminate because the tea is the last of the season. It is widely believed that these more earthy elements are major contributors to the tea's distinctive flavor.
Tea leaves collected during the final harvests are almost always of lower quality than those collected earlier on in the year. For this reason, blends made at the end of the year are generally quite economical. Flavors are just as strong, and the health benefits — namely, high levels of antioxidants — remain constant.
Sipping bancha brews is recommended by many traditional macrobiotic diet advocates. The macrobiotic diet is an eating plan to promote wellness that originated in Japan in the mid-1950s. It is usually described as more of a lifestyle than a strict diet, though it does advocate certain foods and food groups over others. The idea is to create a balance of local, minimally processed foods. Bancha, more so than any other blend, is often praised by macrobiotic participants for its rustic, earthy tones.
Leaves collected during the last harvest are also the most suitable for use in Japanese hojicha tea, a tea preparation that involves roasting tea leaves rather than steaming them dry. Tea masters making hojicha take fresh leaves and roast them in a clay pot over a fire. The result is a brown, smoky-flavored brew markedly different from any other green tea preparation. Many types of tea can be used in this process, but the tougher composition and overall hardiness of bancha makes it ideal.