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Shincha is a type of green tea that is made from the first tea leaves to sprout each spring. These leaves typically are harvested immediately, which means that they are very small, and the overall harvest usually is extremely limited. They are prized for their very concentrated flavor and high nutrient content. This type of tea is harvested exclusively in Japan and, unlike many other green tea varieties, is often difficult to find outside of that country.
In Japanese, the word shincha literally translates to “new tea." It is applied only to the first green tea harvest of each season — the newest leaves after the winter. Tea plants generally are dormant in the winter. The first leaves to sprout in the spring usually are the beneficiaries of months of stored nutrients, which gives them a unique flavor that is not easily replicated later in the season. These leaves are prized for carrying the softest, most delicate flavor of any green tea varietal.
Harvest dates vary slightly from year to year, but they generally begin in mid-April and last only a few weeks. Tea farmers almost always hand pick the leaves, and they usually sell them immediately. Many of the more popular tea estates have waiting lists each year for patrons to reserve shincha lots well before the close of winter.
Shincha is one of the most prized types of tea in Japan. It also is one of the most expensive. The high cost usually has to do with the effort involved in picking the leaves, as well as the required attentiveness of the harvesters. Overall production is necessarily limited as well, which increases demand in many places.
Quality also affects price. Even though the shincha designation is reserved for only certain teas, there is no guarantee that all leaves will lead to similar tea. Tea absorbs many of the characteristics of its location, and its quality depends on a lot of things, including soil health, the harshness of the winter months and the number of days of sunlight. Some years are inevitably better than others, and even teas from a single farm are rarely identical when compared across the seasons.
Depending on the estate, this type of tea might also be marketed as ichibancha, which means “first picked tea.” The ichibancha tea designation also can be applied to the first full green tea harvest of the summer season, however, which can lead to confusion. Leaves picked after a full season’s growth usually have a much fuller flavor than that which is characteristically associated with shincha.
Aside from the circumstances of its harvesting, there is little that separates shincha from other varieties of Japanese green tea. It is stored and dried in the same fashion — namely, dried on wood planks and stored in airtight tins or sealed containers — and it is brewed only momentarily before serving. Shincha enthusiasts usually advocate brewing new harvests shortly after drying, because the flavors tend to dissipate and decline over time, no matter how carefully the leaves are stored.