Shincha (新茶・しんちゃ) refers to the first Japanese tea harvest of the year. Rather than other types of tea—green tea, oolongs, and blacks—which refer to their processing, shincha is simply a label for the first harvest, more a cultural tradition than a style of tea. Shincha is always made into a green tea and almost exclusively a sencha.
Each spring, tea farmers and producers rush to release the year's shincha, which people throughout Japan enjoy as a marker of spring. In many ways, the first cup of shincha is like viewing cherry blossoms: as much a cultural tradition as it is a social activity.
What Shincha Tastes Like
Shinchas are known for their fresh grassy flavors and floral aroma. As the first tea picked in the year, shincha leaves are ripe with fatty acids that accumulated over the fall and winter months. These fatty acids develop the natural, characteristically sweet flavors you will find unique to this tea.
Typically, shincha are made from unshaded tea leaves (unlike gyokuro and matcha tea bushes), so they have less umami and earthiness. The fatty acids found in shincha are especially volatile and will evaporate within a few months, even if the tea is properly stored. It is always best to drink shincha when it is fresh.
When Shincha is Harvested
The harvest begins in southern and warmer areas such as Kagoshima. From there, as harvests move up the islands of Japan as warmer weather follows, similar to cherry blossom viewing throughout March and April. In Japanese tradition, drinking tea picked on the 88th day of spring is the most delicious and auspicious, ensuring health the rest of the year. Because of its popularity nationwide, shincha commonly sells out within a few weeks and does not get exported outside of Japan.
How Shincha is Made
To achieve its characteristic flavor profile, shinchas are steamed for a shorter amount of time compared to other types of green teas, so they contain more moisture. This also means they will go stale faster than others—producers will only prepare a small portion of their harvest as shincha, and these teas are only sold for a few months.
The general process for producing sencha—and shincha—is as follows:
- Picking the tea from rows of tea bushes by hand (tezumi・手摘み・てずみ) or by machine
- Steaming: this process is known as "kill green," whereby tea leaves are steamed at a high temperature for 30 seconds to a few minutes. This destroys the enzyme that breaks down and rots plants over time. Steaming also preserves the leaves' bright green color and aroma.
- Kneading: leaves are kneaded to remove moisture.
- Rolling: leaves are rolled to breakdown fibers, improving flavor and complexity when brewing tea. Eventually, this step also creates the needle-like shape Japanese teas are known for.
- Drying: all moisture is removed, and the tea is now known as aracha (荒茶・あらちゃ)
- Sorting: leaves and stems are separated, leaving even, polished leaves.
The Concept of Shincha Matcha
There are other types of tea—specifically gyokuro and matcha—that are intentionally aged for several months to relax the astringent and bitter notes and develop umami. The autumn tradition "tsubokiri" refers to the process of releasing these matured teas. To drink a "shincha matcha" or "shincha gyokuro" would be somewhat counterproductive to the deep earthy characteristics these teas are known for.