Shincha – 1st Flush Sencha

Shincha -- a first flush sencha.

First Flush Shincha

Within the world of Japanese teas, sencha and shincha are two terms that can easily be confused, especially by English speakers. But while sencha is a broad category of popular Japanese green tea, shincha refers to a specific harvest of sencha that is highly prized among tea connoisseurs.

Sencha, with its vast array of varieties, has long held sway over the Japanese tea market, accounting for more than 80 percent of the country’s overall tea consumption. Production styles vary tremendously depending on region and desired quality. Highest-graded sencha is typically harvested and processed from late April to mid-May. Like all Japanese teas, sencha is steamed shortly after picking to dehydrate the leaves and forestall oxidation, giving it a characteristic vegetal and grassy freshness.

When cultivating sencha, Japanese tea growers divide the growing year into four harvests – referred to in the industry as flushes – named for their order in the year: ichibancha, nibancha, sanbancha, and yonbancha. The first flush, ichibancha, is what produces shincha. Delicate buds and top leaves, harvested by hand and briefly steamed, are plucked when they are still small. By plucking these leaves early, growers capture the intense expression of the all the rich nutrients and flavors that have been cultivating in the soil during the plant’s winter dormancy.

Bright green infused liquor from shincha.

Shincha Fresh from a Kyusu

Shincha leaves are small, tender, and vibrant, with a scent that is both freshly herbaceous and faintly mineral in character. When infused, shincha leaf steeps into a smooth paste yielding a bright green-gold liquor. The flavor, as compared to standard sencha, is notably bolder, livelier, and complex. A strong oceanic minerality overlays undernotes of fresh vegetation, with a faintly bitter finish that gradually gives way to a lingering stonefruit sweetness. The mouthfeel is full and sharp, slightly less astringent than sencha but still decidedly pronounced.

Like other Japanese green teas, shincha is perfect for brewing in traditional kyusu, but is just as delightful steeped in a pot or an infuser. Steep three grams of tea at a low temperature, between 160°-185° Fahrenheit, for two to three minutes. Shincha can also be enjoyed for multiple short steepings.

By Jennifer Coate

 

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Alishan High Mountain Oolongs

View from Dabang Village Alishan Taiwan

Sunrise in Dabang Village, Alishan National Forest

Alishan Oolongs put Taiwan’s tea industry on the map in the 1960’s & 70’s as the country struggled to compete with China for tea consumers. These famous oolongs are produced in the south central region of Taiwan by the many aboriginal tribes of Taiwan living in the large conservation district of Taiwan called Alishan National Forest.

What sets these oolongs apart is their complex, clean flavors. This is credited to both the perfect growing conditions in the region as well as the laborious process of hand picking, properly balling the oolong, and a combination of roasting and aging after processing.

Growing Conditions
One of the largest spiders on the planet found in large parts of Asia

Giant Golden Orb Web Weaver or Giant Wood Spider

Up at 3,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level, the tea plants get plenty of morning fog that generally burns off by the afternoon. These warm misty conditions are what tea plants want. Given the ocean air, clouds can roll in and out all day long and small afternoon rain showers are normal during certain times of the year. Taiwan is bisected by the Tropic of Cancer, so it is close enough to the Equator to stay warm year round, but the high elevations do allow the plants to go dormant period during winter.

Beyond the weather, having tea grown without insecticide or fertilizer adds to the complexity of the flavor as the plants have to fight off bugs and pull nutrients naturally from the soil. The soil is amended with grasses and other plants to return nutrients to the soil each dormant period. The best Alishan oolongs are produced without insecticide leaving nature to do its job. In those fields that means a home to the giant golden orb weaver, one of the largest spiders in the world. Not poisonous, they are still an interesting obstacle to getting to the tea leaves for those who are not fans of arachnids. These spiders appear in abundance! However these amazing creatures ensure that the insects don’t get to eat all the leaves. So for the serious tea drinker, they are a welcome site on a tea field.

Processing

Getting plucking correct is actually one of the trickiest parts in Taiwan. With very few people willing to pluck, the experienced plucking teams are in high demand. So trying to time plucking is hard for the smaller growers. Ideally, the tea is plucked late in the day and into the evening after the fog has left and the leaves have dried off. Once plucked, the leaves need to whither at least 24 hours while the tea master determines what type of oolong to make. This is often done based off of how many leaves were plucked (bud and 2 to 4 leaves) and the length of the leaves. Generally, smaller leaves and bud are going to go a lighter oxidized oolong.

Tea fields growing up a mountainside.

One of many tea fields found throughout the high mountains of Alishan Taiwan.

The leaves will be agitated for the next 24 hours in tumblers and rolling machines as the tea master samples to find the right flavor. It is then roasted/dried to stop the oxidation at the desired flavor. The tea is then put into air tight storage. While it can be drunk, the tea master prefers that it sit and a final finishing roast be applied a few months later. It is said that this resting time is the key to getting the complex flavors in the tea. The applied roasting can add its own complexities with woody and smokey notes.

Drinking

There are many types of Alishan Oolongs to choose from, from a lightly oxidized and roasted Alishan High Mountain to a more heavily oxidized Alishan Red Oolong. For those who are fans of Lapsang Souchong, there is even a Dark Roasted Alishan that has a smokiness and sweetness to rival this well known tea.

Alishan Oolongs should be steeped at cooler temperatures, between 185-200° F for 3-5 minutes (western style steeping). Multiple steepings are a must for this tea as the flavor will change over the steepings.

The balled nature of this tea lends itself to the use of a gaiwan or yixing tea pot. As the tea unfolds, small particulate falls out adding to the creamy mouthfeel. Go grab your gaiwan or yixing and fill it 1/3 to 1/2 full and do your first steeping at 45 seconds and work up in 15-30 second increments. Smell those leaves as you go, the aroma is mind blowing.

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Japanese Tea Ceremony History and Meaning

Matcha with treats!

Appreciating tea comes in many forms and one of the oldest forms is the Japanese Tea Ceremony. This ceremony has a rich history that encompasses not only enjoying matcha but setting up an environment to connect with ones’ guests over tea. What is often interpreted as strict and formal by Western cultural standards is actually a much broader examination of how the environment you are in will effect your ability to appreciate the tea and connect with your guests.

History of the Japanese Tea Ceremony

As we mentioned in our blog post on the History of Matcha, tea made its way into Japan some 400 years before the creation of the tea ceremony via the Zen Buddhist Monks and their cultural exchange with China. The creation of the tea ceremony came during the period of the first samurai and shogun in Japan (1192-1333 C.E.). The Zen Buddhist Monks would prepare matcha for each other and themselves before sitting for long periods of meditation. This practice continued and would be shared with the royal court in Japan for many centuries before being adopted formally by the royal court under the reign of Toyotomi Hideyosi (1585-1598 C.E.).  It was also during this time that the ceremony and its steps where formally documented by the Zen Buddhist monk Sen Rikyu.

Japanese Tea Ceremony: Attention to Detail and Environment

The Buddhist Monks that developed the tea ceremony paid a lot of attention to the environment around them as they drank the tea and shared it with their colleagues and friends. The environment was to be pleasant but not over stimulating. So artwork was carefully chosen and only a few pieces hung.  A small but carefully chosen flower arrangement was often included on the table with the tea utensils. The bamboo mats and cushions for guests where to provide protection from the cold floor so they could concentrate more easily on each other and the tea. The tea bowl and utensils where also chosen to fit with the artwork. The goal was to have everything fit together to provide a peaceful environment that would allow everyone to enjoy each other and the tea. What is often lost to Western cultural is that after consuming the tea, the host and guests would often discuss the artwork, practice calligraphy together, and spend time discussion intellectual pursuits.

Japanese Tea Ceremony: Modern Day

The practice of the Japanese Tea Ceremony continues around the world. There are schools, in Washington, DC it is the Chado Urasenke Tankokai Association, that not only teach the preparation of the matcha but include how to do the ancient calligraphy, flower arrangements and play traditional Japanese instruments. So broaden your horizons by taking a class and learning more about this part of Japanese culture.

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Dragon Well Shrimp

Dragon Well Shrimp is a simple traditional Chinese dish that incorporates the world famous Dragon Well Tea. This recipe originates from the same region as Dragon Well tea, the Hangzhou province of China. It is easy to make and can actually be made with other teas as well.

Dragon Well Shrimp Ingredients

1 pd of shrimp (Any size is fine. Traditionally, these would be small rock shrimp)
1 tbsp Chinese Rice Wine (can be substituted with dry white wine, sake, or chicken/vegetable stock)
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tsp corn starch
1/4 tsp white pepper
3/4 cup of water
1 tablespoon of Dragon Well tea
Salt to taste

Dragon Well Shrimp Instructions

Start by peeling and deveining the shrimp and putting them into a small bowl. Mix the Chinese rice wine, white pepper and corn starch. Pour over the shrimp and put into the refrigerator for 15 minutes. While the shrimp is in the refrigerator, brew the tea. Heat the water to 175°F (If you are working with a kettle, bring it up to a boil and then pour out 3/4 of a cup of water and allow to cool 3 minutes). Steep the tea in the water for 4 minutes and strain out the leaves. Do not through out the leaves as you will be cooking with them. Have a plate nearby the stove

Steeped Dragon Well for Shrimp

Heat the oil in a large flat pan and put in the shrimp. You will want to spread out the shrimp in the pan so they do not overlap to ensure even cooking. You will want to pour out any  leftover marinade in the bowl. As the shrimp cook, pour in the tea and stir in the tea leaves. The tea and marinade should thicken into a sauce. Turn the shrimp about 2 minutes into cooking. After 4 minutes, if your sauce is not fully thick, remove the shrimp to a plate and continue cooking the sauce until it thickens. Then turn off the heat and put back in the shrimp. Taste the sauce and add salt to your taste.

The tea leaves will soften and be very easy to eat with the shrimp. Other green and white teas can be used for this recipe. Black and oolong teas will be much tougher and are not ideal for this unless you chop the leaves after brewing. This is a fun way to appreciate tea.

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Gaiwans: A Tool for True Tea Appreciation

Many a loose leaf tea drinker will admit to having a cupboard full of strainers, tea pots and various mugs that assist them in consuming tea. In China, that cupboard would be full of gaiwans. This simple lidded bowl lends itself to truly appreciating the tea in many ways that a teapot just cannot accomplish.

A gaiwan can be used to drink just about any tea you would like. However, traditionally it is reserved for white, green and lighter oolong teas. There are some teas we would not dream of drinking in anything other than a gaiwan, like Bai Hao Silver Needle. This is due to how the gaiwan amplifies smell and mouthfeel when following the traditional Chinese method of using a gaiwan.

The first step of using a gaiwan is to warm it with hot water and to discard that water. This seems like a silly step. However, it gives you an opportunity to smell the dry leaves even better. If you put the tea in just after this, the warm ceramic allows the smell of the dry leaves to become stronger. It is expected in China that the drinker will take the time to bring the gaiwan to just under their nose to inhale this fragrance before adding water to the leave. This allows the drinker to better appreciate what they are about to consume.

While drinking the tea, it is expected that the drinker will stop before putting the tea in their mouth and smell the brew. The bowl shape of the gaiwan makes it easy to smell before drinking. There should be no expectation that the dry leaf and the brew will smell the same. Often they do, but in some cases they absolutely do not. There is a green tea in China called Mo Li Xiang, where the dry leaves smell like duck/chicken poop but the brewed tea has a sweet dry grass aroma.

So to appreciate tea the Chinese way, stop and smell both the tea leaves and the tea before you drink. These simple steps lead to a better appreciation of your tea.

Fascinated by the gaiwan, read about how to use it and its history in this blog post.

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