Written by Will
Sencha, Spring 2019, Japan’s most celebrated green tea, produced by tea farmer Yoshiro Okamura of Sasamodo gardens in Shizuoka, Japan.
In this deep dive we go to the mountains of Shizuoka, which are at the heart of tea in Japan, to get a closer look at our current batch of Sencha green tea. Sencha is one of Japan’s most famous teas – it has a deep and refreshing flavour and the leaves can be infused again and again with rewarding results. As well as being refreshing and so satisfying when I need a fresh green fix, I love to drink sencha slowly in small concentrated infusions for a contemplative and fulfilling experience.
We’ll be exploring the unique processing which, unlike other teas, takes two skilled tea crafters to create it. We’ll also go into detail about how it tastes in the final cup, plus our favourite tips so that you can get the best out of your leaves at home.
This is a fortifying and uplifting tea – one to be savoured and sipped.
Origin: Sasamodo Garden, Shizuoka prefecture, Japan
Cultivar: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis – Yabukita
Name: Sencha (煎茶) means ‘simmered tea’ and refers to the process of steaming the tea leaves.
Style: Steamed green tea
Terroir: Grown by the banks of the Sasama river in Japan, where the terroir is rich and fertile with a seasonally temperate climate.
Picking Season: Spring
Leaf: Deep green, needle shaped tea leaves.
Infusion: A light and vibrant yellow-green infusion
What kind of teas does Sasamodo Garden in Shizuoka produce?
Tea is hugely important in Shizuoka prefecture; it accounts for 40% of the country’s entire tea production. The gardens of Sasamodo are known for producing leaves that make a wonderfully creamy, sweet and grassy Sencha. The cultivar used is Yabukita and is native to the region. Yabukita was created in 1908, by a local tea farmer, Sugiyama Hikosaburo, who was experimenting to find a plant that could survive the frost, deliver a high yield and deliver loads of the prized umami flavour. Yabukita is now grown in many tea regions across Japan and makes up 90% of the production in Shizuoka.
One of the key steps in green tea processing is the fixation, which is the part of the process whereby heat is applied to the leaves to lock or fix them in their green state. In China, this is typically done through firing – which means putting the leaves on a hot surface – almost like dry frying in cooking. For Sencha in Japan, this is done through steaming. An easy way to think of the difference that this has on the tea is to just think about some green vegetables, such as asparagus – what would happen if you dry fried some and steamed some – the texture, smell, taste end result would all be different. Fixing the leaves by steaming happens very quickly and the leaves retain their characteristic deep green colour.and that all-important umami flavour. If you’re not sure what umami is by the way, it’s considered one of the five tastes – alongside sweet, salty bitter and sour. It’s hard to describe but fundamentally it is a deep savouriness.
In sencha tea production the veins of the leaf are also removed and this too contributes to the concentration of green flavour that you’ll get from this tea.
The best tea picking season for green tea in Shizuoka and throughout Japan is the spring when the tea bushes begin to flourish after their winter dormancy, sprouting fresh, tasty and nutrient-rich buds and young leaves. Our sencha was picked in Sasamodo around mid-April to early May, capturing the best of this bright, Spring character.
How did we source this batch of tea and who made it?
We have known the farmer Yoshiro-san since 2011 when we met him in shizuoka. Yoshiro-san creates the unfinished tea, known as ‘aracha’. This is then transformed into the final product by Hiromi-san at his specialized refinery.
Firstly, the fresh spring tea leaves are picked in the gardens in Sasamodo. Typically, in Japan the sencha tea bushes are kept short (about waist height) and arranged in hedgerows to make them accessible. The picking is done using a trimming machine, which is passed across the top of tea bushes, cutting the buds and fresh leaves cleanly off and collecting them all in one pass – this quickly maximises the yield from the garden.
To create the ‘aracha’, the picked leaves are sorted and then lightly steamed. They are then rolled to remove any excess moisture and create the typical needle or spear-like leaf shape.
The second stage takes the unfinished tea to the refinery. Here it is sifted multiple times to sort the leaves into various grades before the important, final heat-drying stage. Our relationship with Hiromi-san means that the tea we select can be finished to our exact specifications. This ensures that we receive a Sencha with a rich taste profile, a creamy texture and the essential umami character.
What is this batch like to drink?
The colour of our sencha infusion is a glowing, yellow-green that draws you in. The aroma isn bright and radiates a grassy freshness, with a savoury hint that reminds us of a light sea breeze. We find the initial taste is always sweet, even floral, at first with a thick, creamy texture that moves towards a fine, vegetal-umami flavour at the back of the tongue. We describe this sensation as savoury, minerally or broth-like, but it is certainly not bitter. In fact, this precise balance of fresh sweetness and umami taste is what defines a quality sencha.
However, some of this balance comes down to how it is infused and in our experience, the flavours can be over extracted at the wrong temperature or longer infusion time. But this is easily managed, and we would recommend just a little extra attention when making this tea compared to other. This makes sencha an inherently more rewarding experience in its outcome. We’ve found some of the most gratifying tea experiences can be had with Japanese green teas. Perhaps this is another component that has made them so synonymous with meditation and Zen Buddhism throughout history.
Where and when is this tea for?
Sencha is great for when you want a refreshing sensation of clarity or if you just want to be cooled. if you want something that is really green and fresh – for example if you haven’t had the chance to eat anything fresh and are craving something green, sencha is an amazing instant hint of something really fresh and green. I also enjoy sencha when I’m having a contemplative moment, it it is a tea with enough flavour and depth that supports me getting focused without being overwhelmed by complexity.
What is it like to make and how easy is it to get a good taste?
Single Serve, One Cup Method using 250ml teapot and cup:
Using 2tsp or 4g of sencha and place the leaves in a pre-heated teapot to get the full aroma of the tea. This is something that is often overlooked but is totally worth doing as the fragrance of our sencha is so rich and grassy, evocative of a warm, coastal breeze – it’s worth savouring.
When you’re ready to infuse, it’s key with this tea that you use water between 70˚C – 80˚C. You can get this temperature really easily by adding a splash of cold water, roughly a 1/5 of the volume of your teapot, before topping up with boiling water. This will get you the right infusion for a smooth, delicious and umami-rich experience. Too hot and you may risk over-extracting some bitterness which will creep into the finish of the tea.
Remember, after three minutes pour out the entire infusion into your favourite mug for the complete, perfect cup. You can certainly infuse these leaves more than once, adding 30 seconds on the next infusion to build on the upfront sweetness and high grassy notes.
This is our go-to method: 4g per 250ml; 70˚C; 3 minutes per infusion (try to stay below 80˚C for best results)
Kyusu (Japanese teapot):
In Japan, sencha is often made in a more concentrated and focused infusion, with an intense front tongue sweetness and even more saline and fulfilling umami taste. There is also an aspect of the flavour and texture of the tea that has more bite, without falling deeply into bitterness. So, if you are experienced with Japanese tea or are looking to explore the depth of your sencha leaves, either with a traditional clay or stoneware kyusu teapot (or any piece of teaware), then we recommend the following infusion method:
Method: 5-6g per 150ml; 75˚C; 1 minute per infusion (remember to pre-heat all teacups before serving for best experience.)
Who is this tea for?
If your want your green tea to be vegetal, thick and have maximum “green” flavour, you will likely enjoy Sencha. It’s for anyone looking for a tea that can help to deliver a sense of clarity, Sencha will not only reveal a fantastic flavour, but can also be a really pleasant moment of calm-focus in your day. This tea has great appeal for so many, especially those who are familiar with the fired, Chinese style of green tea and want to explore the deepth of the green-ness from the steamed style of Japanese green tea.