Making sense of Sencha (a style of Japanese green tea) can be a bit tricky for many of us tea drinkers used to Indian, Ceylonian, African, and Chinese teas. Where tea is concerned, Japanese teas seem a world unto themselves.
Processing Sencha is the “secret of its success” for the most part. The first Senchas were actually black instead of the green color we are used to today. That was due to the leaves being steamed or boiled and then either roasted or left out in the sun to dry. In 1738, a creative tea farmer (Sou-en Tagatani, who lived to the amazingly ripe old age of 97 during Japan’s feudal era) developed a hand-rolling process that dried the tea leaves but preserved their green color. The technique has since been replaced by machine rolling but is preserved by the Temomi Preservation Society.
There are three grades of Sencha:
- High-grade — made from either the bud or the bud plus the youngest leaf of the tea plant (Camellia Sinensis).
- Good to average Sencha — made from the bud plus the top two leaves.
- Lower quality — made from the two top leaves, the lower leaf below them, plus parts of the twig.
The first form the tea leaves take in the processing of Sencha is called aracha. This is directly after the initial processing and before wholesalers, brokers and tea manufacturers further refine it into a variety of different Senchas. This stage involves seven basic steps:
- Steaming the leaves while quickly stirring them. (There are different levels of steaming, the lighter ones preserving natural flavors as much as possible.)
- Pounding the leaves by putting them into an oven and spinning them (this will dry the leaves’ surface).
- Spin rolling the leaves on top of a heated table to squeeze out liquid (making them into a ball and roll it by pushing downwards on the leaves so that they “spin” or “roll” on the table).
- Breaking up the ball after the spin rolling is finished (it will be in clumps by now, so you can just spread the leaves out on the table).
- Shaping the dried tea leaves by placing them between your hands and rolling with your fingers so that they become long and round (roll and let fall from your hands).
- Keeping you nose alert since, as you push, pull and roll the leaves, you will begin to smell the aroma coming from them.
- Drying the leaves at a low temperature in an oven or heated area. Push down on them with your finger. If they are brittle, they’re done.
Voilà! You have just made the tea leaves into aracha. From here the tea is further processed into various versions of Sencha, which generally have an aroma like freshly cut grass and a taste reminiscent of sweet, seaweed or spring greens. Steam longer and you get Fukumushi Sencha with a richer and sweeter taste and a full-bodied liquid with very little astringency.
Sencha can be enjoyed straight or as part of a blend, such as Kyoto Cherry. It is also the basis for some versions of the classic Japanese tea: Gen Mai Cha (made with toasted rice). It is generally a delicate tea that should be stored carefully (some vendors recommend keeping them in the refrigerator) and used within a relatively short time after receiving them (two months or less).
I hope this has helped you make a bit of sense out of Sencha. Try some and see what you think.
Oh, by the way, did you know that those cherry trees in Washington, DC, were a gift from Japan? I had the pleasure more than once to walk among them during the spring and take in, both visually and aromatically, those delicate blossoms. [Cherry Blossom Festival in 2011] If you get a chance to do so, don’t forget your camera!
A.C. makes sense of what she calls the “tea life” each and every day over on her blog, Tea Time with A.C. Cargill!