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Shincha's microseason is back. Here, the tea master, matriarch and vice president of Kyoto’s 300-year-old Ippodo Tea Co. explains how the leaves of one plant can yield such diversity.
It’s time to try Shincha. Literally, the season for this bright and aromatic first flush green tea runs through the end of June, after just about a month of availability in Japan. Like cherry blossoms and ramps, the tea’s ephemeral release sparks fervor among those who anticipate its arrival. The tea has a fresh, vegetal aroma and buttery texture that makes its characteristics stand out from popular Sencha, delicate Gyokuro and other green teas. So here’s the mind-bending part for tea lovers: They’re all made from the same plant, camellia sinensis. That includes matcha, the green tea powder now spreading through American homes and cafés like antioxidant magic dust.
Lucky for us, there are few people in the world more qualified to explain what makes these teas so different and compelling than Miyako Watanabe, tea master, matriarch and vice president of Kyoto’s 300-year-old, family-owned Ippodo Tea Co.
She stopped by Food & Wine to host a tea ceremony and explain how the leaves of one plant can yield such diversity. Here, your Japanese green tea crib notes.
1. Shincha. "New tea," Shincha is first flush Sencha, meaning it’s made with the very first leaves of camellia sinensis plants grown in full sunlight. They’re picked in spring, flash steamed (like all Japanese green teas) to preserve the lush green color, taste and nutrients, then twisted and dried before hitting the market. The tea has a refreshing astringency that comes from tannins, and since the freshness is considered precious, it’s best to blow through a stash quickly. Currently available online and in-store at Ippodo NYC.
Brewing temp: 175°, which should match the green tea setting on an electric kettle.
2. Sencha. Japan’s most consumed green tea, Sencha grows in full sunlight (hello, vitamin C!) and is an ideal everyday tea with a bright, vegetal flavor. The highest grades are made with young leaves that are steamed, twisted and dried as above.
Brewing temp: 175°
3. Gyokuro. This more expensive green tea is smoother and more umami-rich with a delicate sweetness. The rounded taste comes from the fact that growers shade the plants before picking the leaves. There’s some science behind it: Less photosynthesis results in more of the flavor-creating amino acid L-Theanine, but the main thing to know is that it’s super elegant and better for savoring on a weekend than chugging on the subway. Also delicious chilled.
Brewing temp: 140°
4. Matcha. Matcha is also made from shaded leaves, but the stems are removed and the steamed, dried leaves are stone ground to a fine powder. The antioxidants are higher in matcha because you literally drink the entire leaf when you whisk the matcha into hot water. The bright color and concentrated flavor make it great for cooking, as well as Americanized drinks like green tea shakes.
Brewing temp: 175°
5. Bancha. Like a mature Sencha, Bancha is a later-season, full-sun crop that yields larger leaves. Considered lower grade, it’s still especially good (and great with food) when transformed into the following two styles.
Brewing temp: Boiling
6. Hojicha. This is a form of roasted Bancha, yielding a smoky, delicious nose and rich amber color.
Brewing temp: Boiling
7. Genmaicha. Take Bancha and roast with rice. The flavor is smoky and sweet. Especially good iced.