This is a traditional Japanese green tea with tightly rolled, needle-shaped leaves. It was picked in early spring after the leaves have developed their balance of sweetness and astringency. The liquor is bright in color, with a clean finish, and a taste somewhat reminiscent of seaweed. True Sencha differs in character from most Chinese-style green teas not only with its sleek, dark green appearance but its higher green notes compared to nuttier, vegetal notes. It goes well with seafood and is brilliant with chocolate.
Sencha is the most widely enjoyed green tea in Japan. You'll find it everywhere you turn, in varying grades. It can be recognized by its shiny, needle-like shaped tea leaves with strong fragrance.
Along with the springtime blossoming of cherry trees, the first harvest of sencha is highly anticipated and celebrated. It's thought to be the first taste of the coming year in tea, and very lucky to give as a gift. This first harvest is referred to as "shincha".
Japan is an island country located in the Pacific Ocean. Made up of over 3,000 islands, it forms an archipelago that stretches along the Pacific Coast of Asia. 70 to 80 percent of its land is mountainous and not suitable for permanent living or agriculture. Most the population lives in densely populated areas, in coastal cities.
Tea first was introduced to Japan in the 900's through Zen Buddhism, when returning Japanese monks brought tea seeds back with them from China. Emulating what they had seen in China, they first cultivated powdered tea, or matcha, a style popular in Song Dynasty China. The tea was whisked in a bowl and shared, eventually evolving into the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
Japan credits the rise of tea drinking to a Monk named Eisai. Returning from China, he planted tea seeds in the capitol of Kyoto and writes a book "A Record of Tea Drinking for Good Health." In 1214, he was summoned to administer the last rights to a young shogun, who was suffering terribly. Eisai diagnosed him with being hung over, revived him with a bowl of tea and presented him with his book. The shogun adopts tea drinking and a tea industry begins
Today, Japan produces both powdered and loose leaf styles of green (un-oxidized) tea. They are divided into 4 catagories: matcha, sencha, gyokuro and bancha teas. The most important growing regions are: Uji, Shizouka, Kagoshima and Kyoto Prefectures. Uji, Japan, just south of Kyoto, is the most famous tea-growing region in Japan. Most of the finest teas come from this region even though it produces on 4 percent of Japan's tea.
The tea plants used to make sencha are grown in full sun. Processing is a series of six steps that begins with steaming (halts oxidization, preserves the color, aroma and taste). The leaves are then partially dried and machine twisted, making them soft and pliant. This step is repeated, with a second round of drying and twisting, resulting in increased fragrance and needle-shaped leaves. A third round of drying finishes the process. The tea then is hand-sorted to remove any stray stems. Sencha can be enjoyed right after being made (needs no maturing), and generally has a 6 months shelf life.
The key with sencha is to use soft water at a low temperature with a short steeping time. It's a delicate tea, and does well made in a small vessel like a gaiwan or kyusu.
It's common in Japan to re-use the leaves of high-grade sencha in cooking. Try adding them to salads and dishes that do well with fresh greens and herbs.
While there are different cultivation/processing methods unique to each style of tea, they all have the same first step in common: steaming. Immediately after the tea leaves are picked, they are steamed to halt the oxidization process. In contrast, Chinese green teas are pan or oven fired. Japan currently harvests most of its tea mechanically. Traditional hand picking is now reserved for small lots of premium tea. The specialized harvesting equipment ranges from large tractor-like machines to smaller gas powered trimmers, which are carried by two people who walk between the rows of tea. The farmers using these precision machines are able to target the new shoots on the plant, while a vacuum pulls the clipped leaves into a basket.