Sencha is a very simple style of Japanese tea. It is the most popular style of tea in Japan, accounting for over 80% of the countries tea production. It is drank all day long in many homes and serves to guests as well. It pairs well with food and can also be savored on it’s own. At its core, it is an unpretentious tea. Grown in full sunlight (kabuse, gyokuro and matcha undergo shading), the best quality sencha is picked in late April or early May as these early buds are the most desirable and flavorful of the year (tea plants can be harvested up to about 4 times a year starting in early spring and ending in late summer). These buds are usually harvested around the 88th day of the spring season, 八十八夜 (Hachi Ju Hachi Ya) in Japanese. Most sencha is a blend of the leaves of several farmer’s tea which are taken to a central tea market just after harvest. Tea producers and blenders will head to market to inspect the years crop. The process of choosing the tea requires an ability to evaluate the look, taste, aroma of each tea and how that particular tea will blend with other teas at auction. Generally a blender wants to create a tea to be similar to an offering from the previous year - a "house tea". Customers will come to know a tea and expect it every year. Depending on the quality, variety, and amount of the teas available, the blender bids on teas that will create the desired flavor profile.
Picking tea is Japan is done one of two ways: Handpicking (tezumi) or machine harvesting. The majority of sencha is picked by machine. The shearing device is usually operated by 2 people and the leaves are clipped and blown into a collection bag, a lot like hedge trimmer. The higher quality teas are plucked by hand. Many times locals from the community will come help during the harvest.
Once picked, the tea undergoes a series of processing steps starting with humidifying the tea, steaming it, then alternating drying, rolling and finishing. After the processing is finished the tea is in a form called aracha, or crude tea. Aracha tea can be likened to unglazed and unfired pottery. The form and spirit of the tea is there, but a second and final finishing process is needed to bring out the full complexity and flavor of the tea.
A unique aspect of Japanese sencha is that it is usually blended and kept in this unfinished state deep in cold storage. As tea is needed throughout the year, it is pulled from refrigeration and the final steps are applied producing the final finished tea. This process keeps tea at its freshest.
Japan is known for it’s highly mechanized processing, but it takes the skill and hand of an expert to create great tea. All steps are overseen by the farmer or tea farm manager. A qualified expert uses their sense of smell and sight as much as the machines. The best teas must be observed from start to finish as an extra ten seconds on any step can mar the best tea. Sencha is finished when a secondary processing refines the tea to it's final state by removing stems, lowering the moisture level and firing the leaves to bring out the desired favor profile.