Imagine a pure ocean wave washing over freshly cut grass. Now take a sip. To me, that is what defines my experience with shincha green tea. Shincha, which translates to “new tea,” is a Japanese green tea made from the year’s first plucking of the tender leaves in the sencha tea fields from April through May. This first flush of freshly harvested sprouted leaves that is just barely processed and immediately shipped direct from the farm, is a coveted sip only available for purchase from mid-May through the end of June (sometimes into early July). One can only imagine that the seasonal clamor for shincha is rooted in the passing of winter doldrums for a chance to taste a glimmer of spring freshness. A true ritual, tea enthusiasts patiently wait with bated breath each year and often pre-order shincha as a sign of hope for spring’s arrival. Although an annual harvest, the return to shincha offers excitement for the unknown as the nuances of the tea leaves are slightly altered thanks to mother nature’s TLC.
As I opened the airtight tin of Ippodo shincha from the Uji region of Japan, I removed the white bag covered in Japanese characters and made a careful cut with scissors as to not harm any precious tea leaves tucked inside. Instantly the aroma blossomed from within and sent my senses into a happy haze of spring fever. While spooning the delicate needle-shaped leaves into my Kyusu tea pot, I noticed the sheen of the leaves’ dark forest green hue. As the water (cooled far from a boil) hit the leaves I was enamored by the aroma of seaweed tangled with cooked spinach. I strained the leaves from the liquor to reveal a steeped tea with a golden green hue that should be served in glass or white teaware to let the vivid color shine.
Raising the cup to my lips, I made a point to take a deep breath before my first sip of shincha. Immediately my taste buds were washed with an oceanic note of slightly salty seaweed and grassy notes with nuances of freshly cooked spring vegetables. The savory umami tastes (that verge on slightly buttery) were balanced by the astringency that pleasantly dries your tastes buds. The sip was rounded out with a subtle sweetness that lingers (think of the last chew of a piece of fresh sugar cane). Full bodied yet delicate, it carried me through a balance between crisp and luscious. I felt as though I was sitting on park bench soaking in the early days of spring, while elsewhere my feet were brushing against sand on the first day of summer. This steep truly lingers between two seasons (fresh vegetal notes and summer oceanic sips). While shincha’s taste of intense freshness is commonality year after year, the changing terroir will offer unique subtleties to tempt us with tastes unique only to that year. Note that in addition to annual changes, shincha green tea varies by regions in Japan that can also alter the final flavor profile.
Shincha’s short window of availability is matched by its limited shelf life, as it is best to steep every leaf within two weeks after opening the bag or tin and exposing it to air. And during that fourteen day span, be sure to preserve the freshness by storing the tea in an airtight container away from light, heat, moisture and other ingredients with strong aromas (think coffee and spice). Within that two week span, get creative with ways to coax flavors from the leaf, whether you’re serving it warm on crisp early mornings or cold brewed on steamy afternoons. Note that each tea purveyor often calls for a unique way to steep the special tea. For the Ippodo Uji steep referenced above, they recommend steeping two tablespoons of tea for forty seconds in seven ounces of water that has been heated to 176 degrees Fahrenheit. While another purveyor notes steeping one tablespoon for two minutes in 6.7 ounces of water heated to 158 degrees Fahrenheit. And a third purveyor recommends steeping two tablespoons of the tea for two minutes in 7oz of water that has been heated to 176 degrees Fahrenheit. Opt to follow the tea purveyors instructions for the first steep, and then carefully experiment with a range of water temperatures, tea quantity and steep time to see what makes your taste buds jump for joy. Although creativity is key, do treat this precious tea with care as its harvest is limited. While brewing in a traditional kyusu Japanese tea pot offers the most authentic experience, any tea cup or small tea pot with a large tea infuser/strainer will do (just be sure to give the tea leaves ample room to dance about as they steep to release their very best flavors). For a chilled sip that draws out more of the savory umami notes, try a cold brew technique by steeping 2 tablespoons of the tea in seven ounces of ice cold water (add ice cubes for the most frigid temperature) for fifteen to twenty minutes. To get the most out of these limited edition leaves, I recommend to first steep the tea hot and then immediately cold brew the very same leaves to experience two flavor profiles and temperatures.
Quietly slurping the last sip of shincha, I took note of the steeped leaves that had unraveled from deep green needles to reveal vivid, bright green leaves reminiscent of blanched baby spinach shocked in an ice bath (or the very first blades of spring grass). Before considering a resteep, I nibbled on a tender leaf that delivered a pungent concentrated taste of the tea and imagined sprinkling the steeped leaves on a spring salad of radishes and pea shoots. Delicately refreshing, this steeped shincha would be the ultimate palate cleanser for a lighter lunch. The oceanic, grassy flavors beg to be paired with fresh seafood and vegetables served raw or touched lightly with a quick blanch. To draw out the sweetness of the shincha sip, let dark chocolate be the steeped companion to mute the savory notes. And after you’ve steeped shincha warm and cold and paired it with dinner and dessert, let the leaves find their final destination in the soil of your summer garden (as it is believed that the nitrogen and array of nutrients in green tea give your plants a healthy boost). Above all, the limited Shincha green tea season should be embraced as a reminder to be mindful of the fresh, fleeting moments of spring’s departure and summer’s arrival.
Where to Purchase Shincha:
Palais des Thes http://us.palaisdesthes.com/en_us/grand-crus/japanese-tea.html
* note that Ippodo and Palais Des Thes kindly shared shincha samples with me, however, they did not compensate me for this post.