Unlike the shade-cultivated gyokuro leaves, sencha leaves are exposed to direct sunlight for their entire life cycle, and accordingly exhibit rapid growth. The abundance of sunlight results in an abundance of vitamin C, as well as a relatively high level of tannin. It is this high tannin content that gives sencha its characteristic sharp flavor.
On the traditional Japanese calendar,Risshun refers to the first day of spring in a given year; hachijuhachiya refers to the 88th day after Risshun. Hachijuhachiya is special because it marks the beginning of the year’s first tea picking. Though it varies slightly from year to year, hachijuhachiya typically occurs in early-May. At that time, the ‘first flush’ of sencha leaves is carefully picked. ‘First flush’ is the year’s first harvest of young leaves, considered by connoisseurs to be the absolute finest in quality, freshness and flavor.
A key difference between Japanese green tea and other teas (black tea, oolong tea, Chinese green tea) is that Japanese tea leaves are steamed after being harvested. The steaming process lasts for about 15 – 20 seconds, and is performed soon (within 12 – 20 hours) after the leaves are picked. The purpose of the steaming is to prevent the leaves from being oxidized. Thanks to this steaming process, and in part to the subsequent rolling process, most of the leaves' natural green color, fragrance and nutritional components are retained.
The rolling/drying process begins shortly after the steaming has finished. During this process, the fibers are softened, allowing the tea's flavor components to be released. There are several stages of rolling, starting with a loose rolling and culminating with a tight twist, giving the leaves their characteristic thin needle shape. By the time the leaves have gone through their final drying, the water content has been mostly removed. This effectively prevents the quality of the leaves from changing, thereby maintaining the original character of the tea as much as possible.
When you examine the finished tea leaves closely, you can see that they resemble a thin finely-twisted paper string. Concealed inside the twisted leaves is the essence of the tea’s natural flavor.
After the rolling/drying process, the leaves are sorted. Buds, stems and flakes (which break off during the rolling process) are filtered out, as are the larger coarser leaves which don't roll into a tight needlelike twist. The finely-twisted sencha leaves which remain are then sorted according to size and shape, to be used later in specific proportions during the blending process at our Ippodo plant in Kyoto.
The buds, fine stems and flakes are sorted and packaged separately, as Sencha Mecha, Sencha Kukicha and Hanako respectively. The larger coarser leaves (as well as the larger stems) are set aside for bancha (a group of coarse-leaf teas which includes yanagi, hojicha and genmaicha). The Japanese tea philosophy is to respect the tea plant, and to use all parts of the harvest.