Trying a new tea from the 2016 tea harvest from Japan.
Spring brings with it the tantalizing promise of new tea. The first harvest or ‘first flush’ of Japanese tea is generally picked somewhere around April or May (depending on region and local conditions) and this shincha or ‘new tea’ usually begins appearing on U.S. market anywhere from mid-May to mid-June. There are multiple harvests throughout the tea season, with second and third flushes routine, and even fourth flushes not unusual. Still, the first flush is considered by many to be the most desirable. It is the first harvest after the long winter during which the tea plant has had time to recover from the previous season. This allows the plant to bring fresh energy and vitality to the first flush. The arrival of shincha is also for many people a real marker that winter has finally given way to spring, making this first harvest a much-anticipated ritual of spring for tea drinkers.
The amount of tea available from this first harvest is limited. This combination of limited supply and high demand means that prices for shincha are higher than other for other harvests during the season. Demand for shincha is based in part on flavor– many find the ‘new tea’ to be noticeably less bitter and even somewhat sweet compared to other flushes. This difference has been attributed to lower levels of catechins in the leaves.
This year I ordered a selection of shincha online from Hibiki-an, a tea purveyor in Uji, in the Kyoto region of Japan. Along with a first flush sencha and a fukamushi I decided to try their aracha or “farmer’s tea”. I had never tried aracha before and didn’t know that much about it. I’m always excited to try new Japanese teas and so, after placing my order, I did some research.
Aracha is sometimes called ‘farmer’s tea’ because it is the partially-processed tea that growers sell on the wholesale market to distributors. It is not typically available in the retail environment. After picking the tea, the grower steams, rolls, and then dries all parts of the leaf. This includes the stems, the leaf itself, the broken bits and particles– literally everything. It is in this state that the tea is then sold to distributors, who process the tea further.
After distributors purchase the aracha they set about finishing the tea. This includes grading, sorting and sizing the leaves, and, very often, blending them with tea from other growers in order to create the flavor profile they want or to meet the volume of tea they need to fulfill the demand from the retail market. Often a single grower can’t meet the a distributor’s demand from the retail market for certain teas.
Because the aracha is not as dry as finished tea, it doesn’t store well for very long and should be consumed fairly soon after opening.
I set about making my first pot of aracha by following the directions provided. I always make a new tea according to the instructions the first time, so I get a sense for how the seller thinks it should be served. From there I may make tweaks to water temperature, amount of leaf or steep times to find the right flavor for me.
Opening the package I found the aroma of the tea rather subtle. Often opening a fresh sencha you are greeted with a pungent, grassy or seaweedy aroma, depending on the tea. I found the aracha to have a rather low-key aroma of fresh grass. The appearance of the tea was a bit more ragged than you usually find with finished teas, which have been more carefully sorted and have stems and broken bits removed for a more uniform final product.
Following the producer’s instructions of 7-8 grams of tea to 7 ounces of water produced a soft yellow liquor. I found the flavor quite mellow, and rather smooth. There was not a lot of astringency or tanginess to the flavor. It had a softer, mild grassiness to it. My tasting partner and I both found it enjoyable but a surprisingly a bit weak, given the ratio of leaf to water. A second steep with the same leaves saw the flavor change to a somewhat more bitter aroma and flavor which I personally did not enjoy as much.
Overall the key difference I found between aracha and other, more finished teas was a somewhat “flatter” flavor. This is probably not surprising given that aracha is tea that isn’t fully finished in its processing; it contains elements like stems and broken bits that would normally end up sorted out. And very often teas on the retail market are not single-leaf but are a blend of teas from different growers selected to create a pre-define profile. For this reason I recommend trying an aracha if you can to get a unique taste of tea that is a step closer to the leaf.