Did you know that green tea in Japan is harvested at different times of the year, and that the price and quality of tea leaves depend greatly on the time of harvest?
The earlier, the better…
First flush are the tea leaves that were first harvested that year. The tea tree does not sprout from the fall of the previous year to the spring of the following year. Like most plants, it withstands the cold winter months and does not produce delicate sprouts. Meanwhile, the tea tree keeps storing nutrients inside. When spring comes and the temperature is above a certain level for several days, it starts to sprout. Since Japan’s land is long vertically, sprout starts in the early and middle of March in the southern region like Okinawa and Kyushu, in the middle and late March in Kansai (Kyoto and its neighboring prefectures), and later in colder regions. Of course, the timing changes depending on weather and rainfall. After that, the tea tree grows new shoots.
Isshin Goyo, literally means one bud, five leaves. It describes that the tea tree has one small, unopened leaf at the top of the tea bud, with five leaves underneath. At this level of growth, it is time to harvest the optimal in quality and quantity. This is the first flush of that year and it’s called “Ichibancha”.
The highest quality green tea leaves are the ones picked up in the first harvest of the year, and they are called Ichiban-cha (first tea). This happens around spring, but the time of harvest changes depending on the region. The timing of harvesting will depend on the area in Japan. It may be a little earlier in the southern parts of Japan, but predominantly the first round of harvesting will be taking place around May. The second and third harvesting will follow, and the intervals between the harvesting sessions may be as short as a month. The reason for the this difference lies in the fact that the weather gets warmer the further south you go in Japan.
After this first harvest (also called first flush), new buds form again, and in approximately 45 days new leaves are ready to be harvested. Leaves from this second harvest are called nibancha second tea,. Likewise, there is also san bancha (third tea, and yon bancha (fourth tea). Some regions of Japan have 3 harvests and that last one is called shuutou bancha (fall and winter tea).
Why is Ichiban-cha of higher quality…
The first flush makes the best tea because the leaves are full of nutrients after hibernating during the winter. Also, because of the cold temperature, leaves from Ichiban-cha grow slower than those from later harvests. In fact, leaves from Ichiban-cha contain 3 times more L-theanine than those from nibancha. L-theanine is the source of sweetness in tea.