Shincha translates literally as “new tea.” It is the first harvest of the year in Japan and is a highly prized representation of spring. Sencha translates as “brewing tea” and, for most of the year, is the de facto standard against which the quality of Japanese green teas is measured. While the Chinese characters for these two teas look completely different, when you verbalize their names, it’s possible to mishear and assume they are the same tea. Let’s start with some disambiguation.
Shincha is often considered first flush tea from Japan. The term “first flush” was popularized in Darjeeling, India to market a lighter, greener black tea that was produced to expand and increase the yearly production levels. Often, the first one hundred or so lots of tea are considered first flush. Therefore, “first flush” is a much more appropriate label for sencha than shincha, which is only comprised of the very first harvest of tea from any given plantation. Some producers in Japan will call shincha “ichibancha,” or “number one tea.” While this title is certainly accurate, it is somewhat confusing since first-grade, summer-picked tea is also called ichibancha (they even use the same characters). To add even more layers, different regions in Japan further categorize shincha for the very first picking into ichibantori, obashiri, and hashiri (the last two are different readings of the same characters). More confusion regarding the shincha name comes from the production of “Japanese-style” teas from South America. You’ll often find shincha from these regions in October and November and since shincha is not a protected, region-specific term (like Japanese tea as opposed to “Japanese-style” tea) it’s used to label these teas as well.
In terms of the character and flavor profiles, you’ll hear a lot of comparisons between sencha and shincha ranging from lighter to much stronger, more astringent to more mellow, and best in the first brew to easier to drink in the second. The truth is that shinchas vary according to terrior and production methods, just as senchas do. The biggest and most defining difference between shincha and sencha is that shinchas are picked at the very beginning of the season and are steamed, rolled, and dried to completion before being shipped out for immediate enjoyment. Senchas go through the same process, but the drying is halted before the very last step. In addition, shincha is stored in a rough form called “aracha” until it is sold at auction and is ready for packaging. Some retailers even prefer to conduct the final drying (called “shiage”) themselves.