Shincha Season at Tea Master Part I: Yame
Greetings from Japan,
My name is Alex. I was the first employee at Tea Master Matcha Café & Green Tea Shop a few months after Daigoro San launched the store back in November 2016. I had visited the same storefront sometime around 2009 in pursuit of a green tea I’d tried at an old school sushi restaurant just south of Culver City. Daigoro San and I got along right away. For as many Friday nights as I could manage over the next few years, I helped play a small role in pointing fellow tea lovers and those who were just tea curious to what I considered then and still consider the best selection of Japanese teas in Los Angeles.
I was always enthusiastic about tea but during this time I developed a particular fascination and appreciation for shincha. That enthusiasm has since become something of an obsession and for the last two years I’ve made it a priority to visit one of my favorite tea regions—Yame in Fukuoka Prefecture on Japan’s Kyushu island—to bask in what has become my favorite time of year: shincha season.
But first, what is Shincha?
Shincha (新茶) — literally ‘new tea’ — is a broad term used in Japan to describe the first harvest tea of the season. Sometimes, the term ichibancha (一番茶) — literally ‘first tea’—is also used to describe shincha. Often—like most tea in Japan on the whole—these shincha tea leaves are processed into sencha (煎茶)—or steamed green tea. However, shincha leaves are also turned into matcha (抹茶, shade-grown green tea powder), gyokuro (玉露, umami-rich, shade-grown green tea) , kabusecha (かぶせ茶, lighter shade-grown tea) and kamairicha (釜炒り茶, pan-fried green tea).
For many tea lovers—especially those who love Japanese green tea specifically—shincha season is celebrated for many reasons. One reason is because of its taste. Like any plant that stays dormant during the winter, tea bushes store nutrients during the non-harvesting season. Think of it as a kind of reverse hibernation. When animals hibernate they slowly consume their stored-up food only to wake up in spring with empty stomachs. When plants hibernate, they absorb all the nutrients while they are resting—essentially generating more energy, flavor, and color—and then they explode to life with the first harvest of the year. For this reason, throughout the tea world, especially when it comes to green tea, first harvests are prized for their spectacular taste and nutrients.
The other important side of the shincha celebration is the farmers, producers, tea vendors and tea enthusiasts. Shincha season is at once the busiest and most exciting time of year for people in the Japanese tea industry. Not unlike Japan’s famed cherry-blossom—or sakura—season, the conditions for picking and producing shincha are condensed into a period of about one month. Weather and geography determine exactly when the clock begins ticking for a particular tea region but generally speaking—again, just like sakura—the shincha season in the further south regions like Kagoshima (Chiran) and Fukuoka (Yame) will begin earlier than those further north like Kyoto (Uji) or Shizuoka. Generally speaking shincha season in Japan stretches from the middle of April (when the earliest teas start to be plucked) to the end of June (when most of the shincha teas are available to the public).
Depending on the tea, the leaves need to be picked and processing needs to begin within a matter hours to achieve the standards of a producer. It’s an all-hands-on-deck time of year where farmers, seasonal workers, and even relatives or friends get tapped to pitch in. To visit a tea growing region during shincha season is to be immersed into an atmosphere buzzing with excitement, heaving with exhaustion, and giddy with anticipation.
The question everyone wants to know: what do the teas taste like this year?
To find out, let me take you on an adventure to the home of one of Tea Master’s most beloved tea producing partners: Hoshinseichaen (星野製茶園).
A Journey from Los Angeles to Yame
My first exposure to Yame tea came during that first visit to Tea Master. I had been drinking matcha nearly every day for years—and had made my way through some of the more well-known producers from Uji, Mie and Shizuoka. The night of that first visit, I was celebrating a special occasion and Daigoro San recommended I try his highest grade of matcha, which is especially made for koicha (or thick tea). The tea I got that night was Seiju and to say it blew my mind would be an understatement.
I had never tried a tea so pillowy soft. I had never imagined a tea could coat the mouth as gently or lightly as a bite of cotton candy at a carnival. I had never considered that a matcha could feel as powerful as a train and as soothing as a summer breeze at the same time. Seiju cracked open the world of Japanese teas for me to an extent where I pleaded with Daigoro San for a chance to help pass the tea onto others. It turned me into a tea evangelist and Tea Master was willing to give me a pulpit from which to preach every Friday night at the front desk.
Slowly I started to learn about all the things that made Yame —and more specifically Hoshino Mura—unique. The climate. The soil. The way the fog sits in the valley, limiting the amount of natural light in a way that clears the way for more umami in the finished tea. Between customers, I’d turn over my shoulder and geek out with Daigoro San over a detail about the duration of the plant coverage or the material used in the shading process. Yame was lesser known than regions like Uji but I discovered over the course of many trips to Japan that even some of Tokyo’s most reputable tea establishments like Sakurai and Higashiya were proud to serve Yame teas produced by Hoshinoseichaen. In essence, we were drinking some of the very best matcha you could find in Japan right in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles. This was all made possible because Hoshinoseichaen had been producing matcha for Daigoro San’s traditional tea ceremony school—Edosenke—for many years. There was something meaningful and substantive about the connection of Tea Master to this incredible producer was born out of chado.
Fast forward to last spring, May 2022, and I found myself paying a visit to Yame for the first time. As we drove up the road that leads from Yame City to Hoshino Mura, it was as if entering a tea dream. The light grew thin. A palpable moisture made the air heavy. We passed beautiful stone bridges that crisscrossed the crystalline waters of the Hoshi River. Rice terraces stacked like layers of a matcha-colored wedding cake along the walls of the valley. As night came, the sky grew dark, and one glance upward made it obvious why they named the town Star Village. As if to further prove the point there is a planetarium (called the Star Museum) next to the tea museum—or is it the other way around?—in town. In early June the told holds a festival here to celebrate shincha season. It's impossible to say what’s more captivating: Hoshino Mura the place or Hoshino Mura’s tea. The two have been intertwined since tea was first planted in Yame more than a half century ago in 1423.
The next day was sunnier with clear skies. I arrived at Hoshinoseichaen and was overwhelmed by the hospitality I received. I had chosen the busiest time of year to arrive and Yamaguchi San, Koga San, and Sakada San were generous with their time and their tea. We sipped the earliest harvest shinchas: Hatsutsumi, Hoshinoyu, and Satsuki and got to know each other. Like a fanboy meeting his favorite musician in their studio, I got the rare chance to confess my adoration for their work. To me Yamaguchi San in particular is a sort of Lionel Messi figure in the matcha world: not as storied as some of the older producers from Uji but arguably one of the best to ever do it.
Despite how busy it was, Yamaguchi San seemed downright thrilled that I chose that time to visit. He led us down to the fields were some of the prized leaves that were set to be processed into the competition-grade Gyokuro were being harvested. We showed up during—what else?—a tea break. Yamaguchi San introduced me to some of the folks picking tea like they were his friends because they were. This was one of the most precious harvests and he wasn’t trusting just anyone with the job. But the occasion wasn’t undone by the complications of the task at hand—selectively picking only the choicest green leaves and buds—in fact, it may have been enhanced by it. Jokes flew around as did water bottles with Hoshino tea bags thrown and shaken to make a sort of instant mizudashi (cold-brew).
Saying goodbye to the crew picking the leaves for Gyokuro, Yamaguchi San had three more places he wanted to take us. The first two were his pride and joy: the tencha factory, where the raw material for matcha is made, and the matcha milling factory, where the tencha becomes matcha. It’s hard to overstate how impressive these factories are—and to visit them in person is to witness a special kind of magic take place.
Each step of the process is handled with incredible attention to detail—from storing the freshly harvested leaves in refrigerated bins to keep them as fresh as possible to exact temperature and time parameters chosen to fire the leaves in the large oven-like conveyor belts—and I won’t make a fool of myself or inadvertently reveal any of the companies trade secrets by trying to explain the exactitude required at each step of the process (we’d be here all day—instead of just most of the day ;)).
What I will say about hoshinoseichaen’s tencha factory is that it’s where cutting-edge science and technology for which Japan’s factories have been famous for decades is applied to a substance that defines Japanese traditional culture like almost none other. To walk through the factory is to experience a tea leaf particle accelerator where orchestral-level masters are at work. It honors both the agricultural craft of the farmers who grew the leaves and the culinary craft of those who will serve the finished product. It’s sort of like bonsai meets robotics. It’s people using everything in their power to create the best tea possible.
The matcha factory—where the tencha leaves are ground by stone mortars—is a separate building featuring nearly 100 grinders, which grind at a speed of about one matcha jar per hour. During shincha season, the stone mortars are going a full 24 hours per day to make the company’s novel shincha matcha—which is much livelier in taste and effect than the higher grade matcha, which is typically rested for a number of months before being made.
The last production location we visited was the companies small—but impossibly fragrant—black tea factory. It’s a labor of love since the market for Japanese black tea is relatively small compared to the green tea market and it has been informed by Yamaguchi San’s trips to India to study that nation’s lauded black tea techniques. It’s shocking how different not just the process, but the fragrances can be, especially when you remember that this is the same leaf, just handled in a different way.
Last year’s visit was inspiring and eye-opening in equal measure. As I expressed my gratitude to Yamaguchi San and the whole Hoshinoseichaen team following the visit, I knew immediately that I wanted to come back in 2023 and that’s exactly what I did.
Going Back to Yame
This year, my arrival date was in late April but the drive up the canyon felt just as magical. The greenery around me felt just as vivid. In fact, this time the only main difference was that the sun was spectacularly bright. The weather was warmer this year. The teas were ready faster. Even though I arrived almost two weeks earlier than in 2022, the weather meant that the first shincha of the season Hatsutsumi was already ready—along with the second shincha, Hoshinoyu. Only a few days later, the shincha I’ve had the most of over the years—Satsuki—was ready as well.
Hatsusumi is light, sharp and clear. It’s energetic and lively. It’s a sunrise. It’s a small but pulsating spring waterfall. It rises from easy to intense. Hoshinoyu is mellower, easier, and softer. It’s a gentle mid-morning walk, a sigh in the breeze. It moves from intense to easy. Satsuki is thicker, fuller, and more even. It’s a daily drinker, something you can have before or after lunch. It moves less but still warms the heart. It’s a smooth stone of translucent jade under a stream. If these three shincha were dances Hatsumi would be a delicate ballet. Hoshinoyu would be a smooth foxtrot. Satsuki would be an energetic salsa.
I drank the Hatsusumi with Koda San and Sakada San, who were kind enough to take time out of their schedules once again to greet us, discuss the year’s harvest, and take us around to the factories and fields. The experience was similar but different than the year before, like watching a masterpiece of film again and noticing different things. For one, Hoshinoseichaen revamped their flagship store at their headquarters—replacing the more homely shop I saw in 2022 with a far larger, more modern store that could be billed as a must-visit for tea enthusiasts across the country.
This time the competition gyokuro tea picking had already finished the day before so instead I had the great fortune of being able to see the tencha factory production of the same matcha that made me fall in love with tea master in the first place: Seiju.
As I watched the matcha stones spin around in the factory this time around—with my in-laws and partner standing slack-jawed next to me—I thought of how lucky I was not just visit Hoshinomura, or to work with Daigoro San at Tea Master, but to be alive at time when I get to try to such an incredible piece of human, technological, and naturally made art. That’s when I realized that’s what the good people at Hoshinoseichaen are: they are tea artists—hard at work every day, every year, to make the most beautiful tea they can. Even now as I write this, I can’t help but be in awe of their work.
This Year’s Yame Shincha
For more technical dive into what goes into these shinchas Sakada San was kind enough to break down the cultivar blend and growing area for Hatsusumi. This earliest shincha combines teas grown both down in the central farms on the flatter land in Yame city as well as the mountain areas in Hoshino Village—the main cultivar used is Saemidori but Kirari-31, Tsuyuhikari and Yabukita are all featured. Saemidori is popular in growing regions in the south of Japan, where it’s warmer, and it tends to be ready for shincha faster than the most common cultivar, Yabukita. Discovering the right balance of these different cultivars is an involved process where quintessentially Yame flavors like sweetness and umami are prized alongside the refreshing experience of drinking sencha. The exact color of the brewed tea and the finished leaves can work as markers for how well the balance was achieved.
Other shinchas contain different blends. Some feature the same cultivar from different parts of Yame, others use two cultivars from the same area. Where single-origin or single-cultivar sencha is meant to reflect variance, the objective of blending is to create a somewhat familiar flavor for a given tea across the years. But the thing about shincha is that no matter how ‘close’ a tea can taste to the year before, it’s inexactness is part of what makes trying the new teas so exciting.
In that way, shincha is not just new tea—it’s now tea. To drink shincha allows us to taste where everything along the process is at right now—the weather, the plant, the farmer, the producer. It’s an intersectional tea where we can encounter everything that went into it very soon after that meeting happened. When we drink shincha this year, we can compare it to last year and in so doing not just experience two different years of tea but also two different years of ourselves. Just as we can never step into the same river twice, we can never visit this same intersection twice because the vehicles are always different and so are the views. It’s the moisture on a spiderweb on a particular sunrise by a hot spring. The gleam on the skin at the mackerel over a set meal. The buzz of a bee in particularly warm afternoon on a full stomach.
So often the world of tea is compared to the world of wine—and it’s easy to see how some teas follow the adage and get better with time (aged teas like pu’erh, white teas and many oolongs, for example)—but enjoying shincha season is a lot more like eating a freshly caught fish or a biting into a freshly picked peach or watching the sakura bloom. It’s all about the right here and right now.
So let’s enjoy the 2023 shinchas while we have them—the ones mentioned in this report are on sale on Tea Master’s shelves now— and let’s also remember Yamagata San, Koga San, Sakada San and all their fellow tea artists (farmers, producers, taste-testers) who make our own experiences with these special teas possible—because there will never be another batch exactly like this, just as there will never be a moment quite like this one.
- Written by Alex Dwyer (@adweezy), May 2023