We travel the world uncovering how different cultures prep and drink their favorite teas. The far East is where we travel and enter the world of Japanese tea – Sencha!
Has anyone heard of Senchado? An exotic word that literally means ‘the way of the Sencha’. Sencha is a type of steamed Japanese green tea that has specific brewing techniques and water temperature.
“Senchado” refers to the way of enjoying Japanese green tea – kind of like the British (check our blog) where Afternoon tea differs from High Tea.
Now when Sencha is produced, the tea leaves can only be harvested for a short time each spring. Shortly after plucking, leaves are steamed to prevent oxidation (rather than fired, as is often the case for Chinese green teas), and then they are rolled and dried until they take on the long, thin shape. Next comes the sieving and cutting process, at which point the cut leaves are sorted according to color and shape.
Sencha teas tend to be more vegetal and saltier than Chinese green teas, with a very pleasant umami flavor. Sencha (is Japan’s most popular tea. About 80% of all tea produced in Japan is sencha.
The ‘sen’ part comes from the verb ‘senjiru,’ which means ‘to simmer or brew’. This is because it was one of the first infused or brewed teas in Japan, as opposed to matcha, which was powdered and then whisked with water.
So, what exactly is Senchado?
Chado/Sado or Cha no yu (can also be referred to as Chaji or Chakai), refers to the traditional Japanese matcha tea ceremony and is related to matcha (powdered green tea).
But did you know of us that Senchado (the way of sencha) was a thing as much as Chado?
Although now Sencha is drunk in much more casual settings, most commonly in the comforts of one’s home or perhaps at a sushi restaurant, it started off as a more or less a ceremony quite similar to gong fu cha.
During the Kamakura period (1185 -1333) Japanese powdered green tea (matcha) became popularized in many different ways. It was the only tea drunk up until the 17th century until Sencha slowly started making its way in.
Sencha is said to have introduced by a Chinese Buddhist monk named Ingen-Ryuki around mid-17th century. By that time, Chado was already popular among the samurai warriors and was considered to be all about discipline, confinement and formality.
Obviously, this doesn’t evoke feelings of calm or being at peace. A lot of people disliked to the formal Chado ceremony, which was well liked by the fierce Samurai warriors, Sencha crept its way into becoming fashionable - it was embraced by the literary and intellectual classes. A brawn versus brain clash over tea.
The manner in Senchado is a bit different from that in Chado. For examples, two cups of tea are usually served by a tea master. More importantly, you can converse with the tea master unlike the more formal Sado ceremony. With the first steeped tea, you enjoy the aroma and umami taste. Then, sweets are eaten. After that, another cup is served, which leaves a slightly bitter but pleasant taste, and surprisingly refreshes the mouth.
In the Chado ceremony, a bowl of tea is served after eating sweets.
Although the Senchado tea ceremony is fairly simple, it is actually a subtle choreography of body movements and hand motions as the tea is served by a tea master. There aren’t any manuals and is more casual – it is said, the tradition of Senchado is passed orally down through generations of teacher to students.
The Senchado ceremony has a simple structure that goes something like this:
- Guests enter and are taken to a sitting room. They are often served a drink while sitting around while they wait for the tea ceremony to begin.
- Guests then enter the ceremony room and take their seats.
- The seat on the left of the tea master is considered the honored position and usually is served first.
- Tea master or the host enters prepares the first infusion and this is served to the group.
- A sweet is passed around, normally 'higashi,’ a dry sweet made of sugar and flour.
- Tea master preps and serves the second infusion.
- The host will ask if the guests would like any more.
- The main guest will politely decline, and the ceremony is over. If the guest says, yes – well, they’re not supposed to. The question is a formality so the ceremony can end.
Even handling the teacup has its own subtleties. When the teacup is placed on the tray in front of a person, your right hand should pick the cup and place it into the left hand. You then wrap the right hand around it to bring the teacup up to drink with hands crossed in front.
Implements used for brewing Sencha:
Kyusu teapot: Kyusu pots are the traditional option for brewing Sencha. Its round shape allows enough room for leaves to expand.
Kyusu leaf holder: The leaf holder can be used to hold discarded tea leaves and to receive the water used for waking up the tea leaves.
Water cooler (Yuzamashi): The water cooler is used to hold the cool water that wakes up the leaves. It is also used as a pitcher for the tea once it has finished steeping.
Tea caddy/tin: An airtight container is ideal for storing loose leaf tea.
Bamboo scoop: Useful for scooping small leaf teas.
The Variety of Sencha Teas
Fukamushi: also called “Deep steamed” Sencha, is best known for a creamy, buttery texture and beautiful green color. In the ‘Fukamushi Senchas’ you get some broken, dusty particles of tea leaves along with larger pieces, which is a natural byproduct of the deep steaming process. This is not an indicator of low quality, and rather contributes to a desirable creaminess of the brew.
Asamushi: also called “Light steamed” Sencha is wonderful. The leaves are not broken down as much it is done in the Fukamushi process. This results in leaves being a bit larger - producing a very clean, crisp and clear brew.
Kabuse: is a Sencha that is grown for a week longer before plucking, which aids in the production of chlorophyll, but it increases both caffeine and altheinine (an amino acid that has a calming effect). This adds sweetness and reduces acidity in the tea, making for a very desirable smooth, sweet and vegetal tea.
Other Related Teas:
Gyokuro: this tea has a similar flavor profile to Sencha, like the umami flavor characteristics of Japanese green teas. Even so, Gyokuro is its own category and can benefit from different brewing methods, such as using a lower water temperature (in fact, gyokuro tastes great when cold-brewed, or even somewhat lukewarm with temperatures as low as 125-150°F)
Tamaryokucha: this tea is produced using similar methods to Sencha and is finished dried in a tumbler. This gives the leaf a curled, wavy shape - rather than the straight and needle-like shape of Sencha leaves but is a tea that can be brewed like Sencha.
And that is how it’s done the Sencha Do way, try it at home. It’s a soothing, calming way of drinking this gorgeous tea blend and there is the whole “Zen” aspect to love!