In the Southern region of Kyoto, new buds stretch out on the branches three to four times a year.
Tea is made from these new buds, which means that tea can be made four times per year, but the quality of these teas will change widely with the time of year.
This means that the same quality of tea can only be picked once a year.
Depending on the time when the tea is produced, it is called ___bancha, with the start of the word indicating the number of the harvest, with one (ichi) being the first harvest, and each of these harvests are unique.
- Ichibancha (first harvest)
For Sencha, this indicates tea produced from the end of April to May. For Gyokuro and Matcha, the new buds are covered from sunlight, which slows their growth, and moves the dates of production to late May to June.
Because the plants have been resting and absorbing nutrients since the previous fall, in Spring they move to put out buds all at once, which means they contain a lot of amino acid (responsible for the umami of the tea), and that this is the highest quality of tea across the whole year.
In our store, the Matcha and Gyokuro which we sell is made exclusively from Ichibancha.
Nibancha (second harvest)
This is tea produced in late June or later. Compared to Ichibancha, NIbancha contains fewer amino acids, and a relatively large amount of catechin.
Among Nibancha teas, those picked and processed at an early time contain some of the highest levels of catechin in any tea.
Nibancha is known for the slight red tint to it’s color and it’s strong tendency to be a bit bitter.
At our store, we have one tea with especially high levels of catechin for sale.
- Sanbancha (third harvest)
This is tea which is produced between the end of July and the beginning of August. As a rule, this tea isn’t picked in our area. If you pick Sanbancha, the quality and quantity of the next year’s Ichibancha will be heavily impacted. Sanbancha is typically used for bottled teas, and for use in the manufacturing of other products.
- Yonbancha (fourth harvest, or Akicha, fall tea)
This is tea which is picked around October. While the quality is the lowest of all, the plants absolutely have to be trimmed before winter. The leaves are thick, and they’re typically used to make Hojicha. They have received a lot of attention because they contain a wealth of polysaccharides, compounds which help to control blood sugar.
There is very little opportunity for the average consumer to try and compare these teas. That’s why you’ll need to just picture the differences between them. Because of my job, I do have the opportunity to try all of these different types, and I can say that there is definitely a difference in quality. It’s also true that learning to tell apart teas picked at these different times is a basic skill for tea merchants who are connoisseurs. That’s why this sort of problem often appears as a basic question in competitions for tea connoisseurs held by and for tea merchants. It is true that it becomes difficult to tell the difference between the very lowest and the second lowest rank of tea, but by picturing the development of the tea leaves, it is possible for pros to tell them apart with almost perfect accuracy.