What is the “first harvest” and why is it so important?

In the first week of May each year, there is a palpable energy in the tea growing regions of Japan. It is time for the annual first tea harvest, the busiest time for the entire tea industry. Farmers rush to harvest the tea within a short two week period. Manufacturers and retailers process the tea for sale to consumers who eagerly await the new year tea (Shincha tea).

What is so special about the first harvest?

The first harvest of tea in the year (also known as first flush) is usually the best quality. This is because the tea plants are full of vital compounds stored over the course of winter. When the new buds sprout in spring, these compounds and nutrients are concentrated in each of the new tea leaf buds. This is also why the first harvest tea leaves contain increased levels of beneficial amino acids like L-theanine.

This leads to tastier tea. Compared to tea plants harvested later in the year, first harvest tea leaves have a better amino acid profile, better color, and an overall sweeter taste. First harvest tea leaves made into sencha is called Shincha, and people drink it in Japan for good luck. The first harvest tea leaves are also made into high quality shaded teas like gyokuro, kabusecha and matcha.

Because of the short two-week window in which first harvest tea leaves must be picked, farmers are able to fetch high prices for them, and matcha tea made from such leaves cost more to produce. 

What about the second, third or fourth harvests?

After the first harvest is done, the tea can be harvested several more times in the year. In some tea estates in Kagoshima, one tea plant can be harvested up to five times a year (if the weather permits). These subsequent harvests will not be of the same quality as the first harvest but are no less important to the farmer.

These subsequent second, third or fourth harvests contribute to a large bulk of tea production in Japan. Depending on the quality, they will be sorted and made into different tea products ranging from regular loose-leaf tea to bottled tea and tea bags. Other types of Japanese green tea like genmaicha (green tea with toasted rice grains) and hojicha (roasted green tea) are normally produced from second or subsequent harvest leaves. These teas have their own distinctive taste chiefly due to how they are processed, and not from the way the tea plants are grown. So any nuanced variations in flavor are much less relevant. Third and fourth harvest tea leaves are typically used to make tasty genmaicha and hojicha. This also keeps them relatively affordable compared to matcha tea.

Should you only get matcha made from first harvest leaves?

Generally, good matcha is made from first harvest leaves. This is a clear indicator of quality. However, there is not always a need to fixate on whether a matcha is made from first harvest leaves or not.

Firstly, it depends on the matcha drinks you are going to prepare.. If you intend to use matcha as an ingredient in a smoothie or as a latte, then the question of when the leaves are harvested should matter less because the addition of milk and sugar overpowers subtle flavors in the matcha.. On the other hand, if you intend to drink matcha as a form of tea and enjoy experiencing the nuanced flavors that come with good quality matcha, we will encourage matcha blends that use first harvest leaves.

However, the above also really depends on the individual blend. While it is true that first harvest leaves contribute to better tasting matcha, the reverse may not necessarily hold true – not all good matcha use only first harvest leaves. The “first harvest” label is a good indicator of quality that should help you to make a purchasing decision when it comes to matcha blends you have never tried before.. But if you have tried and enjoy a specific blend of matcha, then listen to your taste buds. Whether the tea leaves are first harvest or not should not matter. This is because most matcha is made of tea leaves from different tea plants to achieve a unique tasting blend of matcha.

As a rule of thumb Naoki Matcha’s products labelled as “ceremonial” will be made from first harvest leaves. However, we are sure that you may have your own preferences among them. If some of your favorite blends do not specify which harvest it is from, do not worry. Enjoy the matcha as it is!

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