Tea Leaf Picking (and the 3 quality determiners)

Learn about the 3 aspects of tea picking that determines the quality of Japanese tea.

This article was last modified December 19th, 2021. by Yuki

Tea Leaf Picking and the 3 Keys to Quality Tea

Why is there such a large variation of taste in Japanese green tea? The Sencha and Bancha are definitely different. But even looking at Sencha, there is a vast array of differences in quality. One of the reasons for this is the differences in harvesting methods.

The harvesting method – when and how the tea leaves are picked - has huge implications to the quality and taste of Japanese green tea. For the tea farms, it’s a battle between quality and quantity. If you pick for high-quality tea, you will get less volume. If you reduce the quality, you’ll get more.

There are three main factors that have significant effects, and while most of the time you won’t be able to tell these factors from looking at the packages, it’s always worth knowing how it works.

new tea leaves

The Shincha or the Ichibancha

The first factor is the harvesting sessions of the leaf.

A tea plantation will go through multiple harvesting sessions throughout the year. This starts in late Spring, and will continue until Autumn. The tea leaves coming from the first harvesting session is the highest in nutrients, hence the highest in quality. These leaves are called the Shincha or the Ichibancha. The Nibancha and Sanbancha, or the leaves coming from the second and third harvesting sessions, follows in quality.

If you are looking for high-quality Japanese green tea, the tea coming from the first harvesting session is basically a must. Your Gyokuro or High-grade Sencha would most likely be this. You can even find Houjicha or Genmaicha that use these as well. Many times, these teas will have labels on them indicating that they are either an “Ichibancha” or a “Shincha”.

While this is a huge indicator of the quality of tea – there’s actually more factors that effect the grade of the tea.

Harvest Session Name of tea Start of Harvest

1st Harvest

Ichibancha or Shincha

From early April

2nd Harvest


From early June

3rd Harvest


From early July

4th Harvest


From Late September

3rd Harvest, but conducted late Autumn

Akibancha or Shuto-Bancha

From late September

Table: Harvesting Seasons of Japanese tea and how they would be called

harvesting in a Japanese tea farm

Picking timing

The timing that the leaves are picked is an extremely important factor as well. The younger leaves have higher quality nutrients and taste. If the leaves become too mature and big – the taste will start to drop. The tea farms will definitely start to harvest the leaves before this happens. However, if the leaves are too young, the quantity of the leaves you are producing as a tea plantation will end up being much less.

A usual tea tree would have about five to six leaves stemming out of one bud. As the bud grows, the leaves will grow and open. If the harvesting happens after all the leaves are completely mature and opened up, the quality will become lower. It is said that the ideal timing for plucking is when the leaves are about 50% - 70% open.

When the leaves are plucked at 30%, this is called early plucking, or Hayazumi. It’s a special method reserved for high-grade Japanese green tea such as High-grade Sencha or Gyokuro.

Two-leaves picking, Three-leaves picking, or Normal picking

“Up to how many leaves to pluck” is also important as well. Since the younger leaves of the tea tree are much higher in nutrients, some of the highest-quality tea will only make use of the 2 youngest leaves and will not use the rest.

During harvesting, they will only pluck the bud and two leaves counting from the bud.

This is called “Two Leaves Plucking” (Isshin-Niyou / Niyou-Zumi). This is not suited for mass production as it significantly reduces the amount of tea that can be manufactured – hence it will become expensive.

Normal grade tea is called “Normal Plucking” (Futsu-Zumi / Isshin-Goyou). This method will pick the bud and four to five of the leaves from the plant.

Two leaves plucking (Isshin-Niyou or Niyou-Zumi)

Used for the highest quality Sencha or Gyokuro. This method picks the bud and 2 additional leaves from the bud only. Extremely premium as the amount of leaves will become limited.

Three leaves plucking (Isshin-Sanyou or Sanyou-Zumi)

Also used for high grade Japanese tea, the quality will reduce compared to Two Leaves Plucking while the volume will increase. This method picks the bud and 3 additional leaves from the bud only.

Normal plucking (Futsu-Zumi / Isshin-Goyou)

Used for normal grade Japanese tea, this method picks the bud and up to 5 additional leaves from the bud. “Futsu” means normal, and indicates that this is the common methodology for Japanese Tea.


While not part of the plucking of the leaves - tea leaves for tea such as Gyokuro, Kabuse-cha, and Matcha will be shaded from the sun before harvesting. This maximizes the amino acids that bring out the umami taste while reducing the Catechin which is responsible for the astringency from developing, resulting in a high-grade tea.

This methodology also keeps the tea leaves from growing large, so again it becomes a battle between quality and quantity for the tea plantations.


Are all loose leaf tea Ichibancha?

Not necessarily. While high-end loose leaf teas are dominated by Ichibancha, several loose leaf teas are actually made from Nibancha and later as well.

Even for the high-quality tea such as Sencha, you may commonly find a blend of Ichibancha and Nibancha.

Author Yuki


Yuki is the Editor-in-Chief AND Community Manager at Tealife. He bleeds Japanese Tea and loves being a part of the Japanese Tea journey of others. Writes, does events, conducts tasting sessions, drinks, drinks and drinks tea! Easily accessible - hit him up on whatsapp (+65) 85882980.