Bancha in general is considered as the regular house tea, available in a standard Japanese household. This tea lends itself to consumption at any given time of day and may be prepared in larger volumes at once, for batch that lasts the whole day. However, when mentioning bancha to a Japanese person, depending on the region they grew up, the word “bancha” may have a different connotation.
What is called bancha In the Shizuoka and Tokyo region, is called Kawayanagi (川柳) or Aoyanagi (青柳) in Osaka and Kyoto. And the word bancha in this region refers to Kyo-bancha, which is a tea roasted on a coal fire, with a rather smokey aroma. Then again, In northern Japan in Hokkaido for example, bancha is used to refer to what in other regions is called Hōjicha, the mainstream roasted Japanese tea. This even extends to the scale that most rural areas in Japan have their own local bancha style and thus use the word for only that particular tea.
Originally, the word bancha in Japanese is said to derive from the word bangai-cha (番外茶). The character ban (番) refers to the optimal harvesting time of Japanese green tea, of which there usually are two to three and sometimes four in a year. The first harvest is conducted in Spring, which is also when that year’s shincha or first flush new tea is harvested. The second in summer and possibly a third in Autumn. The character gai (外) means outside, and in collocation, the word bangai-cha means “tea which is harvested outside of the main harvesting seasons”.
Regardless if the tea is roasted, fermented, withered, consumed as cheap sencha, or boiled together with other ingredients; bancha is a tea that is produced from leaf that isn’t suitable for the production of what is considered the higher grade, quality tea that Japan so wishes to offer. Generally speaking, this leaf can be obtained during three stages in between the harvests.
- Late growers.
These are the new buds and leaves that have sprouted after the first harvest. These leaves have sprouted too late and can’t be used as leaf from the first flush harvest. In certain cases, bancha is written as (晩茶) in Japanese, in which case it’s meaning refers to the lateness of the leaf harvested. Leaves that are harvested later, are generally coarser and larger than the softer and smaller ones suitable for high class production.
- Autumn pruning.
This is the leaf that, when a third autumn harvest isn’t obtained, is left to grow. Before winter, in preparation for next year’s harvest, the trees are pruned and the leaf then gathered is used for the production of bancha, also called Shūtō Bancha (秋冬番茶) or “Autumn and Winter Bancha”. Other naming variations, depending on when the pruning is conducted, also exist.
This is the leaf that during the manufacturing and selection process of sencha or gyokuro was filtered out due to their large size or coarseness. This leaf is also referred to as atama (頭) or “heads” in Japanese.
In the end, we can say that the leaf used for bancha is generally selected by a set of standards which determine whether or not the leaf is suitable for the production of sencha, kabusecha and gyokuro; the main stream Japanese green tea variations.
Do keep in mind however, that wherever you go in Japan, the word bancha may have different connotations, and you may not always get what you were expecting to receive.