What is Gyokuro?
Gyokuro is considered to be the highest quality green tea in Japan. This super flavorful green tea was once reserved for the emperor, but now is enjoyed by tea connoisseurs all across the world. To understand this special tea, we visited a farmer that has been producing it for decades.
When we visited the farm of Mr. Sakamoto, we got a chance to sit down and taste a few of his special Gyokuro teas. These teas are incredibly unique for a few different reasons. First, they have these incredibly dark, thinly rolled needle shaped tea leaves. These leaves are so tightly rolled, they need a full two minutes to open up and release their flavor into the water. The other aspect that makes Gyokuro unique is its powerful sweet and savory flavor. The savory or “umami” flavor is greatly celebrated in Japanese cuisine. Similar to a hearty miso soup, this tea also develops a seaweed flavor as well. Some describe this flavor as savory, salty and even as a light ocean breeze. The unique sweet and savory flavors comes from the high concentration of amino acids in the tea.
The amino acid l-theanine can create a beautiful sweet and savory flavor in a green tea. The difference between dry and bitter green teas and sweet and smooth green teas is the concentration of l-theanine. To maintain a higher level of l-theanine in the tea plant, the tea plant is shaded prior to the harvest. When the tea leaves are exposed to sunlight, they start converting l-theanine into catechins, the bitter components of tea. These bitter flavors have to be minimized with Gyokuro, so the plant is cut off from sunlight for at least 3 weeks leading up to the harvest. During this time the tea plant also produces more chlorophyll, which turns the tea leaves from a yellowish green into a dark jade green.
After being shaded for 3 weeks, the Gyokuro tea is ready to be harvested. To make Gyokuro, only the top leaves are used. These top leaves are the youngest and more tender, yielding a lighter and sweeter flavor, with less bitterness and astringency. The young sprouts are also the highest in nutrients and caffeine giving them advantages beyond simply their flavor. Of all green teas, Gyokuro is perhaps the highest in caffeine because of how long it has been shaded. Gyokuro is also the highest in l-theanine, which induces a more calming effect on the brain. This works in synergy with the caffeine, to create a relaxed but alert feeling that many people enjoy for long periods of work, study or meditation. Rather than getting a crash or jitters after drinking it, Gyokuro can give you long lasting energy throughout the day.
Organic Gyokuro is far less common than non-organic Gyokuro. The reason for this is that the farmer needs to keep the tea plant alive for 3 weeks without much sunlight. Most tea farmers accomplish this with a heavier use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. While this may lead to a short term improvement in growth, it can degrade the health of the soil and the ecosystem over time. Luckily, organic Gyokuro farmers like Mr. Sakamoto are able to grow incredible quality green tea, without the use of chemicals! The organic Gyokuro from Mr. Sakamoto is healthy, great tasting and it’s produced using more sustainable methods.
Of course all this innovation around Gyokuro production took many years to develop. When green tea was first grown in Japan, there was very little known about it. To really learn more about the history of Japanese green tea, we took a trip to Uji, where gyokuro was first discovered.
In medieval Japan, the primary way to consume tea was in powdered form. Of course this powdered tea “matcha” is still popular today but in modern Japan, loose leaf tea is king. Sencha is by far the most common way to consume green tea in Japan, but the switch was made relatively recently. In 1738, a tea farmer by the name of Nagatani Soen in Ujitawara developed the steaming method. After tea leaves are picked, they can then be steamed in order to lock in their fresh vegetable flavors and prevent them from oxidizing into a black tea. With this steaming method, the tea leaves could be prepared without being ground into matcha. This gave rise to the preparation of tea in a teapot, rather than the bowl that had been commonly used in the tea ceremony. For this reason, Nagatani Soen is considered to be the father of Japanese green tea. His childhood home is now a popular tourist attraction, and there is even a nearby shrine built in his honor.
After loose leaf green tea became more common in Japan, many different farmers began experimenting with new methods of growing and production. Farmers used to cover the tea plants to protect them from the cold, but they soon learned that by cutting them off from sunlight, they actually became sweeter and smoother. Once these amino acid rich leaves were taken through the steaming process, a farmer by the name Yamamoto Kahei, noticed a green residue left by the tea leaves and decided to name the tea “Gyokuro” meaning “Jade dew”. People soon fell in love with this super sweet and flavorful green tea, and it even became the tea of choice for the emperor, who loved how the tea maintained and even improved its flavor with age. This monument in Ogura, Uji was built to commemorate the discovery of Gyokuro.
Once Gyokuro was discovered, people soon built specialized machines to produce this legendary tea. Producing Gyokuro can be quite a long, labor intensive process.
First the leaves are shaded for 3 weeks prior to harvest to improve their sweet and savory flavor. Then the top three leaves are harvested and immediately gathered up to be processed.
This pile of freshly picked tea leaves needs to be separated so that it can be processed evenly without overloading the conveyor belt.
Next the leaves need to be steamed. This is perhaps the most important step in the production of Japanese green tea. Once the leaves are picked, the enzymes in the leaf will naturally start to oxidize the tea, which will turn it into a black tea. In order to lock in these more grassy and vegetal notes that Japanese green tea is known for, these enzymes need to be deactivated with heat.
After the leaves have been steamed, they will then go through a few different stages of drying. In order for the leaves to infuse properly, they need to have an incredibly low moisture content, around 4-7%. This is accomplished through a series of small ovens that heat the tea leaves at a very low temperature so that the flavor is not affected but the leaves dry evenly. While the leaves are still pliable, they can be rolled into these characteristic needle shapes. These machines are important because they give Gyokuro its characteristic pine needle shape. These tightly rolled leaves protect a lot of the flavors until they are ready to be released by the water.
Once the leaves are dried completely, the Gyokuro is ready to be sold. When preparing this special green tea, it is important to use a very low temperature, around 60 degrees celsius, 140 degrees Fahrenheit, a smaller amount of water and a longer brewing time of 2 minutes. This creates a dense, powerful infusion. When enjoying Gyokuro, it is common to use an incredibly small cup. When enjoying Gyokuro, it is not just about the flavor, but the texture as well. A good Gyokuro is heavy on the palate, and you can really feel the weight of it gliding over your tongue. This tea is meant to be enjoyed in small sips so you can really savor each and every drop.