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Get to Know Gyokuro

tea-gyokuro-samovar-5-crdt carolyn fong
It’s a cool, misty morning above the banks of Japan’s Uji River, when, after weeks spent under cover, they’re ready. Harvesters arrive, woven baskets in tow, and lift the veil. Through a soft filter of early morning light, they sit—precious young tea buds destined for gyokuro. Translating to “jade dew,” this jewel-toned green tea is the most highly prized of all Japanese teas, and once you become acquainted, you’ll quickly understand why.

But isn’t all tea the same? Well, yes and no. Horticulturally speaking, all teas originate with the same shrub species—camellia sinensis—but just as the wine grape boasts thousands of varieties, so, too, does the humble tea plant. Traditionally, gyokuro comes from yabukita, a cultivar first bred in the early 20th century and renowned for its cold-weather hardiness and inherent sweetness—it’s currently the most widely planted tea cultivar in Japan. But for gyokuro, it’s less about from what it’s made, and more about how it’s made that gives the tea its air of wild mystique.

Going Undercover

“What really makes gyokuro so different from other teas is its remarkable shade-growing process,” says Linda Villano, owner and co-founder of online tea retailer SerendipiTea. In early spring, when warming weather stimulates the plant to send up a flush of new growth, tent-like abodes are constructed to shade the shrubs from the sun. For the traditional tana covering, low, sturdy bamboo structures are erected around the plot of plants destined for gyokuro. Tatami mats are laid over these bamboo frames and straw is spread out over the roof. Farmers wanting a less involved, but still effective means of shading opt for the simpler jikagise method in which cloche-like canopies cloak individual plants or rows. Regardless of covering, the goal of each is the same: By holding the sun’s light at bay (up to 90 percent), the tea plant’s photosynthesis is inhibited. The plants react by budding thin, delicate green tea leaves as they work to capture sunlight, and it’s these tender leaves that are harvested for gyokuro.

Why shade? Giving the tea only a sliver of light changes the chemical makeup of the leaf. With limited access to the sun, photosynthesis quiets, which in turn spikes the plant’s chlorophyll production (chlorophyll is the green pigment responsible for gyokuro’s trademark hue) in an attempt to try and keep growth on track. With the drop in photosynthesis and with chlorophyll levels on the rise, the plant experiences a bump of amino acids, sugars and flavanols that all lend to the overall taste—and effects—of the finished tea.

“It has an extreme umami savory flavor, liked baked Japanese sweet potato, and a rich, briny seaweed quality. There is nothing else like it.”

The lack of photosynthesis translates to less astringent tea tannins, as well as an increase of theanine, an amino acid thought to induce relaxation despite the presence of caffeine. “Theanine is kind of like the counterbalance to caffeine,” says Villano. “Gyokuro is one tea you’re going to feel and taste that in a real, marked way.”

Jesse Jacobs of Samovar Tea.

Jesse Jacobs, founder of San Francisco’s Samovar Tea, calls it the “alert-relaxation zone,” which he says is part of the tea’s allure. But theanine is responsible for more than just good vibes—it lends the leaf a vegetal-like sweetness laced with a distinctive umami taste. “For the person who likes savory, classic Japanese green-tea notes, gyokuro is like that, but tenfold,” says Jacobs. “It has an extreme umami savory flavor, liked baked Japanese sweet potato, and a rich, briny seaweed quality. There is nothing else like it.”
For Samovar, carrying the exclusive Japanese green was an easy decision. “Customers kept requesting something new, so we needed a tea that was premium but also different,” says Jacobs. “I wanted to make something rare, unusual and special available to the public.”

Funny thing is, it’s not always love at first sip. “For everyone who tastes it, about a third of them aren’t fans at first because it’s so unique, with such a mushroom-like umami,” says Jacobs. “But without a doubt, everyone’s eyes grow wide, they pause, and then comes the ‘wow.’ ”

Another big wow? The price tag. Jacobs says it’s not uncommon to see award-winning lots of gyokuro going for $10,000 per kilo. “It blows people’s minds that there’s tea that expensive,” he says. “Yet for the cost of a fancy glass of wine, you get to taste what’s feasibly the world’s best tea.”

Hey, Buddy

Back in the tea fields of Uji, spring’s leaves have only just begun their journey. Thanks to time spent in the shade, the plant’s downy young leaves are plump with moisture and ready for hand harvesting—for exclusive gyokuro, only the newly sprouted buds and a few tender young leaves are plucked from the plant. After a quick steam—this locks in natural enzymes and the jewel-toned emerald hue, while also helping to minimize oxidation—the leaves are then sorted, destemmed, dried and rolled into long, thin needles. The finished tea is then set aside for several weeks to mature—gyokuro is one of the few teas thought to develop deepened flavors with age—before finally heading off to market.

Ttea-gyokuro-samovar-vertical1-crdt carolyn fonghere’s much debate about which farms make the best gyokuro, and intense competitions are held annually to crown precious winning lots. Uji, just south of Kyoto, is the oldest growing region for gyokuro, though the tea itself is hardly ancient by tea standards. In 1835, a tea baron traveled to Uji to study tensha (ground tea) production. It was there that he observed local tea farmers using straw umbrellas to shade the plants in hopes of keeping frost at bay. In his attempts to replicate the farmers’ technique, a new tea emerged, and after several years of refinement gyokuro was born. Outside Uji, gyokuro from Yame and Kagoshima, both on Japan’s southern Kyushu island, are also highly regarded.

Perhaps it’s not unexpected that gyokuro is among the most adored of all Japanese teas. And to sip and savor one is an experience like no other. “Gyokuro is like the Ferrari of the tea world,” says Jacobs.

At Samovar’s location at Yerba Buena Gardens in downtown San Francisco, a pot of gyokuro evolves with each steeping. “Our initial infusion is done in cold spring water,” Jacobs says. “We only saturate the leaves, so when you look at the tea you think there’s no water in there.” This creates a hyper-concentrated first infusion of about a teaspoon of liquid. “People see it and react in disbelief, but once they taste it, they become silent,” he says. “It’s like a [York] Peppermint Pattie commercial kind of experience.”

Water is warmed for sequential infusions, but perhaps the biggest surprise comes after the tea is finished. “At the very end, we’ll serve the spent leaves over a bed of rice with warm yuzu-soy sauce,” Jacobs says. “It’s a great way to be able to taste the verdant, spinach-like characteristics of the leaves.”

 “Gyokuro is like the Ferrari of the tea world,” says Jacobs.

Not all gyokuro is consumed with the same formality. Four blocks from New York City’s Grand Central Station, commuters can order a cup to go at Ippodo Tea, an American outpost of the venerable Kyoto tea shop. Regulars at Intelligentsia’s shops in Chicago, New York and L.A. (or online) can pick up a box of Gyokuro Reserve, and in Portland, Oregon, people casually converse over pots of Hon Gyokuro at the Tao of Tea.

In Steep

tea-gyokuro-samovar-vertical-crdt carolyn fongUnlike other green teas that can handle heat, the delicate nature of gyokuro demands a gentler touch when preparing. “The temperature should be even lower than what you’d use for a sencha or genmaicha,” Villano says, recommending 140 degrees F or lower. Use two full teaspoons of tea leaves per pot. A side-handled kyushu teapot is commonly used, but isn’t necessary—just be sure that whatever vessel you steep the tea in allows ample room for the leaves to unfurl.

The leaves should last for numerous infusions—let the first one steep for a full minute; the second infusion needs only 30 seconds since the leaves are already open, and you can bump any additional infusions back to one minute or longer. “You can sit with a pot of these leaves and keep refreshing, refreshing, refreshing, and you’re going to get a really wonderful, different cup each time.” Villano says.

She also suggests experimenting with warmer or cooler water until you find your own sweet spot. “It’s not an everyday cuppa,” notes Villano. “But treated as the extraordinary leaf it is, gyokuro really is the most precious of all the Japanese teas.”

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