Gyokuro: a Flight and Study of Terroir
Gyokuro (“jade dew”) is a prestigious and rare shade-grown green tea from Japan that represents less than 0.3% of Japanese green tea production. In the 19th century, a tea merchant by the name of Yamamoto Kahei encouraged Uji tea farmers in the Kyoto Prefecture to shade their tea bushes in a similar style to the matcha farmers to yield a deep emerald color, rich taste, and high caffeine. Matched with a new way of drying to retain the green color resulted in a new shade grown tea, Kahei’s “new tea style” came to fruition in 1841.
Gyokuro is produced using select tea bush cultivars grown with a specialized shading technique that is applied for about 20-30 days prior to harvest. The shading of the tea plants restricts the sunlight by up to 70-80%. The plants respond by developing very tender, deep green leaves as they try to capture the sunlight. Shade-grown plants develop higher concentrations of chlorophyll and L-theanine amino acid, known for its umami taste and promotion of calm focus. The tea plants also develop less catechin (tea tannin), resulting in a smooth and almost oceanic cup of jade dewdrops.
From the 2020 harvest, as well as select vintage blends from the past decade, we are offering 6 gyokuro teas from premier producers in Japan. Our selections highlight 3 significant growing regions, each with a different nuance due to terroir, processing, specialized shading, and unique fertilization.
This year we selected two teas from the Yame region: one from Hoshino and one from Koga. Yame teas are said to be reminiscent of refreshing and invigorating mountain forestry air. Yame has unique soil content, as the region was formerly under water. This lends a natural salinity to the teas and greatly shapes the taste of terroir you experience in Yame teas.
In our selection from Koga, we taste the fresh mountain character as well as spring dew, oceanic salinity and savory sweet umami with notes of evergreen and water chestnut. These aromatic points provide a lovely contrast to the medium level of umami depth. This tea is more clear and fresh with slight briskness and mountain character when compared to other gyokuro selections. Hoshino Gyokuro has a specialized hika roast applied that brings out added complexity and tasting notes of dark chocolate, toasted hazelnut, sweet hijiki and deep umami. The elegant bitter-sweetness and aromatic points of this tea contrast with rich umami to create a truly dynamic flavor profile that evolves through the brewing practice.
We selected gyokuro from two producers in the Okabe region: Tohei-san and Maejima-san. Each teamaker offers an expression of the classic Okabe style, which emphasizes a unique mountain cleanness balanced with umami depth. The tea from this region is not overly rich and is very smooth.
Tohei-san’s Gyokuro as a slight peak of brisk mountain freshness and long-lasting umami, with a slight tang of preserved kombu and rich umami with oceanic notes of sea kelp and blue-green algae. Tohei-san cultivates gyokuro according to the traditional tana method of shading tea bushes with woven straw-thatch mats, which he weaves himself. They are layered atop a frame so the mats do not directly touch the bushes. This technique is falling out of favor, often being replaced by black plastic mats. Tohei-san shades his tea bushes for approximately 20 days prior to harvest. It is more time-consuming than modern methods, but worth the extra effort.
Maejima-San uses straw thatch to create special shades for his gyokuro, which gives the tea its deep depth, high levels of amino acids and low levels of catechins. Our Maejima-San Gyokuro was exhibited at the National Tea Competition in Japan. This tea has an exquisite leaf shape and appearance with a deep blue-green hue and clear yet flavorful infusion. The oceanic tasting notes are balanced with minerality of fleur de sel and rich umami savory taste. This tea has a substantial flavor reminiscent of exotic mushroom consommé and bonito dashi.
The final selections come from Uji, and tea from this region tends to emphasize the deep, savory and sweet flavors, especially the richness of umami taste with savory and sweet flavors akin to kombu, snap pea and mushroom-dashi. They make a welcome contrast to the mountain freshness of Okabe teas and the subtle pine fragrance and refreshing bittersweetness of Yame teas. Uji teas are noted for their rich taste, similar to dashi, which would be referred to as norikaori in Japan. The soil has higher amounts of dimethyl sulfide (DMS), which translates into this savory taste and smell.
The premier grade of gyokuro comes from one of our farm partners in Uji who creates vintage blends for a gyokuro tea contest held annually in Kyoto. Our farm partners in Uji are also a 5th generation Gyokuro and matcha tea producing family. The aged teas lend mellow richness that balance with the fresh points of new vintages Shuppin translates as “competition grade.” Vintage blends are released each year at the outset of Autumn. The focal energy of this 2020 edition carries a strong tea buzz and satisfying flavor. The aged teas lend mellow richness that balances with the fresh points of new vintages. Uji Shuppin features deep and resonating flavors of umami with the archetypical and classic Uji aroma of maturing vintages.
The Homare grade contains vintage ranges from 2009–2020 blended to highlight the classic, deep and mellow taste of Uji tea. Homare is the entry point to super premium grades of traditional Uji Gyokuro. The Homare blend has notes of kombu and nettle with a sweet and rich umami dashi taste.
Hohin Multiple Infusion Method
- Begin with 7g leaf per hohin.
- Boil and cool water to 160-170 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Preheat the brewing and drinking vessels.
- Add gyokuro to brewing vessel.
- Add enough water to cover the leaves by 1-2mm (a ratio of 1:1.1 leaf to water).
- Leave the lid off while brewing and set aside on a plate, not the counter.
- Wait till the infused leaf rises to surface of the water then decant (sometimes you will also see bubbles begin to rise and pop).
- Place lid back on hohin and decant into cups, a little at a time, moving back and forth between the cups to serve.
- Repeat, adding water in the same ratio 1:1.1.
- Enjoy as individual or stacked infusions.