Beguilingly savory and extra-delicate, Japanese gyokuro is a green tea worthy of careful exploration. The great care that goes into gyokuro production comes with a high price point—but will reward you with a deep and unique set of savory flavors that live up to the tea's esteem.
Differentiating gyokuro from other Japanese green teas are its growing and processing methods. Though Gyokuro does not refer to one specific growing region (and can be grown across a handful of suitable locations), it does require a specific way of shading the tea plants as they mature, generally a process of three to even six weeks of shading before harvest. Limiting the sunlight given to a tea plant stimulates intense chemical reactions within the plant, increasing theanine and amino acids, and deepening the leaves to a rich, chlorophyll-heavy green, and directly affects the distinct and complex flavors in the cup.
To shade tea for gyokuro production, plants are shielded from sunlight by canopies erected directly overhead during their final days of growing. Depending on the farmer's particular method, the amount of light coming from above can be adjusted through the careful placement of reeds and straw overhead, which themselves add nutrients to the tea's soil when rain falls through the shading structure. As the darkened plant is deprived of the ability to easily photosynthesize, it draws more nutrients—particularly nitrogen—from the soil which in turn causes the plant to produce more amino acids, which lead to the intense umami character that gyokuro is known for.
"Foie gras is actually the most apt comparison to gyokuro production," says Doug Palas, Tea Buyer for Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea in Chicago, who equates the idea of starving the plant of light to causing almost a force-feeding of nitrogen.
Fine gyokuro is then hand-picked after the appropriate shading process, and then processed by steaming, rolling, drying, and firing. It is then given another special last step of aging, which involves storing the tea for as little as three months, but generally several more months, fixing the amino acid content within the tea and increasing shelf life.
To brew gyokuro, you will want good quality water and a small vessel capable of maintaining a consistent heat temperature, as you will already be brewing the tea at a very low temperature. A thick-walled ho-hin pot can provide this, or a small-sized kyusu. We tried Rishi Tea's custom-designed gyokuro pot—a mini-kyusu that looks like it belongs in your dolly's tea set, it's specifically designed to hold just the right amount of tea and water to make brewing and tasting in just the right proportions easy. It also has a mesh screen that wraps completely around the inside (rather than just at the spout), making the temperatures more consistent in all parts of the pot.
How to Brew Gyokuro
- Heat your water to 155° F.
- Measure out between 3-4 grams of tea on a scale, and place in your pot.
- Fill your pot with about 2 ounces of the heated water (if you're using the special tiny Rishi pot, this will just fill the pot perfectly to the top.)
- Infuse the gyokuro for 45 seconds and immediately begin to pour off smoothly and evenly. Decanting swiftly ensures the variables of time and temperature remain more under your control, which makes your brewing process more reliable.
For subsequent infusions, you may wish to maintain a visual ratio of tea leaves (which will be expanding as they steep) to water, increasing the amount of water slightly with each repeated infusion to keep pace with the increasing leaf surface area, or elongating the time of infusions slightly. Oversteeping will result in more bitter and astringent cups, so you'll know by taste what the parameters are that work best for you.
Gyokuro drinkers—once they overcome the initial shock—will find a cup rich in mouthfeel, with delicate brothy notes and lingering savory finish. (Seaweed is a regular flavor comparison, if that sounds like something you want to drink. And you do!)