Gyokuro is a high-end Japanese green tea which is shade-grown for at least the final three weeks before harvest. Dark netting or bamboo fencing is hung over the tea plants and the shading causes the plant, in this sunlight depleted environment, to struggle so it goes into overdrive and creates extra everything: caffeine, theanine, chlorophyll, etc. This means it has a dark green leaf (lots of chlorophyll) which gives it a distinctive pale bluey-green liquor. Gyokuro translates as Dew Pearls or Jade Dew and the jade reference is a good one for its colour.
Per The Story of Tea (p.183) the "extra boost of green chlorophyll pigment changes the natural balance of caffeine, sugars and flavanols in the leaf, creating the opportunity for the tea processors to coax added sweetness from the leaf. In addition, the absence of photosynthesis increases the presence of naturally occurring theanine (an amino acid that is believed to induce relaxation), which is the component of tea that is responsible for giving tea its vegetal taste. Usually photosynthesis reduces theanine and increases tannins."
And per The Tea Drinkers Handbook (p.199) Gyokuro "is made by a process introduced in 1835 at Uji" and the shading "increases the proportions of sugars, amino acids, and caffeine, decreases the amount of catechins and modifies the aromatic compounds of the leaf, which darkens in color."
Gyokuro's flavour, aroma and mouthfeel as result of all the shading is the wonderful trade-off for the extra caffeine. Myself I can't drink it after 4pm or I'm up all night.
|Gyokuro dry leaves showing the tea's distinctive dark|
bluey-green needled leaves. This is the very end of the
batch I bought so there's quite abit of dust here too.
Brewed at 75C for 1 minute.
The dry leaves are mostly a shiny dark green with flecks of bright green, and feature a lot of beautiful tightly twisted needles. As I peer closely at them a sweet, rich almost floral scent wafts up, a bit of rose even.
Gyokuro is very delicate -- the plant is stressed to begin with and the steaming, as usual, starts breaking down the leaf anyway. All to say it should be steeped at a low temperature. Some say as low as 60C. to 65C. I did this cup at 75C by bringing the water to a boil and pouring it off into two different creamer jugs (my own version of the yuzamashis in Japan) before pouring over the leaves. (Each pour drops the temp about 10C and I paused and, yes, double-checked with a thermometer, before pouring onto the leaves.) Another low-tech way to check for the correct temp is that if the cup is too hot on your fingers to comfortably pick up the water is too hot for Gyokuro.
|Gyokuro liquor -- a lovely, clear pale "jade" green.|
The liquor is a gorgeous pale blue-green and quite clear -- there are a few small flecks of green leaves in the brew. In the mouth it is soft and oily and round and smooth -- no astringency. Not to go too into left field here, but it's like the wonderful rich satiny oilyness of perfectly cooked salmon.
The flavours are sweet, buttery, lightly vegetal with a whiff of the ocean, and a nice tang at the back and sides of the tongue at the end.
Japan alone consumes more than it produces -- it's gone to China and other parts of Asia to make up the difference. As a result I understand very little of the really good stuff comes overseas. To my young-in-experience tongue this is a very nice tea, and I feel lucky that Sanko is nearby and caters to a knowledgeable Japanese clientele so that it's on offer. Imagining that there are even better examples of Gyokuro out there is truly something to look forward too.