On the occasion of their release on Thés du Japon of the 2017 selection of gyokuro, it is good to come back to this type of Japanese tea, whose name is ultra-known by every tea lover but often too misunderstood.
The biggest mistake is the one that makes the gyokuro as a superior Japanese tea, in short, to think that the sencha is the average grade Japanese green tea, and the gyokuro the superior grade quality. However, these two types of tea should not and cannot be compared this way. If the gyokuro could be distinguished by its mode of culture, it is still more by its mode of consumption that the gyokuro differs from the sencha. It is appreciated in a different way, by which I mean that its method of preparation makes it something that places it in a special field.
Buying a gyokuro rather than a sencha thinking to be sure to have a quality tea shows a misunderstanding of this kind of tea. Indeed, if the gyokuro is brew and approached in the same way as a sencha, the result will be very bad, not allowing to appreciate the very special characteristics and qualities of this type of tea very typically Japanese.
Even knowing how to approach it, the gyokuro may seem to be very difficult to access, a bit offensive, and this is not wrong. The gyokuro certainly possesses a palette of possibilities less wide than the sencha, and there is an effort, a first step to make to go towards him. However, once you become to get into it, it is a whole brand new universe that opens up, sensations that are not found in any other type of tea, Japanese or other. The idea of luxury tea, drunk in a very exceptional way, disappears, and one even ends up considering it for everyday use, as a possibility offered among all types of teas. For my part, I take a great pleasure, which I would never have imagined a few years ago.
It is difficult to define clearly what gyokuro is. Indeed, as with tencha (unmilled raw material for matcha), there is no clearly defined standard. Yet it is generally admit that it is a tea produced in shaded plantation. The shade must in principle be made under a shelf arbor (tana-gake), structure of 180-200cm high allowing shading with synthetic fibers or bamboo shade and straw. Shading with tunnel type or directly placed on the trees are in principle excluded.
When the second leaves sprout, shading begins, with the light cut off at 80-85%, and then after 10 days, a second layer (ni-ju-kake) filters 95% of the light, for another 10 days. Nevertheless, in many cases shading is longer, sometimes up to a month. Shading is also sometimes limited to only one layer.
In order to remain in a very strict definition, the tea-plants are natural shape bush formation (unsharpened, uncut) “shizen-shitate”, and consequently the harvest can only be manual, and a second harvest is excluded. Yet, more affordable, plantations under arbor but trimmed, with mechanical harvest, also give very good products, sufficiently typical.
It is definition could roughly be apply to tencha.
However, many gyokuro from plantations in direct shading will be found on the market, for a very questionable result. Many sellers, of which I am a part, prefer to present them as kabuse-cha (shaded very long, more than 20 days). Direct shading, practicing very early could causes a hardening of the leaves because this method does not allow to regulate the shading. In addition, direct contact may damage the leaves; and this method does not constitute protection against frost unlike the shelf type shading.
After harvesting, the production process is hardly different from sencha, with short steaming, and kneading with less pressure, the long shaded leaves being thin and more brittle.
Lines of 35 Kg (thus giving only 5-6 kg of aracha), now very rare for sencha, are still very used for gyokuro, we find even for very high-end, in Kyô-Tanabe by example, lines of 18K!
Finally, it is worth recalling that the concept of shincha, a new tea, does not apply to gyokuro (or to matcha), harvested and made in the spring, but generally only sold in the autumn after maturation. In Kyoto, some professionals cherish the gyokuro of one or two years.
Preparation and consumption
It is finally there that the essential typical characteristics of the gyokuro emerge.
Its production method aims to minimize the tannins in the leaves in favor of amino acids, to obtain a tea very rich in umami, with very little astringency, and finally a very sweet, mellow, and greenish fragrance very typical of the long shaded teas.
To take advantage in the cup of these characteristics, the gyokuro is infused very concentrated, with very lukewarm water to further minimize astringency in favor of the umami.
A typical parameter will be 5g of leaves, 30ml (I say ml, not cl) at 40 or 50 ° C on the 1st infusion, at least 90s. In the cup, one gets only a few drops of nectar, dense, rich, aromatic, powerful. A lot of umami certainly, but an umami powerful and tender at the same time, with also many aromas.
Brewed like a sencha, the gyokuro is then very flat, subtle will say some, but simply without interest.
We must learn to appreciate this way of tasting, to savor these few drops of tea, then to contemplate the evolution of aromas on the 4 or 5 infusions that will offer these leaves. One understands that one should not be a piker, nor on the quality of the gyokuro itself, nor the amount of leaves used, nor on time pass to enjoy this espresso Japanese tea.
I recommend shiboriodashi for the preparation of gyokuro.
Between those produced in Uji, Yame and Asahina, there are important differences. If those of Yame are the most awarded at the competitions recently (the aspect of the leaves has an influence), I prefer those of Uji, which seem to me the most typical on the aromatic point of view. Asahina is more confidential (and endangered), but with its own characteristics too. Everyone has to try many and makes an idea by himself.
Cultivars will, as always, be an essential element of diversity. Kyôto / Uji has developed many cultivars dedicated to shaded teas, often selected from the seeds of local tea plants “zairai” (these are therefore cultivars in which Yabukita does not enter the genealogy, which is rather rare), for the gyokuro, Gokô and Samidori are the most famous, we can then mention Uji-hikari. New ones have emerged since, but it is too early to say what will be their fate. Nevertheless, traditional cultivars such as Yabukita (less and less), but also more and more Oku-midori, and especially the star Saemidori are also used. My opinion is that these cultivars do not equal Gokô or Samidori for perfumes, but it is true that Saemidori is richer in umami, and therefore dominates the results of the competitions. It spreads very quickly even in Uji.
Whatever the preference, the different cultivation area, the cultivars, offer the gyokuro considerable variations, which become obvious when compared, and it is after these efforts of comprehension that one falls in love under the charm of gyokuro, and nothing else in the world of tea (the teas of the world) is comparable. We note that the gyokuro is not just a question of umami, but that there is a fascinating depth in the perfumes it develops.
If there is no doubt that the gyokuro was invented in Kyoto in the 1830’s, there are several versions as to its precise origin. Nevertheless, the concept is simple, combining the kneading/drying method of the sencha, with the method of cultivation of the tencha.
It is said that Yamamoto Kahei, the sixth generation of Edo tea merchants, Yamamoto-ya, would have obtained clusters of leaves by kneading with the hand steamed leaves of tencha, and that, infused, would have given a good fragrance and a beautiful color , giving rise to the gyokuro.
We also speak of an invention of the master of sencha-dô Ogawa Kashin.
Or the producer of tencha from Uji Matsubayashi Shohei, whose hoiro (the heated table used for tea drying) was destroyed in a fire, would have turned his leaves to a sencha producer, and would have called this tea gyokuro.
It must be said that it was an era of great financial difficulties for the ruling class of the warriors, the main consumers of tencha / matcha, and that it was thus necessary to find new markets, and thus to create novelty. Processing as a sencha shaded leaves would have made it possible to use these plantations for new purposes.
It is therefore believed that there is not a single creator name to put on the gyokuro, but rather the product of collective efforts to adapt to the tune of time.
Why this article? First to explain what the gyokuro really is, to try to get a message about it, to make it better appreciated by a greater number of amateurs. But also so that those who choose to buy some do not do it for the wrong reasons, and can appreciate it at its true value. As I have already said, the gyokuro initially requires efforts, first of all to adapt to its method of consumption, but also to discovery, it is necessary to drink a certain number of them in order to better understand its depth.
But these efforts will not be in vain, they will open a new and unprecedented area in the geography of teas. It would be a shame to do without it because the gyokuro is also finally a condenser of the caracteristics of Japanese teas : green, shaded, steamed, unique rolling method.