Gyokuro, one of the most renowned styles of Japanese tea, is notoriously difficult to perfect, especially since it necessitates considerable time investment. It needs months of patience, years of practice, and decades to perfect. We're honored to share this small lot from a Shizuoka gyokuro master, Omura san.
First things first: how to brew this tea. Japanese green tea can be notoriously finicky to brew, and delicate ones like gyokuro can especially be so.
Adjusted for Western brewing, gyokuro can often be seen brewed at <170°F at 2-3 minutes—a very slight modification on the generalized steeping method for myriad varieties of green tea. Sure; it still makes an interesting cup, and might be umami-er than what you're used to.
Traditionally, gyokuro is enjoyed at extremely low temperatures. With water temps as low as 100°F to 140°F, the barely hot water sounds like it would extract a tepid, and frankly gross, brew. However, this method releases the leaves' amino acids without extracting caffeine or its tannins, creating a smooth, supple, and savory cup that is almost as meaty and rich as chicken broth; as acidic and sweet as a ripe heirloom tomato; and as potent as several rounds of gong-fu. In our words, it's very dodey.
Here's a rough guide to experience gyokuro this way:
- Pre-warm your teapot.
- Measure 2-4 grams of leaf into your preferred vessel.
- Pour 30-60 mL (or 1-2 ounces) of your warmed water. (Rule of thumb has been roughly a 2:1 ratio of leaves to ounces of water with gyok.)
- Steep for 2 to 4 minutes.
- Re-steep for 20-30 seconds, but with higher temperature water (160°F - 205°F) and shorter times with each subsequent steep (e.g., 3rd steep at 15 seconds and 175°F; 4th steep at 5 seconds and 195°F).
- Pour some ponzu, extra virgin olive oil, and sea salt on the spent leaves and enjoy as a salad of micro-decadence.
When we met with Master Omura, he had a different preparation technique that made a wholly different experience out of gyokuro. Known as susuricha ("sipping/slurping tea"), he brewed the tea in a vessel (susuri cup) that has a gaiwan analog.
Slurped by bring the cup directly to your lips and tilting the lid to filter the leaves, this was a method that made you feel a heavy hit of l-theanine to your feet: the taste was intense and effect was immediate. For fans of gongfucha, this is a novel way to appreciate a classical tea style.
Try this method:
- Pre-warm your gaiwan.
- Measure 5 grams of leaf.
- Pour 104°F (40°C) water in a circle surrounding the leaves, as not to agitate them directly.
- Wait 2 minutes.
- Bring to your mouth, tilt the lid upwards, and slurp.
- As with the traditional steep, eat the tea leaves.
On our second trip to Japan in May 2019, we experienced yet another way to enjoy this tea. So far, it's the most modern and experimental of gyokuro steeping design we've had, and it makes for a lovely trip down the wide avenue of gyokuro's flavors and sensations: savory-sweet, thick and unctuous, buttery, acidic bite. It was steeped in a plate-wide shiboridashi, seen below.
Our final steeping method:
- Pre-warm your shiboridashi.
- Measure 6 grams of leaf.
- Use 35-40mL of 104°F water.
- Steep for 3 minutes.
- For the second steep, use 35-40mL of 104°F water at 3 minutes.
- For the third steep, use 120mL of 212°F water at 1:00.
- Likewise previously, eat the spent leaves.
All three methods are great starting points if you're not sure where to begin. Still, experiment often, steep slowly, and enjoy this present from its past.
Meeting Master Omura
Omura san's reputation as a gyokuro grandmaster is not an exaggeration: since he's been perfecting its art for almost 70 years, he's one of the most renowned tea craftsmen in Shizuoka, if not Japan itself. With his gardens located at the base of Mt. Fuji, this terroir produces the beloved genre of honyamacha, or mountain tea. His hongyokuro means it's earned an additional distinction of repute: thick liquid, with a taste not unlike buttered vegetables and soft edamame.
(Photo from Hojo Tea)
Master Omura and his wife dedicate themselves to true, traditional gyokuro production, using straw mats and bamboo foundations to shade the gardens before harvesting. (Though, as in the first picture, he does have a couple gardens with the more common kanreisha black tarp, which while still laborious, is a slight convenience over the traditional straw.) His wife stitches the straw mats each year, each growth necessitating a new weave, to ensure the flavor profile he's looking for.
The future of such an intensive, labor-industrial tea dims as it's perceived as uneconomical, endangering its traditions as elderly farmers retire without a next generation to need, or want, of continuing the genre. There was some melancholy to our conversation as we sipped our susuris, as there was no easy answer to portend tea's place in a rapidly-modernizing culture.
A Brief History of Gyokuro Production
Literally translated to "jade dew" (玉露), gyokuro is perhaps the victor ludorum of Japanese tea. "Low-quality," "budget," or "off-season" true gyokuro does not exist; the labor that is invested into this tea demands a high price, justifiably from the time and skill required to produce it.
At least 21 days prior to harvesting, the tea leaves are shielded from sunlight. This process is deceptively simple, as competition-grade gyokuro makes the labor even more arduous with hand-crafted bamboo rafters, woven straw mats, and heaps of hay to create what feels like a gentle greenhouse fortress around the plants, gently cooling the bushes below through heavily filtered sunlight.
A garden Taylor and I visited in Fukuoka that shows the straw weave.
There are black tarps and steel buttresses, and simply donning dark plastic mats directly over the leaves, which still can result in good gyokuro. However, traditionalists would affirm in straw, and here's exactly why: by allowing more air to circulate and room between the plant and the bamboo structures to grow, sunlight is a lot more manageable, and the air is substantially cooler in these structures. Exposure to sunlight increases the formation of catechins, the most bitter and astringent components of a tea's flavor profile. As the plant struggles to metabolize its nutrients without sunlight, it retains a lot more theanine—which accounts for sweetness and savoriness, but also a big building block for a plants' growth. So, in this plant version of foie gras, we get a very unique taste and a deep, chlorophyll green—if not through a means of plant torture we can hardly fathom.
Not all sunlight is blocked out; the straw supposedly filters 80-95% of the sunlight, still giving those plants hope to grow. However, we receive a noble sacrifice: a gyokuro that is not only unlike any other green tea, but any other Japanese shaded tea.