Everything You Need to Know About Gyokuro

What is Gyokuro?

gyokuro
Gyokuro is considered to be the most sought after leaf tea in Japan, and there are a few different reasons for this. The first is of course the unique flavor of Gyokuro tea. The flavor of gyokuro can be described as sweet, savory, brothy, salty and even seaweedy, sometimes all at once. This comes from the strong presence of amino acids in the gyokuro, which is unrivaled in the world of japanese green tea.

This strong presence comes from the unique methods used to produce gyokuro tea. The labor intensive production is another reason why Gyokuro is so sought after, but it is crucial for creating this trademark sweet and savory flavor gyokuro is known for. To produce this tea, the farmer needs to cover the tea plants in a type of netting called “kabuse” for a minimum of 3 weeks before the harvest. When the tea plant is cut off from sunlight, it completely alters the chemical composition of the leaf.

 

Why is Gyokuro tea so Special?

When the tea plant is exposed to sunlight, it begins to convert the amino acid theanine into catechins, a natural antioxidant found in green tea. This protects the tea plant from being damaged by the UV light, but it also produces a bitter flavor in the tea. If you try a tea that is high in catechins, you will notice that it has a bitter or astringent flavor. This may be enjoyable in certain drier Sencha teas, but it is avoided at all costs when it comes to Gyokuro. With Gyokuro tea, the goal is to stop the tea plant from converting theanine to catechins and maximize the content of theanine in the leaf. This is achieved through the long shading process, which is carried out in different stages. The farmer may start by blocking out 70% of sunlight and then block out 80% and finally 90% for the last week before the harvest. This really stresses the plant, but it allows it to maintain more of its theanine.

Theanine doesn’t just affect the taste of the gyokuro tea, but also the effect it has on the brain. L-theanine is able to cross the blood-brain barrier and therefore it is possible to alter the mental state in a similar way to caffeine. L-theanine helps to induce a more calming effect on the brain and it is thought to be the reason why monks were among the first to drink tea, as it helped them during long periods of meditation. When combined with caffeine, it creates a calm alert feeling, which is much different than the feeling of just consuming caffeine alone. While coffee drinkers report having a burst of energy followed by a crash later on in the day, consumers of high theanine teas like matcha and Gyokuro claim that the energy lasts longer, without the jittery feeling or the crash afterwards. 

Gyokuro and matcha also tend to be higher in caffeine as well as theanine. This has to do with the shading process as well. Caffeine is poisonous to small insects, so it is used as a defense mechanism on the outside of the tea leaf. Because younger leaves tend to be tender and more vulnerable to insects, these leaves tend to contain more caffeine than the older, tougher leaves on the tea plant. Gyokuro is made from these younger leaves, which increases the caffeine content, but the caffeine content is further increased by the shading process. As the shading process used to produce gyokuro tea is incredibly stressful for the plant, it produces more caffeine to protect itself. While the main objective of the shading is to produce a sweeter and more savory green tea, the high caffeine content is a byproduct most gyokuro drinkers enjoy.


The third aspect of the tea that changes during the shading process is the chlorophyll content. Chlorophyll is a green pigment found in plants that is essential for photosynthesis. It helps the plant to convert sunlight into energy, and if there is less sunlight, the tea plant needs to produce more chlorophyll to compensate. This causes the leaves to change from light green to dark green. It may be easy to notice this color change in the live leaves of the tea plant, but it is especially evident in the dried tea leaves. The leaves of Gyokuro and certain shaded senchas become this extremely dark green, nearly black color.

 

Organic Gyokuro

gyokuro brewing
The shading process is particularly difficult when it comes to the cultivation of organic gyokuro. Normally, to keep the tea plants alive during the long shading period, a farmer can simply apply more chemicals to temporarily strengthen the tea plant, but when it comes to organic gyokuro, it simply comes down to the talent of the farmer. Mr. Sakamoto is the best organic gyokuro farmer we have met to this day, and he has developed his skills over many decades, experimenting with different types of organic fertilizers. He has developed an organic fertilizer made from a combination of sedimentary rock and bokashi fertilzer, made from organic foods. This strengthens the cellular structure of the tea plant, and allows it to last 3 weeks without sunlight. It’s crucial that the tea plant doesn’t begin to wilt during this shading process, otherwise it will negatively impact the flavor of the tea. The organic gyokuro produced by Mr. Sakamoto is top notch, and its all produced without applying chemicals or pesticides to his tea plants. After the three weeks are finished, the tea harvest begins and the top 3 leaves are selected. These tend to be the sweetest and highest in nutrients, making them the perfect choice for a tea like gyokuro. 

After the leaves have been harvested, they are produced in a similar way to any other Japanese green teas. They are steamed and dried to bring down the moisture content. Finally, before the leaves are completely dried, they go through an additional rolling process to create these unique needle shaped leaves that Gyokuro is known for. This tea is tightly rolled to lock in the flavor, and once the leaves are exposed to warm water, they begin to open up and release their flavor all at once into the water.

 

Gyokuro Brewing

When it comes to gyokuro brewing, it is extremely important to follow the following parameters. Gyokuro brewing is very different from sencha brewing for a couple of reasons. First, the water temperature is usually much lower, to extract the sweeter flavors of the tea. This is really important for gyokuro tea as it is a celebration of these sweet and umami flavors, and a lot of work goes into creating the perfect flavor profile. The second thing to keep in mind when it comes to gyokuro brewing is the steeping time. Because gyokuro is made from very tightly rolled leaves, they need a full 2 minutes in the water to open up and release their flavor. This separates it from a normal Japanese green tea which requires only 1 minute. The gyokuro tea leaves can then be brewed 3-4 more times with the same temperature water at 20 seconds each. 


If you really want to get serious about Gyokuro brewing, you can actually use a method that is practiced by certain tea masters in Japan and that is to increase the leaf to water ratio. With most Japanese green teas, you should be using 5 grams of leaves and 150 millileters of water, and this also works well for gyokuro brewing, but if you really want to take the flavor to the next level, you can use 5 grams of leaves and 50ml of water. This will create a small quantity of super concentrated tea that can be enjoyed not just for its taste, but also for its texture. When gyokuro is served with such little water, the texture becomes much thicker, almost like an oil. Gyokuro is often enjoyed in these small cups so the guest is forced to take very small sips and appreciate the sensation as the tea glides over the top of the tongue. 

 

History of Japanese Gyokuro tea

The history of Japanese gyokuro tea dates back to the 1830’s when a tea merchant named Yamamoto Kahei was traveling around Japan and meeting with tea farmers. He noticed that some of the farmers were covering the tea plants with a type of netting to protect them from the frost. He noticed that this shading actually had a profound effect on the leaves and actually gave them a “sticky” texture during the production process, producing a green residue. The tea was named “gyokuro” or jade dew, and it soon became one of the most desirable types of tea in Japan, even by the emperor.


Why is it called gyokuro imperial green tea?

gyokuro karigane

The reason you often see the tea be called gyokuro imperial green tea or imperial gyokuro is because gyokuro used to be the tea of choice for the emperor himself. Before the use of refrigeration and modern packaging, a lot of teas would go bad after a few months, with the exception of Gyokuro. The best gyokuro tea would not decline in flavor with age, and in many cases the flavor would actually improve over time. The emperor saw this as a sign of good quality. He would sometimes even wait a few months after the harvest to see which teas maintained their flavor and only select these for his personal collection. As a result, Gyokuro is still known today as the emperor’s tea, and we like to think that the emperors of the edo period would be proud to drink some of these incredible green teas.

 

Gyokuro Karigane and Gyokuro Kukicha

okumidori gyokuro

In addition to gyokuro, you may see some other variations like gyokuro karigane and gyokuro kukicha. These teas are made from both the stems and leaves of the tea plant. Gyokuro karigane refers to a tea made from both the stems and leaves of the tea plants used to make gyokuro. Karigane can also be made from the plants used to make matcha and kabusecha. This is a shaded stem tea, which gives it a sweeter flavor and differentiates it from kukicha, which is a stem tea made from unshaded tea plants. Mr. Sakamoto also makes a Gyokuro kukicha, which is made with a higher ratio of stems, giving it more of this light hay flavor, and less of the sweet umami flavor. If you find the flavor of a normal leaf Gyokuro to be too intense, you may want to first try one of these stem tea varieties to get used to the flavor.

 

Finding the Best Gyokuro

If you’re looking for the best gyokuro tea for beginners, we would recommend the Gyokuro cha musume. This is one of mr. Sakamoto’s famous Gyokuro teas and it is made from the Yabukita cultivar, the most popular tea cultivar in Japan. This tea has a powerful savory flavor, but it is smoothed out by a pleasant sweetness.


If you’re looking for the best gyokuro tea for seasoned tea drinkers, it would have to be the Gyokuro Cha Meijin. This tea is produced in the same way as the cha musume, but it is actually made from the Saemidori cultivar, one of the more sought after tea cultivars in Japan. The reason that Saemidori is so prized is because it has a light sweetness to it and very little bitterness. The long shading process of course improves the flavor even further to create a gyokuro tea with a nice warm sweetness of caramel and brown sugar. 


If you are interested in my personal favorite, it would have to be the okumidori gyokuro wakamusha. This is one of the newest teas we discovered from Mr. Sakamoto and it does a good job of encapsulating all aspects that have made gyokuro famous. It has a light sweetness to it, a thicker mouthfeel, strong umami and these more vegetal characteristics of edamame and even seaweed. These taste profiles may seem like they couldn’t possibly go well together, but after you’ve enjoyed a few cups of gyokuro, you will begin to understand and appreciate the unique flavor. Similar to the Saemidori, the okumidori gyokuro is also well sought after for its lack of bitterness. The okumidori cultivar tends to produce rounder and smoother teas, so its a good choice for high end green teas like matcha and gyokuro.


While gyokuro green tea can appear intimidating at first, you may soon find it to be one of your favorite teas. The flavor is so unique, no other type of tea can really come close to matching it. A lot of people have switched out their morning coffee for a cup of gyokuro, and noticed a huge difference in both their mood and their energy levels throughout the day. If you are interested in trying gyokuro for yourself, we encourage you to check out a few of the teas from Mr. Sakamoto and see which one looks the best to you. To this date these are the best organic gyokuro tea we have found, and we are proud to share them with all of you.