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Japanese Jade Dew: Gyokuro

Updated: Feb 13

Embark on a journey into the rich and nuanced world of Japanese green tea with a focus on the extraordinary gyokuro. Known for its unique cultivation and production processes, as well as rich history, gyokuro stands as a rare gem, constituting only around 1% of Japan's annual tea production. We will delve into the historical roots of Japanese teas, tracing the legacy from Zen Buddhist monk Eisai's introduction of tea plant seeds in Japan to the development of gyokuro in the 19th century. Let's uncover the intricate art of Japanese tea shading methods, the meticulous processing of gyokuro, its prized cultivars, the unique terroirs that contribute to its exceptional quality, and explore brewing techniques, pairing suggestions, and even culinary uses of gyokuro.

Art by Marta Motta and Alessandra Di Fini.

ABOUT
- English name: Jade Dew
- Japanese name: Gyokuro (玉露)
- Origin: Kyoto Prefecture, Shizuoka Prefecture, Fukuoka Prefecture, etc.
- Type of tea: Green (shaded; steamed)
- Plucking standard: top of the plant picked in spring
- Aroma profile: fresh, grassy, hints of seaweed
- Flavour profile: rich in umami, with a backdrop of vegetal sweetness and seaweed
- Liquor: cloudy, bright green
- Dry leaf: needle shape with deep green-blue reflections

JAPANESE GREEN TEAS

Japan's tea legacy traces back to the 12th century when Zen Buddhist monk Eisai (1141-1215) introduced tea plant seeds from China to Nagasaki and then Kyoto, the ancient capital. It was introduced in the form of powdered green tea from the Song Dynasty China, which now we know as matcha. Hence, tea cultivation began in the Kamakura period (1185 - 1333), and the method of manufacturing rolled green tea leaves appeared in Ujitawara in the middle of the Edo period (1603 - 1868). The vibrant green colour and refreshing taste of Japanese sencha are attributed to Nagatani Soen (1681 - 1778), a tea producer who lived in Yuyadani, Ujitawara. In 1738, after 15 years of laborious experiments, he developed a method called aosei sencha seiho (青製煎茶製法), which involves steaming freshly picked tea leaves and skilfully hand-kneading them over a hot hoiro table (焙炉) to preserve their green colour and aroma. Soen's generosity in sharing this technique led to its widespread adoption, earning him the title of the father of nowadays the most popular Japanese green tea we know as sencha. Therefore, the history of matcha and sencha plays a pivotal role in the invention of gyokuro.

Today, Japan produces around 80,000 tonnes of tea annually, mainly green tea, with gyokuro standing out as a spring tea par excellence and constituting only mere 1% of all the Japanese tea production, being a rare gem of green tea.

Photo credit: Jamie Kruse for Arigato Travel. Gyokuro in a Tokoname shiboridashi (絞り出し), mogake technique.

HISTORY OF GYOKURO

The development of tea shading aligns with the 'golden age' of the tea ceremony during the late Sengoku (warring states; 戦国) period, suggesting that influential figures like Sen no Rikyu and Furuta Oribe likely experienced shaded matcha similar to today's varieties. Gyokuro's inception can be traced back to a period of financial hardship for the ruling warrior class, the primary consumers of tencha and matcha in Japan. Consequently, the history of gyokuro dates back to 1835 when Yamamoto Kahei, the 6th head of Yamamoto-ya tea merchants in Edo (the old name for Tokyo), visited Uji in Kyoto Prefecture to learn about tencha production with Kinoshita Kichizaemon. As the result, the tencha leaves got rolled into tiny balls and then dried, afterwards travelling to Edo. Originally named Tama no Tsuyu, meaning "balls of dew," (玉の露) it evolved into Gyokuro (玉露). The refinement continued under Eguchi Shigejuro (江口茂十郎) from Uji, who recognised the sweetness derived from shading during cultivation. Shohei Matsubayashi, producer of tencha, is also mentioned frequently as one of the contributors to gyokuro evolution. Ogawa Kashin, a physician from a samurai family with ties and patrons in the court, played an important role in introducing a Chinese-influenced tea ceremony we know as senchado (煎茶道), which uses high-quality green leaf teas like gyokuro instead of the powdered matcha. After that gyokuro continued to evolve in the Meiji era into what we know it as today.

Photo credit: Musubi Kiln.
How to Differentiate Between Gyokuro, Kabusecha and Sencha?

In the intricate landscape of Japanese green teas, distinguishing between sencha, kabusecha, and gyokuro transcends mere shading durations. While sencha stands as the unshaded leaf, gyokuro (shaded for at least three weeks) and kabusecha (shaded for 10-14 days) boast umami-rich profiles. What sets gyokuro apart is not just its borrowing of the sencha leaf rolling technique but, more importantly, its adoption of shading methods used in tencha production for matcha, making it an intriguing exploration into the essence of umami. The true differentiator can lie in the strength of umami, influenced by cultivation factors like fertilisation techniques. The scarcity of organic gyokuro underscores the intricate dance between shading and fertilisation, where a 3-week shading may not guarantee the robust umami essential for gyokuro classification. Hence, sometimes low quality gyokuro with not strong enough umami can fall into the category of kabusecha.

This nuanced perspective reveals these teas as a gradation of umami, ranging from sencha with the least to gyokuro with the most. This umami spectrum not only defines each tea's character but also guides blending strategies. Enhancing sencha quality can sometimes involve incorporating shaded tea leaves like kabusecha in the blend (or shade sencha for 4-7 days, which does not become kabusecha but has an increase of umami). While increasing gyokuro quantity calls for a fusion with kabusecha or sencha. And yet, important to say that it doesn't mean that gyokuro is superior to sencha - they are two entirely different teas.

Photo credit: Eater.

So, what exactly is umami?

Umami, a term denoting a savory and appetizing flavour, originates from glutamate—an amino acid prevalent in both vegetal sources like seaweed, mushroom, spinach, and tomato, as well as animal products such as meat, seafood, and cheese, including parmesan. Roughly translated as 'delicious taste,' umami is recognised as the fifth flavour alongside salty, bitter, sour, and sweet. In the realm of modern tea consumption, especially in Japan, tea enthusiasts seek this brothy flavour and mouthfeel, prompting Japanese farmers to adapt their cultivation methods to meet the growing demand for more umami-rich teas.

SHADED TEAS

Collectively, shaded teas are called ooicha (覆い茶). Shading tea plants is a pivotal practice in the production of Japanese shaded teas, notably gyokuro, kabusecha, and tencha for further matcha production. It is commonly known as hifuku saibai (shade growing cultivation; 被覆栽培) and the process of covering is described as kabuse (被せ), and sometimes you might encounter a term oishitaen (覆下園), which literally means 'garden under shade'. This cultivation technique involves blocking sunlight from reaching the new tea leaves for a specified period, altering the leaf composition to enhance tenderness, vibrant green colour (more chlorophyll is produced for photosynthesis due to the lack of sunlight), and impart greater umami flavour while minimising bitterness and astringency.

Gyokuro, shaded for around three weeks and more after the second leaves sprout, displays a brilliant emerald green hue, reduced astringency, and exceptional sweetness accompanied with rich umami. The shading process maximises the retention of L-theanine amino acid, responsible for the prized umami flavour, while minimising the conversion to catechins that contribute to bitterness, however, the caffeine level of such teas goes up. The use of traditional methods of canopy-like structures covered with reed mats and rice straws like honzu (本簀) or modern techniques with black vinyl fabric shelves such as kanreisha (寒冷紗) achieves this shading effect, disrupting photosynthesis and promoting the development of a unique seaweed-like aroma due to the dimethyl sulfide referred to as the covering-aroma (被覆香り; hifuku kaori;  覆い香り; ooi kaori). Following the traditional technique, first, gyokuro leaves are covered for seven to ten days using bamboo mats filtering around 80% of the light; then a second round of rice straw (nijukake) is added on top for ten additional days to obscure 95 to 98% of the light. The resulting teas not only boast a distinct colour and aroma but also softer, more delicate leaves, contributing to the overall elegance and fine quality of these exceptional Japanese shaded teas.

Photo credit: 令歐洲人也 (Hitoya Reikoshu), Shun Gate.

Shading techniques

The Traditional Honzu Technique (本簾被覆; honzu hifuku

The traditional method of ceiling shelf covering, known as honzu, is primarily used for shading tea without directly applying the covering directly on the bushes, particularly to produce high-quality gyokuro and tencha for matcha. This technique involves shading with organic materials like straw, bamboo, or reeds, gradually increasing the shading percentage by adding more material to the roof over time. The natural material used in honzu shading, such as straw, serves multiple functions, allowing tea plants to breathe, enhancing airflow, and imparting a unique aroma to the tea. It also acts as fertiliser and regulates soil temperature to suppress weed growth and decomposes, nourishing the soil for the following year's growth. While providing optimal natural shade for tea bushes, the honzu method demands intensive labor and maintenance, leading to its rare employment today.

Photo credit: 北城 彰(Akira Hojo)

The Dual-layered Shading Method (棚型二段被覆; tanagata nidan hifuku)

Black synthetic fiber material, known as kanreisha, has become more common due to its uniform shading and adjustable opacity, offering tea farmers greater control over the shading process. This method mirrors the traditional honzu technique in structure and purpose, using a simplified shelf-like metal bar construction for shading gyokuro and tencha production. Additional layers can be added to progressively limit light, providing flexibility for purposes like temperature regulation and frost protection. Unlike the traditional method, the synthetic fibers of the dual-layered approach can remain rolled up in the field year-round, simplifying maintenance.

Photo credit: Sorate.


Tunnel Shading Method  (トンネル被覆; tonneru hifuku)  

Primarily employed for kabusecha production, this method utilizes a single layer of synthetic fiber material draped over arched glass fiber poles (8-10mm in diameter), forming a tunnel-shaped canopy. The shading rate ranges from 60 to 75%, and for kabusecha, the shading is sustained for 10-14 days prior to harvesting. Despite its effectiveness, this approach can be time-consuming for farmers to set up and install the shading, leading many to favor the more direct shading method.

Photo credit: The Japan Times.


 

Direct Shading Method  (直接被覆; chokusetsu hifuku

Also known as jikakabuse (直冠せ). The most efficient and cost-effective shading method employed in the cultivation of various shaded teas, including gyokuro, kabusecha, tencha, and even sencha. Widely adopted in major tea-producing regions in Japan, this method involves the direct placement of black synthetic fiber over the tea bushes, offering a simplified alternative to the tunnel shading technique.

Photo credit: The Tea Crane.

PROCESSING OF GYOKURO

Harvested in late May, the tea bushes are carefully picked, often including 5-6 leaves of new growth, not just the bud and two leaves. However, axillary buds also known as lateral leaves (the new leaves that grow off the base of leaves lower on the stems), are prioritised through apical bud plucking, also known as apex bud (the new leaves that grow out of the tip of a branch of leaves). The apex bud is hand-plucked forcing the plant to put nutrients into lateral buds which grow more evenly and allow the plant to produce more leaves at equally high grade. Traditionally for high-quality of gyokuro harvesting is done by hand, however, modern farmers also employ harvesting machines. In most cases, gyokuro is harvested only once a year in spring to ensure tea bushes remain healthy and vibrant to provide delicious abundant harvest in the following years.

Photo credit: Yunomi.life. Lateral buds. Thank you, Ian Chun!

The tea leaves are processed similarly to sencha, i.e., are steamed to halt oxidation, followed by a thorough massage and rolling process to break cell structures and shape them into a fine needle. The final steps involve drying, with the possibility of separating stems to create another tea variant called karigane (雁が音茶). Traditionally, gyokuro is matured for approximately six months to reduce sharpness and develop a rounded, mellow taste. The tea's exclusivity and higher price stem from its challenging cultivation process, limited yield, and the use of small leaves from the plant's top during the first harvest, contributing to superior taste and nutritional content. The most authentic gyokuro bushes are not pruned but left to grow naturally on their own (shizen shitate; 自然仕立て) not taking the "perfect" Japanese tea field shapes. Grown in mountainous areas on slopes with limited sunlight, authentic gyokuro, such as Yame gyokuro, distinguishes itself through traditional cultivation methods and meticulous shading, impacting both its flavour and vibrant emerald green colour, a highly regarded characteristic in tea competitions.

Photo credit: 令歐洲人也 (Hitoya Reikoshu), Shun Gate.

CULTIVARS WELL-SUITED FOR GYOKURO

Cultivars play a crucial role in the production of gyokuro, with varieties specifically developed to thrive under the rigorous conditions of shading. Cultivars are categorised based on various criteria including their suitability for different types of tea production, such as sencha, tamaryokucha, shaded teas, and black tea. Notable cultivars originating from Kyoto, Uji, a key region for gyokuro and tencha production, include Asahi, Gokou, Ujihikari, Samidori, Ujimidori, etc. These cultivars, specifically selected for shaded tea production, have limited geographical spread, emphasizing their association with the renowned gyokuro-producing region. Apart from the previously mentioned ones, other opular gyokuro cultivars encompass Yamakai, Okumidori, Saemidori, among other ones, each contributing distinct characteristics to the exceptional flavour profile of gyokuro tea.

Photo credit: Yasuharu Matsumoto. Saemidori cultivar.

JAPANESE TERROIRS OF GYOKURO

While Kyoto region, especially places like Uji, Ujitawara and Kyotonabe, remains the traditional heartland of gyokuro, Fukuoka's Hoshino and Yame region on Kyushu Island has gained significant recognition for producing some of the finest gyokuro, although you might find gyokuro from other regions like Kumamoto, Miyazaki, and Shizuoka (Asahina) among others.

Yame, now producing over 50% of all gyokuro in Japan, has garnered acclaim for its exceptional quality, winning top prizes in the Japanese National Tea Competition for 12 consecutive years from 2001 to 2012, continuing to take the winning places, and boasting a strong sense of community among tea farmers. Yame's success is not only reflected in its tea competition records but also in the dedication, talent, and cooperative spirit of its hardworking farmers, contributing to the preservation of Japan's tea tradition and culture. The recognition of Yame gyokuro extends beyond its tea quality, emphasising the importance of community and shared passion for tea culture in this renowned tea-producing region, manifesting in the form of the Tea Cultural Centre of Yame, tea festivals and hands-on experiences for visitors. 

Photo credit: Ka:en Japan.

TEA SOMMELIER PREPARATION TIPS

Photo credit: Heaven Earth People.

BREWING

- Vessels: Shiboridashi (絞り出し), Houhin (宝瓶), or Kyusu (急須)
- Water temperature: 50-60°C (122-141°F), or even as low as 40°C (104°F). For subsequent infusions, increase the water temperature and adjust steeping times accordingly. A general guideline for a second infusion could be 60-70°C for 10 seconds, followed by a third infusion at 90-100°C, with an immediate pour. Experiment with brewing parameters to find the perfect balance for your taste preference, keeping in mind that gyokuro's unique characteristics shine when steeped with high leaf-to-water ratios and longer infusion times at lower temperatures.

The Japanese tea pouring technique of mawashitsugi (まわし注ぎ)—alternating pouring from one cup to another—ensures a balanced flavour distribution when serving multiple people.

Photo credit: Ippodo Tea.

During warmer months, explore the refreshing side of gyokuro by indulging in delicious cold brews, and there are several techniques to explore!

- Mizudashi, 'Cold Brew' (水出し). Simply use cold water and extend the infusion time. You can leave it in the fridge for a while also, and the time will depend on the leaf-water ratio.
- Kōridashi, 'Ice Brew' (氷出し). Use a larger quantity of leaves than usual in your teapot and place some ice cubes on top. Remember to use good water for your ice cubes, same as you would use for your tea. Leave it until the ice has melted.
- Susuridashi, "Sipping Tea" (啜り出し) or Shizukucha (雫茶). Tea is infused in a tiny amount of cold water, like 15-20 ml in cold or room-temperature water using 3-5 g of tea brewed for 1-2 minutes, resulting in a rich and thick brew.

If you are curious to explore traditional ceremonial gyokuro brewing, we recommend researching senchado.

And finally, tea mixology is becoming more and more popular these days, so if you are a cocktail aficionado, gyokuro might add a little spice to your recipe book.

Photo credit: Spirited Singapore. Mixology Salon.

PAIRING

Gyokuro's exquisite flavour profile makes it a versatile tea for pairing with a range of dishes. Its rich umami and vegetal sweetness harmonize with iodised dishes, olive oil featuring green notes, and fresh goat or cow cheeses adorned with aromatic herbs. The tea's savory notes also complement foods high in umami, including tuna, oysters, soy sauce, and shiitake mushrooms. Additionally, gyokuro's high umami content makes it an ideal match for dark, rich chocolate, while its inherent sweetness complements the natural sweetness of dried fruits. Whether enjoyed with chestnut cake or seasonal fruit sorbets, gyokuro elevates the culinary experience with its nuanced and complementary flavours.

Photo credit: Spirited Singapore. Mixology Salon.

CULINARY USE

Gyokuro extends its culinary versatility beyond the teacup, offering a unique gastronomic experience. Beyond just a beverage, gyokuro enthusiasts have discovered the pleasure of eating the leaves after steeping, capitalising on their soft and smooth texture reminiscent of steamed greens. This practice not only introduces a novel culinary dimension but also ensures that all the nutrients present in the leaves are consumed, going beyond what is extracted during the brewing process. Whether enjoyed with soy or ponzu sauce and Katsuobushi bonito flakes or incorporated into an ochazuke with rice, gyokuro transcends the traditional boundaries of tea, offering a delightful and health-conscious culinary experience.

STORAGE

To maintain gyokuro's freshness, store it in the refrigerator or freezer. If you do not have a dedicated tea fridge (I am not making this up, some green tea enthusiasts do have one!), ensure a tight seal to prevent the tea from absorbing any unwanted odours, ensuring that your gyokuro remains free from the lingering hints of yesterday's meals.

Photo credit: マイナビ農業 (Mynavi Agriculture)

References

ByFood. The Ultimate Guide to Gyokuro Tea. Available HERE.
Eighty Degrees. Issue 10. Interview with Alex Snow, the Narrator of Ippodo Kyoto.
Japanese Taste. (2023). What is Gyokuro? - Explore the Green Tea Fit for Royalty. Available HERE.
Kruse, J. (2023). Gyokuro: The Best Green Tea You've Never Heard Of. Arigato Travel. Available HERE.
Matabay (2013). Gyokuro Tea History from the Edo Period | Japanese Tea History. Available HERE.
Mizuba Tea Co. The Ultimate Guide To Gyokuro: History and Brewing. Available HERE.
Nio Teas. (2022). Gyokuro Tea Complete Guide. Available HERE.
Suzuki, S. (2019). Gyokuro (玉露). Global Japanese Tea Association. Available HERE.
Tea Nursery. (2023). Japan, the second round. Available HERE.
Tezumi. A Deep Dive into Shaded Teas Part 1: History and Process. Available HERE.
Weugue, F. (2017). Understanding Gyokuro. Japanese Tea Sommelier. Available HERE.
Wild, K. (2022). Japanese Tea Cultivars: A Short Guide. Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms. Available HERE.
Yunomi.life. All About Shading in Japanese Tea Cultivation. Available HERE.
Yunomi.life. Does the best gyokuro come from Yame? Available HERE.
Yunomi.life. Lateral buds on tea leaves. Available HERE.
Yunomi.life. The difference between Gyokuro, Kabusecha, Sencha, and Bancha green teas. Available HERE.



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