Written by Will
Gyokuro, Spring 2019, picked in early May and produced in Asahina Valley, Shizuoka, Japan by Mr & Mrs Miyazaki.
In this deep dive we look at our spring 2019 batch of Gyokuro. Gyokuro is a famous and highly prized green tea from Japan and this batch comes from the Miyazakis, who farm on a very small scale in Shizuoka.
In this piece we’ll be discovering some of the unique production techniques that the Miyazakis use to make Gyokuro and learn what makes it such a prestigious tea among the Japanese green tea family. You’ll also find out how it tastes and get tips on how to make it at home, so you can explore and enjoy this tea for yourself.
Origin: Asahina Valley, Shizuoka, Japan.
Cultivar: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis ‘Asahi’
Name: Gyokuro, this is the traditional Japanese name. It translates as ‘Jade Dew’.
Style: Steamed and shaded green tea.
Terroir: Asahina valley is enriched by the Asahina River and proximity to the Pacific Ocean. The small plot that this tea comes from is high in the valley and surrounded by lush green forest; the tea bushes grow alongside rice, tangerines and bamboo.
Picking Season: Spring 2019
Leaf: Deep olive-jade needles of green tea leaf.
Production: Grown without the use of agro-chemicals
Infusion: Pale and translucent, yellowy green.
What kind of tea does Asahina Valley produce?
The tea gardens of Asahina Valley in Shizuoka prefecture typically produce this shaded green tea called Gyokuro, which is regarded by many as the highest quality, most prized green tea from Japan; the jewel of its tea making achievements as it were. Gyokuro is prized for its powerful umami flavour and lingering sweetness.
The depth of the umami comes from the shading of the tea bushes for around 3 weeks before the leaves are picked. Large sheets of netting or panels of rice straw are erected over entire fields of tea plants, blocking out 80-90% of the sunlight. Cutting out the light source in this way encourages the tea plants to produce more green chlorophyll so that they can still photosynthesise (in other words, keep growing). The chlorophyll is what gives the leaves their characteristic rich green colour, and this process concentrates some of the amino acids like L-Theanine in the leaves. L-theanine is one of the plant compounds that tastes umami.
The Asahina Valley is not where Gyokuro was originally made though, that’s Uji in Kyoto and Yame in Fukuoka. Unfortunately, the prized reputation of Gyokuro means that there is significant pressure on farmers in Uji and Yame to produce the highest yields and high quality Gyokuro. This demand, together with a differing attitude to farming in Japanese culture, has meant that these areas have steadily become saturated with pesticides and agrochemicals. In Asahina Valley however, where there is less pressure from domestic demand, we have been able to find teas produced without agrochemicals in clean and bio-diverse environments that crucially don’t compromise on the umami-rich and sweet flavour of high quality Gyokuro.
Asahina Valley is populated with luscious green tea gardens, which extend upwards on both sides of the Asahina River; a great water source that cuts through the valley, bringing plenty of nourishment to the soil. At its closest, the area is just 15kms from the Pacific Ocean, but most of the tea is grown at least 250m above it.
How did we source this batch of tea and who made it?
Our current batch of Gyokuro was produced by husband and wife, Mr & Mrs Miyazaki, who Tom (our Head of Tea) visited last Spring in the middle of their production. The young leaves and buds were picked in early May, as part of the first flush. Officially in Japanese green tea producing areas, the beginning of this first flush harvest should be 88 nights after the first day of spring is celebrated. There is a celebration day called Hachijuhachiya, which marks this. When we’re sourcing tea, we don’t tend to stick assiduously to these traditional calendars – the combination of our priority of quality of taste and recent changing weather patterns mean that they don’t always align. However we do appreciate the long-standing wisdom in them, and in this instance, the spring weather was good and this batch was picked very shortly after Hachijuhachiya.
The Miyazakis have a very small operation with around half a hectare of tea bushes, and over fifty years’ experience of making Gyokuro and working their area of land, which means that they don’t need to rely on chemicals to find the umami, sweetness and that deep green colour.
They spilt the production so that Mrs Miyazaki oversees the team of local women who hand-pick the leaves, which even includes getting up at 2.30am to make sure that their lunch is prepared! Hand-picking the tea is extremely rare in Japan nowadays and only the highest quality teas are still hand-picked as opposed to machine picked. This means that the leaves are kept more intact with no coarse stem included, so there is less need for further refining because the correct part of the leaf is selected. Mr Miyazaki oversees the production of the leaves after picking in their on-site wooden workshop. Alongside their tea bushes they are also growing bamboo, tangerines and rice! The shoots from the bamboo and the tangerines are no doubt often enjoyed as part of those lunches – and the rice is used to make the straw which is woven into the tana canopies that shade the bushes.
Once the leaves are hand-picked they are processed very similarly to Sencha, another of our favourite Japanese green teas. First, the leaves are steamed to lock in that forest green colour and enhance the umami and crisp vegetal notes, before being rolled into long, fine spear shapes and lightly dried. The tea might then be tasted for quality and then rested for a few months to mellow before a final refining process sorts the Gyokuro leaves into various grades.
A Note from Tom who made this video as I was writing this:
“I’ve just finished sampling the spring 2020 picked Gyokuro and am pleased to say that from a table of more than 20 teas, Mr & Mrs Miyazaki’s latest batch stood out and was selected. All being well it should be arriving in August!”
What is this batch like to drink?
It is incredibly green and refreshing, but with great umami depth that gives way to a mouth coating sweetness. It’s this lingering sweetness which means that for many they’ll want to keep drinking it sip after sip.
What I love about Gyokuro is the unique aroma – it’s not like any other green tea. The distinct “green” or vegetal notes from the warm leaves always remind me of freshly cut grass and there’s a savouriness that makes me think of a pleasant sea breeze. The colour of the infusion is also unique – it’s a very pale green that is clouded (clarity of the infusion is a mark of quality in almost all teas, but not gyokuro – the high concentration of glutamates and the unique processing mean the infusion goes cloudy). This colour gives a real indication of the thick and almost soup-like texture of Gyokuro.
The flavours that hit you first from the infusion are the more vegetal and grassy notes, like deep steamed spinach and buttery green beans. The texture is very smooth and viscous which accentuates the flavours as they transform, with a complex floral sweetness, balanced by a hint of pleasant bitterness and that all-important umami.
Where and when is this tea for?
Gyokuro is a tea that is best enjoyed slowly and with some focus. It’s not as forgiving in its making as Chinese green teas or even Sencha, so you’ll need a little attention to prepare it well – it’s not complicated though and it does pay off. It’s one of the few teas that I enjoy alongside food too. The depth of the savouriness means that it can complement some rich foods, especially Japanese cuisine. The Miyazakis in fact recommend having some small tea snacks alongside it – the first couple of infusions they enjoy with light pickles and the later infusions with something sweeter, perhaps tangerine segments or a local Japanese cake called Yokan, made of a red bean paste, which goes very well with Gyokuro.
What is it like to make and how easy is it to get a good taste?
This tea is fun to make and can produce an extraordinary tasting green tea. For some it might seem like to requires more attention than usual, but I’d say it’s definitely worth it.
Single Serve, One Cup Method using 250ml teapot and cup:
As I love the aroma of Gyokuro, I’d recommend heating your teapot before you add your leaves. You can do this by simply filling the pot with hot water, swirling the water around for a few seconds before discarding. When you add your leaves, the heat will activate them, and you’ll get a good blast of that freshly cut grass and umami character. For a single serve, I recommend 4g (or 2tsp) of tea for 250ml.
What makes Gyokuro that little but more difficult to make is getting the temperature of the water right. If it’s too hot, you’ll start to extract the compounds which can taste bitter. This batch works best with just 60˚C water – you’ll get that floral sweetness and balanced, vegetal umami flavour.
If you don’t have a temperature-controlled kettle, you can simply leave your boiled water to cool for 8-10 minutes before adding it to the leaves. Or (and I think this is an easier way to do it) add cold water to the leaves first, up to about a third of the volume of your teapot, then top up the rest with freshly boiled water to level out the heat.
With this method a three-minute infusion works well and, as always, pour out the whole infusion into your favourite mug or glass for the complete, perfect cup. As it’s made with cooler water it will be a good temperature to drink right away. You can re-infuse the leaves too, either add 30 seconds to the time or increase the temperature to 70˚C on the next infusion to get maximum flavour the second time round.
This is our go-to method: 4g/2tsp per 250ml; 60˚C; 3 minutes per infusion.
For something different, try Traditional Kyusu or our Tea Master:
This is a more traditional approach for making Gyokuro and results in a nicely concentrated infusion. It’s my preferred way of making it as I like to sit and enjoy lots of small, short infusions. It’ll take me around 30 mins – 1 hour per session. Made well in this way, you’ll extract the nuances of the tea’s flavour more slowly and will notice changes throughout the infusions.
I begin by pre-heating the teaware really thoroughly with hot water, then I add roughly 6g of leaf or 1 large tablespoon per 60ml. After letting the kettle cool down to about 50˚C, I add the water and infuse for 2 minutes. With the water that I used to preheat my teapot I also preheat my cup to make sure no heat is lost when I pour the tea. After 2 minutes I pour the tea out, making sure to get every last drop for maximum umami richness. Then it’s ready to sip, enjoy and re-infuse.
Method: 5-6g per 60ml; 50˚C; 2 minutes per infusion.
Who is this tea for?
This is a tea for those who want to delve a bit deeper into the world of Japanese teas. If you have tried Sencha and love the grassiness and umami of it then Gyokuro is essentially an even deeper, sweeter expression of that style of green tea. It will suit you if you’re looking for a green tea that can be more meditative and can be enjoyed over a longer tea drinking session. With its high concentration of L-Theanine, you’ll not only get the umami, but also a calming relaxing feeling that combines with the stimulating caffeine to give an overall sense that could be described as “calm focus”.