Gyokuro is one of the most expensive Japanese teas available and also one of the healthiest. It grows in the shade, which causes an increase in the amino acids (theanine), caffeine and nutrients in the leaves, resulting in a sweet, vegetal flavor and a distinct aroma. The infusion has a pale green color.
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Where to Buy Gyokuro
You can buy this high-quality tea in any specialty tea shop or through a number of online vendors. If you are unsure where to begin, you can check out some of my recommendations below.
How to Prepare Gyokuro
The preparation of gyokuro differs from other teas in that it requires a much lower water temperature of 50°C–60°C (122°F–140°F) as well as a longer steeping time and more leaves. For these instructions, I’m going give a method of approximating the correct temperature with a simple stove-top kettle.
While the instructions I give here will result in a good brew, I highly recommend a more accurate method of regulating the temperature for a high quality tea like this one.
Using a thermometer is the cheapest way to get an accurate water temperature, but a water boiler/warmer or an electric kettle with a variable temperature setting would be preferable.
Personally, I recommend this Cuisinart kettle, because it has presets for every type of tea, so you always get the perfect temperature:
The best pot to use for gyokuro is a traditional kyusu tokoname side-handled teapot.
A tetsubin cast iron pot will work well, too
- Pour enough boiling water into the empty teapot to fill everyone’s cup. The teapot should NOT contain any teas leaves at this point.
- Pour the water into each cup, filling it almost to the top. Pouring the water will cool it about 10°C, so pour the cups back into the teapot, then back into the cups for a second time.
- Put about two smallish teaspoons of tea leaves into the empty teapot for each cup of tea. The teapot I am using comes with an infuser, but if yours doesn’t, you can put the leaves directly in the pot.
- Pour the water in the teacups back into the teapot.
- Let the tea steep until the leaves unfurl, about 2 minutes.
- Pour a small amount of tea into the first cup, then pour the same amount into every other cup. Continue filling the cups a little at a time, making sure that each cup contains the same amount of the weaker first pours and the stronger last drops. DO NOT fill one cup completely and then move on to the next cup.
- Continue pouring until the teapot is completely empty. You want the leaves to be as dry as possible to ensure a quality second infusion
- For the second infusion, you do not need to add any fresh leaves. Pour boiling water from your kettle directly into the cups and wait a few minutes. Here is where it becomes tricky to get a good temperature. You want the same water temperature as before, but the rate at which water cools depends on so many factors, that I cannot possibly judge how long you might have to wait.
- Let the tea steep 15 seconds (this may seem short, but is plenty, since the leaves have been soaking in the remaining water) then pour the brew into the cups, alternating cups as before. Distribute all the liquid, leaving the leaves as dry as possible.
- Depending on the quality of the tea you are using, you can get anywhere from 2 to 4 more infusions. Use the same method as you did for the second infusion, but add about 10 seconds to the steeping time for each infusion.
Use the amounts given in these instructions as a rough guide. If you find the resulting tea too weak, add more tea leaves; if it is too strong, reduce the amount of leaves used. Similarly, try increasing or decreasing the steeping times.
If the tea is too mild, increase the water temperature; if it is too bitter, reduce the temperature.
This is a very difficult tea to brew correctly. Many people do not like this variety of green tea and that’s usually because they’ve never managed to brew it correctly. Basically, you’ll want to keep experimenting until you come up with the perfect brew for your particular taste.
When you do, all that work will be worth it. Gyokuro is the one highest quality teas available and few things beat a perfectly brewed cup.
Best Gyokuro Teas
Many people already have an account with Amazon.com so it is probably the easiest place to buy tea online. Unfortunately, their selection of higher quality teas is generally lacking, especially when it comes to loose leaf versions.
I haven’t tried any of their gyokuro and can’t really make a recommendation, but If I were to try some, I’d go with one of two companies that specialize in Japanese teas. Either this organic gyokuro from Ocha:
Or this one from Chado Tea House:
Personally, I prefer to buy from specialty tea shops online, especially for a high quality tea like gyokuro. The best one I’ve tasted outside of Japan is this Uji Gyokuro from Art of Tea.
The Uji area near Kyoto is considered the tea capital of Japan and one well-brewed cup of this stuff will have you hooked for life.
More Information About Gyokuro
The main tea growing regions that product gyokuro are Yame, Uiji and Asahina in Japan. Yame is on the southern island of Kyushu, Uji is near Kyoto and Asahina is in Shizuoka, which is in the east, just southwest of the Tokyo region.
Yame produces the highest quality variety (and is very hard to find outside Japan), though the other two regions produce excellent teas as well.
Gyokuro is expensive and difficult to find. What makes it so special, rare and different from other Japanese green teas is the way it is grown and the processing method. Let’s compare it to the most popular Japanese tea, and the variety most similar to gyokuro, sencha.
Gyokuro Vs. Sencha
Gyokuro is often referred to as a type of sencha, because the processing is very similar. But the method of cultivation is different.
Gyokuro is grown at a lower altitude than sencha, in a misty and rainy climate. It is also grown in the shade. 20 days before harvest (at a minimum), the tea plants are shielded from the sunlight.
You may recognize this as tencha (the tea that is processed into matcha). The finest tencha is the tea that ends up becoming gyokuro.
For the highest quality varieties, the tea bushes are surrounded by trellises that are draped with black fabric to shade the bushes. Sometimes straw mats are added on top to further keep out the sun. For other varieties, the bushes are simply covered with black netting.
Shading the bushes from about 90% of the available sunlight has several effects.
The reduced sunlight inhibits photosynthesis, so the plant ramps up chlorophyll production to make up for that. The increases chlorophyll turns the leaves darker and also results in more nutrients and more caffeine.
In addition, the amount of L-theanine, which ads sweetness to the flavor of tea and also boosts the umami taste, is increased. Usually, light hitting the leaves results in L-theanine converting into catechin.
Since there is less light to stimulate this process, the L-theanine content of shade grown leaves is much higher. It is this increased level of L-theanine that gives gyokuro its distinct taste.
Growing in the shade is also the main reason for the higher price.
Since the tea bushes need to make up for the lack of sunlight on their own when they are grown in the shade, they use more energy. It takes them a while to recover from the energy drain of spending 20 days in the shade. As a result, they can only handle being harvested once a year.
This contributes to gyokuro’s rarity and high cost. Shading also adds to the production costs, especially is trellises are built, which further drives up the price of the final tea.
The rest of the production is basically the same as the production of sencha.
When spring rolls around, the youngest buds are picked. This is called the first flush and it is another reason this tea is so difficult to find. Only the youngest buds are picked only once a year, making this a very rare tea.
Immediately after being picked, the leaves are steamed to prevent the oxidation process and preserve their flavor. After cooling down, the leaves are rolled several times to soften them up, to help them dry and to give them their characteristic needle shape
After this, the leaves are dried once more. Then they are sorted by quality, with the highest being used for gyokuro. A final firing reduces the moisture in the leaves even more to help them last longer. It also enhances the characteristic flavor.
At this stage, the leaves spend several month aging, before they are packaged up for shipping.