Gyokuro: Japan's Most Treasured Tea Demystified

Posted by Zach Mangan on

Gyokuro is a style of green tea that is, identity wise, completely Japanese. Gyokuro is unique in that the leaves of the plant are unpruned and reared under shade for the last 20-25 days of their growing cycle similarly to Tencha (as we discussed in our Complete Guide To Matcha). The flavor of gyokuro is deep, rich and heady - and is often described as “buttery”, “dashi like”, and “umami rich”. A combination of the shading process, fertilization, and cultivar selection all lead to the profound body of this very special Japanese green tea.

Uji and Yame, the home of Japan’s finest gyokuro

Japan’s most exceptional gyokuro are grown in Yame in Fukuoka Prefecture and Uji, near Kyoto. We are often asked - “Why only there?” - and the short answer is of course terroir and climate, but most importantly, the history of gyokuro production in those areas. The tea industries of those areas have supported gyokuro production for generations, and many of the finer details of producing it at the highest levels is guarded and stays in the local population. The legacy of Gyokuro began, according to Shinki Yamashita, a 3rd generation farmer in Kyotanabe (and grandson of National Treasure Toshikazu Yamashita) during the Edo Period. When asked about the history of this fine Japanese green tea, he responded "Regarding Gyokuro itself, according to the history passed down in Uji, Kahei Yamamoto who was from Uj City invented the Gyokuro process 250 years ago. And, I believe as it spread, people started to make Gyokuro in Kyotanabe (a city slightly south of Uji City). So this area has about 200 to 250 years of history. It’s really short among Kyoto’s tea since it is said that Uji Matcha has 400 years of history. So, we are pretty young in the world of tea.”

Shinki Yamashita, Award Winning Gyokuro Producer (Kyotanabe, Uji, Japan)

While Yame has a shorter history making Gyokuro, less than a hundred years, it has made great strides utilizing modern sencha inspired rolling techniques to craft beautiful, needle shaped gyokuro. Additionally, Yame’s commitment to traditional methodology, such as using rice coverings to shade the tea plants, has been rewarded - it has captured the top prize Gyokuro at Japan’s national tea fair 23 years in a row. (Check out our Producer interview with Shinya san for some great insight into Yame Gyokuro).

Cooling gyokuro after Hiire firing in Yame

While Uji and Yame do share similar weather patterns, access to clean mountain streams, and unique cultivars that are regionally suited for crafting this wonderful Japanese green tea - their most similar characteristic is a passion to uphold their reputations as makers of the highest grade Gyokuro.

What is Gyokuro? How is different than sencha?

While the finished product can sometimes be hard to tell apart, no one would confuse them if you saw each growing. As We mentioned in our post Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sencha But Were Afraid To Ask, Sencha is a green tea grown in full sunlight as pruned bushes roughly hip height and harvested in spring - most often by machine. Gyokuro on the other hand is produced from tea plants that are allowed to grow much higher - as high as shoulder to head depending your height. These bushes are intentionally shaded from sunlight for 20 -25 days then generally harvested by hand. The shading is done by erecting a simple structure, or Tana, around the plants and blocking roughly 80-90% of the sun with either a synthetic netting or rice straw. The shading process is integral to the teas flavor. Why? Read on.

Sencha Field, Uji

Gyokuro Field, Yame

What is the point of shading the plant?

Historically, fine teas were said to come from the misty mountains growing in areas that had dense morning and evening fog. The answer why these teas were so delicious does have to do with the fog. Why? Light diffusion. Gyokuro takes this concept to the extreme.

A tea plant uses sunlight to produce energy by way of Photosynthesis. During that process, a natural chemical in the tea plant called L-Theanine is converted into another chemical called Catechin. Catechin is an antioxidant that helps protect the plant from predators as well as harmful UV rays that could otherwise damage it as it grows in the sun. Catechin also imparts a slightly astringent flavor to the tea plants. When tea plants are shaded, less of the L-Theanine is converted into catechin but instead concentrates in the leaf adding a deep, rich, umami. Additionally, the leaves of the tea plant stretch out in search of light making each leaf more supple, thin, and pliable - perfect for crafting into fine tea. L-Theanine is also the chemical responsible for the relaxed focus that matcha and gyokuro bring - a type of non sedative relaxation that works in tandem with the teas caffeine. So in short, shading concentrates the teas levels of L-Theanine enhancing its rich flavor.

Brewing Delicious Gyokuro

In my experience brewing gyokuro, I have consulted with producers, tea manufacturers, and farmers - and I have found that everyone has their own slightly unique approach but share a common thread - more leaf, less water, cooler water, and extended brewing time. Below is how I suggest you brew your gyokuro at home.

Love this kyusu? ↑ - it is available here

How to Brew Delicious Gyokuro

  1. Bring your water to a full boil and then pour 50 -60cc into a small cup to cool
  2. Add roughly 5-6g of gyokuro tea leaf to your tea pot
  3. It is important to make sure your water is cooled to around 135F (57C)
  4. Pour over the leaves and allow the tea to brew for around 2 minutes.
  5. While the tea is brewing, keep the cups preheated with near boiling water, pour this off (it can be the start of your 2nd brew) and pour the brewed gyokuro directly into your preheated cups. Always make sure to shake out the very last drops - much of the deep flavor is in these drops.


Pro Tip: After subsequent brews, eat the gyokuro leaves with ponzu sauce and a bit of toasted sesame seeds - delicious.

Ready to get into Gyokuro?

We are hosting a intensive Gyokuro tasting on Sunday July 14th in Brooklyn.

You can also Browse our catalog by clicking the link below.

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