Gyokuro: The Making of Japan's Finest Green Tea

The Japanese have treasured Gyokuro for hundreds of years as the finest green tea. Now the best grades of this tea are becoming more widely available outside of Japan as more tea lovers learn to appreciate this wonderfully fragrant and delicate tea. The English translation for Gyokuro is Jade Dew, which is an apt reference to its gemstone-like color and naturally sweet flavor.

What makes Gyokuro so special? The primary factors that contribute to making this special tea are how the leaf is cultivated and how the leaf is processed after picking.

Gyokuro Harvesting & Shade Cultivation

Gyokuro is grown from the tea varietal known as Yabukita, which is a small leaf, sweet tea that is used in many of Japan's highest quality green teas.

Gyokuro is made only with the earliest leaf buds of the spring harvest. The tea is grown under shade cover (using reed or straw screens) for 20 days before harvesting begins. Growing the tea in diffuse sunlight reduces photosynthesis in the young leaf buds. As a result, the tea plant produces more chlorophyll, which changes the proportions of the sugars, amino acids, caffeine and flavanols that contribute to the color, aroma and taste. Less exposure to sunlight results in a mild and sweet flavor and less astringency.

Gyokuro Processing Skills

Special, labor-intensive processing skills are required to produce Gyokuro. Careful control over the processing is necessary because the shade-grown leaf buds are softer and hold more moisture and flavor than many other kinds of green tea. First, the carefully picked leaves are lightly steamed to prevent oxidation. The second step is an initial rolling and then air-drying, before a fine rolling to acquire shape and flavor. The result is a raw tea known as aracha, a rough grade of tea with high water content.

The aracha is later sorted into various leaf grades, known as tencha. The finest grades of tencha are then selected to make Gyokuro. At this stage, the tea undergoes many lengthy rolling and drying stages to finish the tea into its needle-like form. Finally, the finished tea is allowed to settle or mature for at least a week in order to further develop its characteristic flavors.

The gardens with the best reputation for making the highest quality Gyokuro tea are located in three regions: Hoshinomura in Yame (Kyushu), Joyoshi in Kyoto and Okabe in Shizuoka (Honshu).

Brewing Gyokuro

Gyokuro is a sensitive green tea and needs to be carefully brewed to bring out the best flavor. Cooler water (around 140 degrees Fahrenheit) and a slightly larger amount of leaf (around 2 teaspoons per cup) are recommended to reveal the special flavor of Gyokuro.

High-quality Gyokuro will yield up to 3 flavorful infusions. Since the first infusion has allowed the leaves to open up, brew the second infusion for a much shorter time (around 30 seconds) and the third infusion for about 60 seconds.