Gyokuro is the highest grade Japanese green tea. It is cultivated in a special way. The name refers to the pale green color of the infusion. During my recent visit to Japan, I was able to visit Mr. Maejima, a well-respected master of the art of Gyokuro making.
Mr. Maejima lives in Okabe, a small village close to Fujieda in the Shizuoka Prefecture. He won three gold medals for the best Gyokuro, more gold medals at the international green tea exhibition, and was recognized by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture for the outstanding quality of his teas.
Kabuse (lit. “covered tea”) is covered for 15 days before harvest. Mr. Maejima’s Gyokuro bushes are covered for 20 days and then hand-picked (Kabuse is picked by machine). This process causes the amino acids (Theanine) and caffeine in the tea leaves to increase, while catechin (the source of bitterness in tea, along with caffeine) decreases, giving rise to a sweet flavour.
The tea also gains a distinct aroma from the covering process. Kabuse has only 50% of the umami that you find in Gyokuro. The Japanese decide between 6 tastes (in the West, we have 5): sweet, salty, sour, hot, bitter, and umami. Umami, popularly referred to as savouriness, is a flavour difficult to describe.
Aside from growing the tea, he also refines the tea himself in his little ‘factory’ that we were able to visit. Before he starts processing the leaves in this facility, the leaves are left for one day to dry. This makes them softer and reduces the moisture content. Mr. Maejima steams the tea lightly (only 25-30 seconds at approx. 100 degrees Celsius).
By the time the processing is completed, the moisture content of the tea leaves has been reduced to about 5%. The only sensor that Mr. Maejima is using is his own hands. After steaming, the leaves are rolled (and dried) for about 1 hour. As you can probably imagine by the looks of his equipment, the quantities that are being produced are very small (only 200-300 kg per year).
Unfortunately, the future of this high-quality tea is not guaranteed… his son does not continue the craft of making Gyokuro with the same enthusiasm of his father. When we asked Mr. Maejima how old he is, he answered with a wink - “I’ll tell you when I had too much sake"
Use 1.5-2 tsp per cup, add hot water (50-60⁰C), and steep for 1-2 minutes. Re-infuse the leaves.
The traditional way to prepare Gyokuro: Use 1.5-2 tsp per cup, add hot water (70⁰C), and steep for 1.5-2 minutes. Re-infuse the leaves.