Those keen on matcha should try her twin sister, gyokuro. Photo: Zach Mangan
By Jeff Ruiz
Matcha—the shade-grown, powdered green tea that dates back centuries to traditional Japan tea ceremonies—is seemingly everywhere. It’s the only tea in which one drinks the whole leaf, and thanks to a myriad of purported health benefits plus a sweet, mild flavor, matcha is on the rise. But did you know that matcha has an often overlooked beautiful sister named gyokuro?
Gyokuro and matcha are two unique teas produced in different ways from the same leaf that is shade-grown for twenty days. While matcha is ground into a fine powder and whisked into hot water, gyokuro is an extraction of the whole tea leaf in water, meaning the leaves are steeped then strained. Because of its rich flavor likened to buttered, steamed spinach, a serving of gyokuro is always smaller than a serving of matcha; about a third of an ounce for gyokuro and two and a half ounces for matcha. The caveat here is koicha matcha, which is a “thick” matcha preparation made with roughly double the amount of matcha in a regular serving and half the water.
Essential to gyokuro’s character is the manner in which its leaves are propagated. Shade-grown, in this case. Similar to the unintended way Champagne came to be and penicillin was discovered, the practice of shade-growing tea came about centuries ago by happy accident. Originally, farmers covered tea plants to protect them from frost. But, they noticed that leaves from tea plants grown in shade developed a greater concentration of flavor than leaves from uncovered plants.
[Photo: Zach Mangan]
The general rule for shading tea leaves is, the longer a plant is shielded from sun, the more concentered its flavor becomes. Farmers build frames over tea crops and attach a breathable tarp atop that is then covered with straw. The “house” shades about 80 to 95 percent of the sun’s rays, which fosters amino acids to build in the leaves while lowering the leaf’s catechins or tannins. Heightened amino acids equal more umami, less tannins, and therefore lower astringency. In order to qualify as gyokuro or matcha-grade tea—the highest rank of Japanese tea—each must live in shade for, as mentioned, twenty days. Less shaded plants fall into a class of tea called kabusecha.
Aside from consuming the leaf whole versus steeped, what most distinguishes gyokuro from matcha is how the leaves are processed after they are picked, traditionally by hand, and rolled into a fine needle. Reshaping the leaves breaks cell walls and releases aromatic compounds, adding further depth and dimension to the final cup. Meanwhile, if those same leaves are dried flat they become what’s known as tencha. These leaves are then de-veined, de-stemmed and ground into delicate matcha powder.
The Japanese characters of “gyo” and “kuro” translate to “jade” and “dew.” This expression perfectly parallels the flavor of properly brewed gyokuro. Steeped with two and a half ounces of lukewarm water, a single serving of gyokuro, about one third of an ounce, can serve six people. Because of its richness, the tea is offered in small portions like drops of dew. Hence its name.
[Photo: Zach Mangan]
As important as terroir is to wine, the same notion holds true for tea. Yame, on the island of Kyushu, and in Uji, just outside of Kyoto, are gyokuro’s most celebrated growing regions.
Last year, during the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture’s 68th annual exhibition showcasing the best gyokuro in the world, the teas which came in first through nineteenth places all hailed from Yame. Interestingly, during the exhibition dedicated to matcha, Japan’s best grew in Uji.
2014 was a significant moment for gyokuro in the United States. It marked the first time that the gold medal-winning gyokuro made it to the American market. That’s like the first time Grand Cru wine landed on American soil.
While some believe that matcha epitomizes the highest level of tea, don’t disregard gyokuro. Matcha’s twin brings forth intensity of flavor akin to dashi and a powerfully seductive aroma. Bold notes of steamed seaweed matched with an alluring sweetness hit the palate in waves. The experience of drinking gyokuro is unlike any other food or beverage experience, leaving many to believe that gyokuro is the most elegant tea in the world. Even above matcha.