The Tea Detective
Uncovering and Exploring the Facts About Tea
Gyokuro-Japan's Most Treasured Tea
Sencha may be Japan's most popular tea for everyday drinking, but gyokuro is
their most treasured tea, loved for its mouth-coating, slightly sweet, vegetal,
and mellow roasted flavors.
Most gyokuro comes from the
world famous tea
gardens of Uji,
located just outside the historical
city of Kyoto on the main island of Honshu.

Along with Uji, quality gyokuro is also produced in
the Yame region of Fukuoka, that has an ideal, tem-
perate climate, making it one of Japan's largest
gyokuro producers.  It is also grown in Saga pre-
fecture.

Gyokuro is a
shade
grown tea, meaning it
is grown under full
shade, covered from
the sun.  Shading helps
eliminate the astrin-
gency and gives the
tea a strong vegetal sweetness.
Gyokuro is a spring flush tea, harvested in May with only one plucking, and is kept fully shaded
until it is time to be harvested.

                                                This method of shading tea was developed in the 1860's at the
                                                end of the Edo period.  The shade covering is applied as soon
                                                as the warm spring weather signals the tea, stimulating the
                                                bushes to begin new growth.

                                                There are two different techniques for shading the tea plants.
                                                The first and most elaborate method of shading, used for only
                                                the most exclusive and expensive gyokuro, is called tana.

                                                With this method trellises are built over the rows of tea, covering
large sections at a time.  The black netting is placed over the top and down the sides, entirely
covering the tea all the way down
to the ground.  The netting doesn't touch
or impede the plants in any way, and they
are still able to grow freely.

The second method of shading is called
jikagise, and with this style the tea bushes
are simply wrapped in cloth, row by row.

With either shading method a small amount
of light (about 10%) filters through the nett-
ing.

Sometimes the amount of shade is increas-
ed with a thick layer of straw added to the
black tana netting.  This extra shading in-
creases the darkness inside even more.
This added darkening step is only used for
the very top grades of gyokuro (and tencha that is
made into matcha).

About three weeks before their harvesting in May,
the plants are covered over.  By shading the tea
                                                 bushes, the chlorophyll production is increased, by reducing the
                                                 natural photosynthesis of the leaves.  This increases the plants
                                                 chlorophyll production, thereby changing the natural balance of
                                                 caffeine, sugars, and flavonols.

                                                 This allows the
tea makers to manipulate the leaf, decreasing
                                                 the astringency and increasing the natural sweetness for a
                                                 more mellow, sweetly vegetative and slightly roasted taste that
                                                 fills the mouth, coating it with flavor, what the Japanese call
                                                 umami.

Also, by not allowing photosynthesis to occur, it increases the levels
of theanine, an amino acid which is thought to increase relaxation.  
Theanine is also responsible for giving tea its fresh grassy, vegetal
flavors.  When photosynthesis occurs, it usually reduces theanine
and increases tannins (one of teas compounds that increases as-
tringency).

Preventing photosynthesis from occurring is one of the factors in gyokuro's deep, dark pine
green color.

                                   Special clonal varieties of tea were developed especially to grow gyo-
                                   kuro with small leaves and sweet flavor.  High quality gyokuro leaf is
                                   hand plucked and made exclusively from a bud and new leaf.

                                   There are only approximately ten production days available for plucking
                                   gyokuro, with this high caliber of tea accounting for just 1% of Uji's 20%
                                   total gyokuro production, making it one of Japan's most expensive leaf
                                   
green teas.

                                   Gyokuro is so highly regarded by connoisseurs, that there are yearly
                                   competitions crowning the best gyokuro producer.

Although quality gyokuro is grown in all three major tea growing regions, much of it is grown
around Uji, about a half hour south of the former capital of Kyoto.

Uji was once a rural suburb of Kyoto, but the bustling, growing city
has slowly encroached on Uji's tea gardens.  Where there was once
farm land, fast food restaurant franchises, shopping malls, office
buildings, and apartment complexes have now cropped up, squeez-
ing the remaining tea gardens between buildings and on hills surr-
ounding the city.

Since the gyokuro crop is so small it's usually hand picked.  The leaves are promptly
steam-fixed, preserving the dark green color, and then processed using the
Sencha Rolling
Method, before being passed through a series of machines that shape and dry them in stages.  
The tea is then finish-dried in ovens.

The result of all this careful, hard work is a special light, elegant brew with long, slender leaves
that the Japanese treasure for its even, vegetal, mouth-coating taste and soothing, gentle
roasted flavors.  
Enjoy.
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