Feeling a bit light headed after an uneventful Valentine’s Day spent watching both Planet of the Apes movies for comparison purposes, so I decided, what better way to jumpstart my day than with a cup of ghastly, green Gyokuro.
The spinachy, seadweedy and decidely vegetal aromas are a brazen shock to the senses, but not in a harsh way. It’s lovely and soothing, pleasantly stirring, like a hearty spinach soup simmering on the stove. A sip of this decadent brew floods the mouth with a lush green flavor of the freshest steamed spinach, the cooked flavor of toasted walnuts and oddly, a hint of sulfur. Unlike many other high end teas, the flavor is consistent and solid, unevolving, but delicious all the same.
Like most great things Japanese, Gyokuro is a study in subtlety. A type of teas as well as an adjective, it has come to describe teas with “umami”, or mouth-coating sensation, as that caused by this lovely shade grown tea. Judging the gentle differences that shade growing makes requires careful attention. Though Gyokuro tea grows partially in the shade, and Sencha teas grow in the sun, both are processed the same way. The leaves therefore resemble each other closely, both in appearance and in taste. Yet the shade covering of Gyokuro accounts for the subtly lusher, darker, more mouth-coating tea.
Most Gyokuro is grown around Uji, half an hour south of the former capital of Kyoto. The shade-growing method was developed at the end of the Edo era, in the 1860s. Once a rural suburb of Kyoto, Uji has now become quite busy. Apartment houses and office buildings have replaced many Gyokuro tea fields. The remaining fields that make Gyokuro are wedged in between the buildings and on the hills that surround the city. About three weeks before the May harvest, the gardens are shaded over. They were once covered in rice straw; today growers use black plastic mesh.
Since the gardens are so small, crops are usually plucked by hand. Then the leaves are promptly steam-fixed to preserve the lovely dark green color of the leaves. Following the Sencha rolling method, the leaves pass through a series of machines that shape and dry the leaves in stages, approximating the steps skilled handlers once followed to make hand-rolled Gyokuro. (Since it takes about four hours to make a kilo of hand-rolled Gyokuro, it is rare to find hand-rolled tea, but they very long and slender leaves make a light, elegant brew.) After the rolling the tea is dried in an oven. The result is a special tea the Japanese particularly prize for its constant, vegetal flavor with gentle, soothing roasted notes.