Gyokuro is one of the best tasting and most expensive full leaf green teas available from Japan. Similar to tencha, which is only used for matcha, it is grown under cover in order to avoid direct sunlight. Shading the tea leaves a few weeks before harvest is what keeps it from becoming bitter.
Tea leaves contain a protein called L-Theanine. This protein travels from the roots of the tea plant up into the newly budding leaves. When it is exposed to sunlight, L-Theanine converts into catechin, the main culprit of the bitter taste associated with green tea.
The length of time the leaves are exposed to sunlight has a direct affect on its taste. Teas that are grown in direct sunlight, like sencha, tend to have a slightly more bitter taste. So the first harvest of sencha tends to be the best. But we’re not here to talk about sencha.
Tea Plants Grown in Sunlight
Let’s understand one important misconception. The tea plants used to grow the leaves for matcha and gyokuro are exactly the same as every other tea plant in Japan.
For most of their lives they are left to bask in the sun so they can grow into the full and beautiful shrubs we all recognize.
The difference comes in the month or so before harvest.
It is at this time that the green tea farmers cover their plants. There are many ways farmers do this, but most have rigged canopies that they pull over their entire field. These canopies are designed to block out the majority of sunlight.
Shaded Green Tea Plants in Uji, Japan
After 20 or more days of growing in the shade, the dark green leaves are harvested. New tea leaves picked between the end of April and the end of May are called Shin-cha or Ichiban-cha, which means new tea or number one tea. These leaves are considered to be the best tea of the season.
Once the leaves are picked, they are then steamed and kneaded as they are dried. This process is what locks in all of those beneficial qualities we find in green tea.
Gyokuro has a very rich, full flavor and a vivid green color when brewed. It is less bitter than sencha and is considered to be the highest-grade full leaf green tea.
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