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Konnichiwa to the emperor of teas

Gyokuro is a revered Japanese green tea known for its trademark vegetal flavours and, of course, umami

Gyokuro is a dark green, needle-like tea with a rich mouthfeel. (IStockPhoto)
Gyokuro is a dark green, needle-like tea with a rich mouthfeel. (IStockPhoto)

If there’s a tea I have had an indifferent relationship with, it’s green tea. Perhaps the marketing around its supposed health benefits put me off. Or maybe, the fact that the first few green teas I had were bitter. I have since come across rather pleasant—even good—greens. I look for those vegetal flavours and enjoy them. It’s still not my preferred type but if I have learnt anything, it’s that there are so many green teas that I may just be working my way from the bottom up.

A couple of years ago, I met a Japanese tea producer who introduced me to sencha, genmaicha, hojicha and matcha. I enjoyed the toasted flavours of the hojicha most; the sencha made a really nice cold brew. And then the name gyokuro began popping up, with images of a particularly dark green, needle-like tea. Most described it as a sweet tea with no astringency, the trademark vegetal flavours and, of course, umami. It is called the emperor of tea, literally fit for the king.

Like the matcha, the gyokuro is made from plants covered in shade for about three weeks before harvesting. This canopy inhibits photosynthesis and helps the leaves retain their chlorophyll content. The leaves are harvested in spring, the first harvest of the year. The gyokuro is almost venerated by tea lovers. What struck me too was the very precise instructions for making the gyokuro; indeed, there seems to be a consensus that it must be made just so.

When I found it available in Bengaluru, I decided to try some (do ask your favourite Japanese restaurant if they can get you some). It is one of the most expensive teas I have ever bought— 1,142 for 50g from Infinitea—and I wanted to get it right. I followed the instructions to the T: The water had to be at 42 degrees Celsius and the teapot, as shallow as possible. The first steep was for two minutes. The next set of instructions were about turning off the phone and finding a quiet place. Well, that turned out to be the easiest step.

My first infusion was with boiled water, cooled to about 50 degrees Celsius. I added just enough to cover the leaves and let it steep for two minutes. The liquor was unpleasantly bitter, with a discernible seaweed-like flavour. I tried a second steep but soon abandoned it. Instead, I went for the steeping instructions on the gyokuro packet, which was to use boiling water that had been allowed to sit for 30 seconds and steep for two-three minutes. It was on the second and third steep that I actually started enjoying the taste. The taste was mostly of seaweed but I enjoyed the texture and rich mouthfeel.

I confess it is not the most memorable tea I have had, but then again, perhaps it’s a tea that will do well with a guide to take me through it. Certainly, given the price, it’s not a tea I feel I can “play” with. But, as my day progressed, I found that those umami flavours continued to hum on my palate, like a gentle reproach for having giving up too soon. I do think there may yet be a part 2 to my tryst with the gyokuro after all.

TEA TAKES was my source. In Bengaluru, Azuki Japan Travel Cafe and Bistro can source the gyokuro. Other online stores listing gyokuro are Tea Shelf and Tasse de Thé.

Also read | Re-steep and make tea twice as nice

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1

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