Dialing down a water kettle to 120ºF seems counterintuitive in preparing a cup of tea, but the green leaves I’m about to douse in lukewarm liquid don’t need much heat to release an umami-bomb mouthful from their needlelike leaves. And at just a few tablespoons, this gulp of Gyokuro Hoshinohien from Tekuno goes down like a briny tea oyster, with notes of konbu and a can’t-miss mushroom funk combined with a silky, viscous mouthfeel. For the uninitiated, it’s nothing short of startling that brewed tea leaves can produce such a sensory explosion.
I’ve been drinking loose teas ever since I stumbled into the magnificently appointed Imperial Tea Court (formerly housed on Powell Street in Chinatown and now in the Ferry Building) some 25 years ago and discovered the world of Chinese teas. (Who knew that white teas even existed? Not me.) My introduction began with a tasting of various oolongs, preceded by the simple gesture of prewarming the teacup with hot water — a step I still take to this day.
My tea stash at home consists of recycled glass jars mostly half full of loose-leaf teas: black, green, white, oolong, scented teas like jasmine as well as herb teas such as dried lemon verbena and shiso from my backyard. I still have a traditional white porcelain gaiwan teacup (which has a lid to prevent tea leaves from getting in your mouth with each sip) that I purchased on that first trip to Imperial Tea Court, as well as far too many teapots, strainers, cups, and mugs. Considering all this, you might imagine I already have a pretty knowledgeable grasp on the finer points of tea. Yet when I confidently strolled into a new-to-me tea shop, intent on exiting with a bag of jasmine tea, I found myself embarking on another journey.
The tea shop Tekuno was then located in the Dogpatch (now on Irving). After I asked for jasmine tea, proprietor Catherine Jue politely explained that Tekuno specialized in only single-origin teas from small-scale producers in Japan, and jasmine teas were of Chinese origin. Ah! Once again I realized how much I had to learn.
On display were various types of green tea leaves accompanied by cards featuring tasting notes. You might find a sencha, a type of green tea, described as having a balanced sweetness, rich aroma, and robust umami with notes of watermelon rind and crimini mushrooms, a thinly sliced mushroom shown on the card as a visual cue, or a kukicha, a twig tea, with tasting notes of toasted amaranth and candy hearts, accompanied by pastel-colored candies.
Admittedly I was confused at first as to whether I was supposed to add a slice of mushroom to the cup when brewing the tea, but as Jue explained, using tasting notes similar to those for wine or coffee to describe tea is a relatively new practice.
In Japan, teas are generally described by moments one may encounter in daily life. A tea hints at a “field of blooming flowers” or “the crisp air offered by cedar trees.” Applying the sometimes flowery prose of a wine writer to tea is definitely more of an American thing.
From Jue’s perspective, providing tasting notes gives Tekuno a way to start conversations and to explore the culture of Japanese teas, which can sometimes feel foreign and obscure to customers, especially if they haven’t been exposed to green teas before. The descriptions are just reference points for what you might experience with a cup of tea. After all, the best cup of tea is the one you prepare to your own satisfaction. However, you can’t tell what tea is going to taste like just by looking at the leaves, and sometimes they often smell quite similar before brewing—although when you open a bag of gyokuro leaves, the fresh mushroom scent (we’re pegging it as fresh matsutake) is unmistakable.
I walked out of Tekuno that day with a bag of sencha, and then promptly joined Jue’s Tea Club, which promised to deliver one seasonal, rare Japanese tea produced in extremely limited quantities—“teas too avante garde to yield more than a few kilos per year”—each month. The result has been an ongoing education in green tea, as each tea is accompanied by detailed harvest and brewing notes as well as occasional information on the growers. Unlike coffee for example, where the roaster is the brand (think Sightglass, Andytown, or even Ballast Coffee with its Philippine-grown Barako beans), Japanese teas are seldom identified by the grower-producer.
The Sencha Zairai listed on the Tekuno website mentions the tea comes from zairai tea trees and “while the precise age of this tea tree garden is not known, our producer estimates they are at least 60 years old.” There is no acknowledgment by name of the grower, unlike say, a bottle of Raft Wines Syrah, which not only notes the vineyard, Weed Farms, but also the viticultural area, Dry Creek Valley. A quick web search for Japanese and Chinese teas confirms this lack of name-dropping: tea producers, for the most part, remain anonymous.
Back to that gyokuro tea. Although all teas, whether Indian, Chinese, or Japanese, green, black, white, or oolong, originate from the same plant, the camellia sinensis, gyokuro is produced exclusively in Japan. What distinguishes it from other green tea is the growing process: the tea orchards are covered in fabric shades for the last two to four weeks before harvest. This reduction of sunlight shuts down photosynthesis while accelerating the production of chlorophyll, resulting in leaves with a deep green color; the trademark of a cup of gyokuro, which translates to “jade dew,” is the infusion’s pale green color. This lack of sunlight reduces the tannins typically found in tea leaves (which also contributes to the smooth mouthfeel) and increases the production of various amino acids, especially theanine, which besides slowing the absorption of caffeine, is said to induce relaxation, improve memory and attention, and the potent antioxidant catechin, believed to reduce inflammation and have cancer-fighting properties.
Despite its reputation as the umami bomb of the tea universe, gyokuro is still the lesser-known star, with matcha clearly winning the popular vote. But green tea aficionados still happily pay the hefty price, ranging from $35 to $50 and more per ounce for the exclusive gyokuro tea leaves. It can become an expensive habit.
Matcha is Japan’s most well-known tea in the U.S., where it has proliferated in latte drinks (and now baked goods) coast to coast. The real distinction, which might be lost on some who consume it, is that it’s the only tea beverage where you actually consume the leaves, which have been ground down to a dust-like powder. Otherwise, a cup of tea is always an infusion, whether it’s from loose leaves or a teabag.
There are two grades of matcha: ceremonial and culinary. Ceremonial grade usually comes in an airtight tin, best for storing it in the fridge to preserve its vibrant color and taste. It’s meant to be consumed on its own, most of the time brewed just with hot water (~175ºF), delivering a jolt of caffeine, protein, potassium, and other nutrients, making it a popular alternative for those looking to cut down on coffee consumption. Lesser-grade culinary matcha are mostly destined for the latte market, where their bitter and astringent flavor profiles are masked by the addition of sugar and milk.
At this point, I’m still geeking out on gyokuro, it’s my afternoon pick me up (I’m still wedded to my morning cup of joe), I haven’t stretched into the realm of matcha yet (checks empty wallet to confirm), but I’ll undoubtedly get there one of these days. In the meantime, they make tea in India, don’t they?
—Bruce Cole is the publisher of Edible San Francisco