At the beginning of April, the first new shoots of the season appear. Shortly after that, the entire gyokuro plantation is shaded for about 20 days using a large framework of reed screens and rice straw. This serves to shut out the direct sunlight and to reduce the rate of photosynthesis, resulting in high levels of theanine, the amino acid responsible for the full-bodied, umami-rich flavor of gyokuro tea.
On the traditional Japanese calendar,Risshun refers to the first day of spring in a given year; hachijuhachiya refers to the 88th day after Risshun. Hachijuhachiya is special because it marks the beginning of the year’s first tea picking. Though it varies slightly from year to year, hachijuhachiya typically occurs in early-May. At that time, the ‘first flush’ of gyokuro leaves is carefully picked. ‘First flush’ is the year’s first harvest of young leaves, considered by connoisseurs to be the absolute finest in quality, freshness and flavor.
The rolling/drying process begins shortly after the steaming has finished. During this process, the fibers are softened, allowing the tea’s flavor components to be released. There are several stages of rolling, starting with a loose rolling and culminating with a tight twist, giving the leaves their characteristic thin needle shape. By the time the leaves have gone through their final drying, the water content has been mostly removed. This effectively prevents the quality of the leaves from changing, thereby maintaining the original character of the tea as much as possible.
If you examine the finished tea leaves closely, you will see that they resemble a thin finely-twisted paper string. Concealed inside the twisted leaves is the essence of the tea's natural flavor.
A key difference between Japanese green tea and other teas (black tea, oolong tea, Chinese green tea) is that Japanese tea leaves are steamed after being harvested. The steaming process lasts for about 15 – 20 seconds, and is performed soon (within 12 – 20 hours) after the leaves are picked. The purpose of the steaming is to prevent the leaves from being oxidized. Thanks to this steaming process, and in part to the subsequent rolling process, most of the leaves’ natural green color, fragrance and nutritional components are retained.
After the rolling/drying process, the leaves are sorted. Buds and stems, as well as flakes which break off during the rolling process, are filtered out and only the fine tightly-twisted gyokuro leaves remain. These in turn are sorted according to size and shape, to be used later in specific proportions during the blending process at our Ippodo plant in Kyoto.
The buds, stems and flakes are sorted and packaged separately, as Gyokuro Mecha, Gyokuro Karigane and Gyokuro-ko respectively. The Japanese tea philosophy is to respect the tea plant, and to use all parts of the harvest.