Tuesday, November 30, 2010

GYOKURO, it's sublime

I got this Gyokuro at Sanko, a Japanese grocery store along Queen St West last winter.  They're a good source for good quality fresh Japanese teas, as I've posted here before.   I know I've gushed about Golden Monkey as my current favorite here a couple times but good Gyokuro comes a close second these days.

Gyokuro is a high-end Japanese green tea which is shade-grown for at least the final three weeks before harvest.  Dark netting or bamboo fencing is hung over the tea plants and the shading causes the plant, in this sunlight depleted environment, to struggle so it goes into overdrive and creates extra everything:  caffeine, theanine, chlorophyll, etc. This means it has a dark green leaf (lots of chlorophyll) which gives it a distinctive pale bluey-green liquor.  Gyokuro translates as Dew Pearls or Jade Dew and the jade reference is a good one for its colour.

Per The Story of Tea (p.183) the "extra boost of green chlorophyll pigment changes the natural balance of caffeine, sugars and flavanols in the leaf, creating the opportunity for the tea processors to coax added sweetness from the leaf.  In addition, the absence of photosynthesis increases the presence of naturally occurring theanine (an amino acid that is believed to induce relaxation), which is the component of tea that is responsible for giving tea its vegetal taste. Usually photosynthesis reduces theanine and increases tannins."

And per The Tea Drinkers Handbook (p.199) Gyokuro "is made by a process introduced in 1835 at Uji" and the shading "increases the proportions of sugars, amino acids, and caffeine, decreases the amount of catechins and modifies the aromatic compounds of the leaf, which darkens in color."

Gyokuro's flavour, aroma and mouthfeel as result of all the shading is the wonderful trade-off for the extra caffeine.  Myself I can't drink it after 4pm or I'm up all night.

Gyokuro dry leaves showing the tea's distinctive dark
bluey-green needled leaves.  This is the very end of the
batch I bought so there's quite abit of dust here too.

Brewed at 75C for 1 minute.

The dry leaves are mostly a shiny dark green with flecks of bright green, and feature a lot of beautiful tightly twisted needles.  As I peer closely at them a sweet, rich almost floral scent wafts up, a bit of rose even.

Gyokuro is very delicate -- the plant is stressed to begin with and the steaming, as usual, starts breaking down the leaf anyway.  All to say it should be steeped at a low temperature.  Some say as low as 60C. to 65C.  I did this cup at 75C by bringing the water to a boil and pouring it off into two different creamer jugs (my own version of the yuzamashis in Japan) before pouring over the leaves.  (Each pour drops the temp about 10C and I paused and, yes, double-checked with a thermometer, before pouring onto the leaves.)  Another low-tech way to check for the correct temp is that if the cup is too hot on your fingers to comfortably pick up the water is too hot for Gyokuro.

Gyokuro liquor -- a lovely, clear pale "jade" green.

The liquor is a gorgeous pale blue-green and quite clear -- there are a few small flecks of green leaves in the brew.  In the mouth it is soft and oily and round and smooth -- no astringency.  Not to go too into left field here, but it's like the wonderful rich satiny oilyness of perfectly cooked salmon. 

The flavours are sweet, buttery, lightly vegetal with a whiff of the ocean, and a nice tang at the back and sides of the tongue at the end.

Japan alone consumes more than it produces -- it's gone to China and other parts of Asia to make up the difference.  As a result I understand very little of the really good stuff comes overseas.  To my young-in-experience tongue this is a very nice tea, and I feel lucky that Sanko is nearby and caters to a knowledgeable Japanese clientele so that it's on offer.  Imagining that there are even better examples of Gyokuro out there is truly something to look forward too.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


As I have mentioned before, Golden Monkey tea from China is currently one of my very favorite teas.  I first had it, and continue to refresh my cannister, from Tao's tea shop.  But when I was in my neighborhood  Tealish recently I was delighted to find they had brought in a 2010 Golden Monkey.  Fresh tea and Golden Monkey -- two of this girl's current loves!

The two teas look very different and have distinct flavours but are both wonderful, exhibiting the tea type's classic sweet flavour and soft mouthfeel.

Golden Monkey is a black Chinese tea originating in the Fujian province.  On the coast, Fujian is the country's biggest tea-producer as well as the producer of the widest range of teas. From what I read, Golden Monkey is traditionally a Mao Jian pluck meaning it's a bud and one slightly larger leaf (as opposed to a Mao Feng pluck which is two equal-length leaves and a bud). 

I want to take a minute on this tea's name.  There are a number of explanations for it and then my own theory.

1.  From  Chinese Tea Supplier
In earlier times Golden Monkey was the tea of Taipans and local overlords. They claimed that the secret for this tea was that it had to be plucked by the golden monkey which centuries ago inhabited the forests of Fujian Province. This special tea was very rare and the Taipans demanded every ounce of tea because they claimed that it gave them ‘the agility and prowess of the patriarch of a golden monkey troop’. 

2. From many sites (probably quoting each other) including Wikipedia:
According to legend, this particular tea grows in lofty and precipitous peaks making it difficult to pluck the leaves so local people trained monkeys to pluck the tea leaves, hence the name.

3. From the Adagio Tea package:
The name comes from its unique appearance: the leaves resemble monkey claws.

Here's my theory.  Have a look at this Sichuan Golden Monkey's colour and lovely furry golden arms and compare it to the photo below of the tea's lovely furry golden buds -- now tell me, where do you think the name came from?
This image of the endangered Golden Monkey
was captured from the chinaexploration.com site

Please click on this photo to enlarge it to appreciate the
wonderful furry golden leaf bud tips in Tao's Golden Monkey
tea and compare it to the monkey's furry golden arms.  Nuh?

Just off-the-boil water for 2 minutes.

And while we're waiting for the teas to brew, a look at and deep inhalation of the dry leaves. (A colleague in the biz  passed along that if you exhale onto the dry leaves before smelling them you slightly infuse them with the moisture of your breath and they give off a stronger scent.  Neat huh?)
Two Golden Monkeys: Tao's on the left, Tealish's on the right.

These two teas look and feel very different as you can see from the photo above. Tao's Zhenghe Hong Gong Fu (fine Golden Monkey from Zhenghe) is much fluffier, the leaves smaller and more spidery and it's comprised almost entirely of bright furry golden buds.  The aroma of its dry leaves is sweet, already giving off toffee notes.  The Tealish G.M.'s leaves are thicker and larger with fewer furry buds which are a darker, beautiful rich orange.  It is also giving a sweet aroma but less candied and more like lovely sweet buttered spinach.

Tao's G.M. wet leaves are an even light brown, and are long and even looking kind of like miniature brown pea pods.  This is the still-rolled leaf and leaf bud.  The Tealish G.M. wet leaves are broken, darker, and a more traditional coppery brown with a bit of dark green showing.

Both give off first notes that are sweet and soft.  Tao's G.M then comes through like buttered whole wheat toast, while the Tealish G.M.'s sweetness is more sweet buttered spinach and overall has a sharper, darker aroma --is that a breath of anise or liquorice in there too?
Tealish Golden Monkey wet leaves.  Some broken whole
leaves, some buds on left, and a slight green cast
to some of the leaves.

Golden Monkey from Tao's Tea House wet leaves.  Note
one leaf and a bud and the beautiful evenness of the pluck.

The Tao G.M brewed liquor is distinctly orangey-red and abit cloudy which, on closer examintation, is due to the fine bud hairs floating about.  In contrast, the Tealish G.M. is very clear and bright and a lovely, red-brown.
Two Golden Monkey's -- sourced from Tealish on the left,
and from Tao's Tea House on the right.  They brew to quite
different colours -- much more orangey-red on the right.

Both are light to medium bodied with little or no astringency, and when they've cooled give a hint of smokeyness.  Although they both feature buds, I did not find either of these teas to be high in caffeine.  (In general, China bush teas tend to be lower in caffeine.)

I brewed each of these four times over a couple of days, and I must say it's easy to overbrew, especially the Tao's G.M., to bitterness.  However, when not overbrewed both these Golden Monkeys deliver on the type's renowned sweet cup -- caramel to toffee notes, over a light base of typical black tea tangyness.

In a way this is a most unfair brew-off.  Tao's G.M. is a higher grade tea -- starting with its gorgeous good looks, but the Tealish G.M. has the advantage of being fresh and therefore offers a wonderful breadth of tasting notes. 

The Tao G.M is pronouncedly sweeter and smoother with more toffee'd notes.  It really is a very fine tea, and a fine example of a Golden Monkey.  (It's price point is almost double, not surprisingly.)  However, the Tealish G.M did not disappoint and, being fresh, offers some sharp, dark notes and a light toastyness which provide a balance to the sweet caramel notes. Because it's fresh it also gives hints of other things, like the possible flash of liquorice I mentioned.  Although I find it hard to believe, I've read that some people find Golden Monkey too sweet -- the Tealish G.M. could be just right for them.  

Personally, I generally keep Tao's G.M to savour as an afternoon tea but have been digging in to the Tealish G.M. for breakfast. 

Friday, November 12, 2010


My current constant quest is to find really fresh, current year or, if possible, current season tea.  On the very rare occasions that I've had the pleasure of  tasting such fresh tea the flavour has been down on your knees astounding.  So much more breadth of flavour profile it's revelatory.  The first time was a Kenyan tea that a classmate (who had recently admitted he was a tea blender/importer) provided which had been made just three weeks earlier.  Wow.   High notes, bottom notes, fuller middle notes.  Huh.  Who knew.

Not that most tea one buys at a reputable place isn't quite splendid but, really.   You know when you pick fresh basil from your summer garden and you get the greeness, the fresh-air quality, the exotic, almost bitter full spicyness of basil as compared to perfectly good dried basil that gives you that, well, basil flavour....?  That's the difference between really fresh tea and just regular good tea here in North America.  I saw a short film on Japanese tea at the recent Coffee & Tea Show here in Toronto and one of the short scenes that struck me was of a corner tea store (booth, really) in an urban residential area offering it's seasonal fresh tea for tasting by the local residents as if it was apples or lettuce.  Shoppers came and sampled the teas and then bought their weekly tea.  Fresh tea comes in almost every week.  A far, far cry from our situation here in North America where my sense is that most tea is container-shipped by sea which takes several months, then it's often stored before being sold to our local tea merchants where it may sit for many months before it's all sold.  Sigh.

However, my lovely local tea shop Tealish has recently stocked several late spring 2010 teas and I've just discovered that my local Japanese grocery store, Sanko, imports fresh senchas, gyokuro, hojichas, etc (more on that later!) for their discerning Japanese clientel and anyone else lucky enough to stumble upon it.  Like me, two weeks ago.

I decided to taste the 2010 Berubeula Ceylon next to another from Tealish called Golden Garden Ceylon (reviewed here on August 26/10) because sometimes contrasting the taste and texture helps focus the tastebuds. 

Wet and dry leaves of the Golden Garden Ceylon on the left
and the 2010 Berubeula Estate Ceylon on the right.

Berubeula  is in the Galle district of Sri Lanka and being generally under 2000 feet in altitude their teas are classified as low-grown Ceylons.

The dry leaves are long and wiry and a dark charcoal grey -- there is a handsome evenness to the look of this tea. After brewing in just-off-the-boil water for two minutes, the large broken leaves have opened and show some green in the coppery brown.  Oddly, there are a lot of what I think are leaf centre-ribs ie: no leaf on it -- they're definitely not buds and there was little gold or silver tipping in the dry leaves.  The leaves' aroma is full and sweet off the top, like a sweet bun baking really -- with a very light vegetal note, perhaps a hint of dark, dark chocolate and finally a nice light tang of bitter sharpness in the nose to finish it off.

The liquor is a bright ruby-red-brown and, surprisingly, light to medium bodied and smooth in the mouth.  Being low-grown I was expecting a really full bodied, rather rough tea but that is definitely not the case.  The flavours hinted by the leaves come through and the cup gives a lovely, smooth, full, balanced sweet-bitter cup with lots of flavour.  Milk smoothes the edges (although there were no really sharp edges here) and sweetens it slightly.  If you're someone who finds the classic, high-grown Ceylon's zingy lemon briskness too harsh this could be for you -- this is a really nice, smooth Ceylon that, being fresh, delivers great flavour.

In August when I originally tasted this tea I couldn't find any information on the Estate and it's altitude, etc.  However I came across a list of the Sri Lankan tea estates with links to satellite views of each one, and noticed a number have names in Sinhalese.  Aha!  In the Sinhalese language Ran means golden and Watte means garden and when I googled that I finally found some information on the estate.  It's in the Uva district which has both medium and high-grown tea estates as it's altitude ranges from 2000 to 3500 feet so this tea could be either.

This Ceylon is very different from the Berubeula, starting with the look of the tea:  the dry leaves are small and fine and quite black with an occasional gold tip.  Used just-off-the-boil water for a two-minute steep and the wet leaves are a uniform dark copper brown, showing no green and the liquor is clear, bright reddish brown.  The wet leaves give off a strong, slightly smokey, dark earthy aroma with a nice bitter tangy follow through and the liquor has, no surprise with those aromas I suppose, a pretty full body without being very brisk.   

Unfortunately this is the moment that I realise that my nose and taste buds must still not up to 100% since the cold/cough of weeks ago!  It's not possible (is it?) that this tea has dried out and faded in flavour that much since August 26 when I last did a tasting.....?  (I store my tea in glass jars with an airtight rubber seal.  The glass is clear but they're kept in a dark drawer.)  Ah life.

Well despite, and perhaps because of, my apparently still-compromised taste buds, the Golden Garden is a very nice afternoon tea but I will choose the Berubeula, at least for a few more months, for the extra breadth of flavour and aroma, as well as its smoothness.  It's not offering the revelation of flavour that I got from the ultra-fresh Kenyan tea (which will forever stand as a benchmark for me), but it is offering more, and would be even more rewarding on fully functioning taste buds. ;)