Indonesians drink a lot of tea, but nothing compares to the Japanese infatuation with this everyday drink. In Japan, tea is more than just a beverage — it is a touchstone of culture and ceremony. And of all the types of tea enjoyed in Japan, gyokuro is considered the finest.
Gyokuro is a premium variety of sencha green tea rarely found in Indonesia. It is made with young leaves cultivated in shaded beds, picked in the early days of spring. Its name means “jade dew,” referring to the brilliant color of the brew.
Gyokuro tea is expensive and not well-known in Indonesia. Its shelf life is short, at around 3 months, after which it quickly deteriorates if not properly stored.
Enthusiasts in Jakarta got a taste of this fine tea at a recent gathering of the Pecinta Teh, or Tea Lovers, community. Member Ratna Somantri purchased two types of gyokuro from the online Maiko Tea Shop for the group to share.
Ratna bought gyokuro higashi-yama , a variety priced at $14.58 for 100 grams, and gyokuro shincha shuppin , priced at $62 for 100 grams. The latter is more expensive because in addition to being a shuppin, or exhibition, tea, it is also made with only the bud and top two leaves of the tea plant from the first harvest of the year.
Different to the standard sweet or bitter flavors found in Indonesian tea, the gyokuro presented an unexpected flavor that the group members couldn’t quite put their finger on.
To me, it tasted kelpy and savory, something like seaweed, sea salt, dried bonito flakes or miso soup, with a mellow sweetness about it.
Hera, another member, likened it to edamame juice, made from soybeans boiled lightly in salt water. She also said the tea tasted like meat broth seasoned with monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG.
Ratna explained that the savory taste the group picked up on was umami. In Japanese, umami refers to a “pleasant, savory taste,” now recognized by the world scientific community as the fifth basic taste of the human palate.
In gyokuro tea, the umami taste is achieved as a result of the raised level of amino acids present in the tea leaves, because they are grown in the shade. Gyokuro is high in glutamate, a type of amino acid that imparts an umami taste.
According to the Umami Information Center, green teas, including gyokuro, have high levels of glutamate, which produces a natural umami flavor. This is the effect that chemical additives such as MSG attempt to emulate.
Of the different types of green tea, gyokuro contains the highest levels of glutamate, at 0.45 grams for every 100 grams of tea. It also contains the highest levels of theanine, the chemical makeup of which is very similar to glutamate, and is responsible for sweetness in tea, with 2.5 grams found in every 100 grams of gyokuro tea.
Gyokuro is so savory that the infused leaves can be enjoyed with soy sauce as a snack after they have been used to make tea.
But not everyone agrees that gyokuro has a strong umami taste. Yasuhiko Inoue, whose late mother was one of Japan’s four tea ceremony instructors of the highest rank, told me that there was no such thing as an umami flavor in gyokuro.
“The king of kings among Japanese green teas is 100 percent natural. There is no chemical or artificial taste in it,” said Yasuhiko, an expert from the non-profit Japan Productivity Center who used to drink gyokuro every day in his youth.
He also rejected all my suggestions that the taste of gyokuro was comparable to edamame juice, seaweed, broth or miso soup.
“Never,” he told me. “Gyokuro never tastes like one of these.”
So, how does it taste? Struggling to find the right answer, he asked me to give him time to think about it. A day later he came to me and described the taste of gyokuro as mild, with a touch of sweetness reminiscent of milk.
“More importantly, gyokuro provides a total, top-down, satisfying feel-good experience because the enjoyment of it travels downward from the eyes, then the nose, down to the tastebuds, and further down to the throat until it finally settles very well in the stomach,” he explained.
He added that his mother, who passed away in 2005 aged 92, once told him that “sipping it with yokan [a sweet azuki bean paste jelly] from Imperial Family purveyor Toraya is one of life’s greatest pleasures.”