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Hon Gyokuro, the Pinnacle of Japanese Green Tea

I’m getting a little obsessed with Gyokuro, I must confess! It might be in response to the burgeoning interest in matcha and the search for something new. Or it could be that we are happily forging a close relationship with one of the top producers from Yame. But whatever it is, I’m learning a lot about the subject and want to share it with you.

You are probably well aware that gyokuro sits atop the Japanese green tea hierarchical tree, right there next to matcha. Certainly the shading time, pre-harvest, is more or less the same (about four weeks), which means this is another tea packed with nutrients, antioxidants, and super powers typically associated with high-quality green tea.

Today, I’m going to geek you up on the difference between Gyokuro and Hon Gyokuro.

Hon in Japanese can mean “root”, or perhaps more relevantly, “authentic”.

Hon Gyokuro can only be classified as “Hon” if it is shaded using straw mats, handmade from fresh straw, in the traditional way. This is such a rare practice nowadays because of the sheer labour involved and the fact that it is harvested after regular Gyokuro, which can achieve a “first to market” best price.

Let’s distill it further…Why fresh straw? More minerals! Because fresh straw has minerals in it, when rainwater is filtered through the straw, these minerals transfer to and enrich the soil below, which in turn feeds the tree, and ultimately the brew in your cup. The straw is set on a frame that is very low to the tree but with enough room for a person to get underneath. This creates an even cooler environment compared to regular gyokuro which farmers shade with black netting propped up by a taller frame.

The black netting used in regular gyokuro production creates a relatively warmer environment, thereby allowing the leaves to grow faster than when under straw. Both of these methods cause the leaf to enter “survival mode” where the leaf has a physiological change, but the cooler, straw environment causes this even more. If you look at the bright green leaf bud when it matures, it becomes dark. This is a visual clue as to the physiological change that has happened.

It is in the shading technique where the difference in tastes come into play. When comparing a hon gyokuro to a regular gyokuro, what you are looking for is a balance of umami with a deep and lingering aftertaste. A hon gyokuro is known for its incredibly long aftertaste. This is the hallmark of a high-quality tea. In comparison, a gyokuro can have almost too much umami because of the lack of a deep middle and more shallow aftertaste, but umami fans still love it.

What I’m learning more and more is how a tea is judged by tea officials as good or not. Most people think a tea with a lot of umami is a good thing but here is where a regular gyokuro can let you down. Often they have over-the-top umami but a shallow mid taste and a finish that limps along and can even be down right unpleasant. This is important to remember when you are picking out teas to buy. If you are an umami bomb fanatic, go with the regular. On the other hand, if you fancy a deep dive into the soil, weather and history of the gorgeous and abundant Japanese landscapes, typically with better balance, go for a Hon!

Check out our new Hon Gyokuro here!

About Holly Helt

Holly is American and grew up in Japan drinking Japanese tea from age-three. She has studied two methods of tea ceremony, Urasenke and the lesser-known Yabunouchi, which has a direct lineage to Sen-no Rikyu (known as the father of the tea ceremony) ; it's also the school of practice for samurai. In 2012 she founded Chiki Tea - an online retailer of Japanese green teas, all sourced directly from small farms in Japan. Splitting her time between Japan and her home in Texas, Holly strives to bring the best teas from Japan to as many people as she can find to share in her life's passion.