Having placed several orders from Hibiki-an in the past, I was quite pleased to receive their Kuradashi Gyokuro Pinnacle as a gift. Hibiki-an is a mid sized tea company based in the Ogura region of Uji, just outside of Kyoto. The company is somewhat unique in that they market directly to the English-speaking world, shipping products from their production facilities in Ujitawara to your doorstep. Having strolled down the streets of Uji myself, I can say confidently that the tea produced in Uji represents the finest green tea in the entire world.
The “Kuradashi” gyokuro is a gyokuro aged for over a year. The tea is left open to air, not immediately nitrogen-sealed like many gyokuro products. The tea arrived in a beautiful golden-speckled pouch, fitting of a tea of this caliber ($38 for 40 grams). The dark garnet color of the tea complemented the fragrant aroma. The smell of rich, full tencha leaves nearly overwhelmed my senses. Simply put, compared to normal gyokuro, the kuradashi has a more concentrated nose. The real surprise came in the tasting, however.
Conventional gyokuro is brewed between 140-160⁰ F for 1.5-2 minutes. Hibiki-an suggests following this protocol for the Kuradashi, but they also suggest that the tea may be brewed at a lower temperature of 131⁰F for 2:30 for a more “mellow” flavor. I started the tea at a temperature of 155⁰F for 1:45, though it should be noted that my kyuusu from the Asahiyaki Kiln was at room temperature when starting (I estimate the actual temperature of the brew to be about 150⁰F). The first brew at this temperature was mellow, soft and somewhat muted. After the brew, the leaves were just starting to open, and had a slightly astringent smell integrated into the aroma. My experiments of brewing the tea at a lower starting temperature really brought out the ‘umami’ character. Umami, which can be translated as ‘savoriness’, can perhaps best be thought of as a round, rich, buttery taste found in the finest teas. While a lower brewing temperature brings out a more umami sense, I find the more moderate temperatures(150-155) more appropriately reveals the unique nature of the aged tea.
The second brew brings out a much fuller, purer matcha taste. Imagine drinking a hearty koicha without the viscosus, granular texture. After multiple brew trials, my I noted just a slight bit of acidity or astringency to the matcha-like taste, ending slightly dry on the tongue. Notes of nori seaweed and come through on the second brew, with just a hint of subtle sweetness. Overall, this tea most closely resembles matcha, but with a smoothness of texture that makes it truly special.
The third brew resembles the second, albeit with a bit less concentration of taste. Still, this tea should certainly be brewed through the third time to fully enjoy the rich flavor.
The Kuradashi Gyokuro seems to be a seasonal offering from Hibiki-an. Be on the lookout in the fall; this is a tea you don’t want to miss. -M.W.