Beyond sencha – Tasting gyokuro, kabusecha, and karigane

Intro

While sencha and matcha might be the most familiar Japanese green teas, they’re far from the only ones produced on the archipelago.

In this blind three-way comparison tasting, I’ll be taking a look at three other categories: gyokuro, kabusecha, and karigane. Before I get to the tasting, I’ll explain the differences between these types of tea.

For the actual blind tasting, I’ve designed this page so that you can follow along step-by-step with my tasting notes (represented graphically) and make your own conclusions about which tea is which. There’s nothing better than tasting for yourself, but I’d like to think this is the next best thing!

what is gyokuro, kabusecha, and karigane?

These terms generally represent differing production processes, not necessarily grades of tea:

Gyokuro 玉露

The name is almost always translated as “jade dew” on English-language sites. While poetically correct, a more literal translation would simply be “dewdrops.” The name derives from 玉の露 “tama no tsuyu”, a brand name used when the tea was newly introduced in 1835 and was shaped like small balls, hence the association with round dewdrops. (For more info, see this Japanese language site.)

The tea plants used to create gyokuro are shaded for about 20 days prior to picking. By reducing the plants’ access to sunlight, a number of chemical changes occur within the leaves resulting in a sweeter, thicker flavor than unshaded leaves.

Kabusecha かぶせ茶

Unlike gyokuro, the etymology is simple – the name derives from the verb かぶせる “kabuseru” meaning “to cover” and “cha” meaning “tea.” So, like gyokuro, kabusecha is shaded though for less time (most sources seem to suggest ~7-10 days). This results in a profile somewhere between sencha and gyokuro, typically retaining some astringency but with a more pronounced sweetness.

Karigane 雁ヶ音茶

A type of 茎茶kukicha” stem tea. The name is poetic, meaning “the call of a goose” and is meant to invoke images of migratory birds using small branches to rest momentarily on the wavy ocean. This sight, seen from afar, is said to be similar to the way the tea stems float in the cup. (Though as a North American, “the call of a goose” invokes very different imagery…) Also called 白折 “shiraore” in the Kyushu region.

Karigane/shiraore typically denotes tea made of the stems removed from gyokuro or high quality sencha. (Often, karigane made from gyokuro will somewhat confusingly be called “gyokuro karigane.”) Kukicha is the term generally used for the stems of standard or low quality teas. Stem-only teas tend to produce a light but sweet and aromatic liquor.

Meet the Teas

I purchased all three teas at one of the Itohkyuemon stores in Uji, Kyoto in 2019. I’ve included the price as a general indicator of quality:

Gyokuro Kanro 玉露 甘露:   3,240円 / 100g  (Itohkyuemon’s midrange gyokuro.)

Gyokuro Karigane Yadoriki 玉露 かりがね 宿り木:   1,620円 / 100g

Kabusecha Ujiyama かぶせ茶 宇治山:   1,080円 / 100g

Now, let’s take a quick look at the dry leaf.
 
The gyokuro and kabusecha are superficially similar in appearance. Gyokuro kanro has an overall finer texture (smaller pieces of leaf) and slightly deeper shade of green. The aromas are sweet, rich, grassy, and bright. While Kabusecha Ujiyama is similar in appearance, the aroma couldn’t be more different – deep, heavy aromas with strong grain notes.
 
Gyokuro Karigane Yadoriki is visually different than the others, but its aroma lies somewhere in between. Sweeter than the kabusecha, but stronger and less refined than the gyokuro.
 

I’m moderately confident that I’ll be able to tell these teas apart during the blind tasting, but there’s only one way to know for sure – on to the test!

The Test

I’ve designed this page so that you can follow along with the tasting using pictures and graphics to represent aspects of each tea. Some graphics have extra information in a drop down box underneath. You’ll have to trust my judgement when it comes to relaying this information correctly. But even with that caveat, I hope there’s enough information that you can form your own opinion.

The parameters for this tasting were:

– 2.5g of each tea in an identical 100ml porcelain tasting set. The tasting sets were marked on the bottom with the grade of the tea, and the tea was placed into the corresponding set. These sets were blindly mixed and filled with water, and then marked with a letter on top. The tea liquor was poured out into a cup marked with the same letter.

– each tea steeped for two mins with 98C reverse osmosis water with pink rock salt added (TDS of 64 ppm)

Can you guess which tea is which grade via the tasting note hints below? My guesses and the answers are in drop down boxes near the bottom of this page.

LIQUOR

A

Itohkyuemon_comparison-liquor_A

Brighter than C by a shade. Light grassy scent.

B

Itohkyuemon_comparison-liquor_B

Darkest liquor by a couple shades. Has some stem fragments. Interesting scent reminiscent of hops.

C

Itohkyuemon_comparison-liquor_C

Similar in color and scent to A, but with more grain notes.

AROMA

A

grassy_sea_breeze_aroma

Grassy upfront with underlying ocean spray. Light and ephemeral.

B

hops_grains_grassy_aroma

Hops in the forefront. Bit of grains underneath. Then weakly grassy.

C

grassy_grains_aroma

Rougher, deeper aromas than A. Grains aroma on top, grassy underneath.

FLAVOR

A

umami_and_sweet

Strong umami with sweet undertones.

B

umami and bitter then sweet flavor

Umami with a bit of bitterness. Vegetal sweetness lingers long.

C

sweet_then_umami_then_bitter

Strong sweetness followed by umami. Grows bitter as it cools.

TEXTURE

A

oily_texture

Oily, a bit tingly on the front of the tongue.

B

velvet texture

Velvet.

C

oily_texture

Oily, lightly tingly like A.

BODY

A

medium body

B

medium body

C

medium body

BALANCE

A

Pretty well balanced. Leaning a bit more towards flavor.

B

Balanced, but all the interest lies in the aromas.

C

Similar to A when hot, but as it cools balance tilts more heavily towards flavor.

The Reveal

Spoiler alert! Don’t click the buttons below until you have finalized your guesses about which tea is which.

A – Gyokuro.  Clean, light sweetgrass ocean spray aromas with a sweet umami backbone. This tea has a noticeably soft finish, leaving a clean feeling in the mouth. By far the most refined taste of the three, leading me to believe this is the most highly-processed tea, the gyokuro.

B – Karigane.  A hint of hop-like florals with a bittersweet kick. Certainly the roughest of the three, but with the most unique flavor. This uniqueness, plus the emphasis on aroma says karigane to me.

C – Kabusecha. Forward umami with a bit of a bite. It lacks the clarity and brightness of A, and the aromas are more earthy – grains and grass with bitterness appearing as it cools – this could be the profile of a kabusecha. 

A – Gyokuro

B – Karigane

C – Kabusecha

Conclusion

It was much easier than I expected to taste the differences between these three shade-grown teas.

The difference in processing (and price) between the gyokuro and the kabusecha reveals itself in the taste. The gyokuro is extremely refined. Soft, sweet, light, and bright; these are all the characteristics of a high grade tea, be it Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, or Indian.

The focal point of the kabusecha is like that of the gyokuro – umami grassy sweetness. But there are some edges, some things left unrefined. These manifest to me as a rough grain-like taste followed by bitterness and astringency that strengthen as the tea cools.

And for something completely different – the karigane. Although it’s made from the stems of gyokuro, it lacks the refined taste of that tea. Instead, the stems add unique aromas and a pleasant aftertaste that lingers. I’ve taken a look a tea stems in the past and arrived at similar positive results. That is, if you enjoy aromatic teas, you may find tea made from stems is to your taste (and easy on the wallet)!

Were you able to guess the identity of the teas correctly using my notes? Have you done a similar tasting before, or are you inspired to try your own comparisons? Let me know in the comments!

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