Tea Expert Micah Spear’s Gyokuro Infatuation
Tea enthusiast and expert Micah Spear shares his epiphanic encounter with gyokuro, the centuries-old Japanese varietal of green tea that keeps him buzzing.
Do you remember the first time you tasted gyokuro?
I was with a friend in Tokyo—a talented designer by the name of Hiroshi Fujiwara—and he brought me to lunch at Hiroshi Sugimoto’s café in Omotosandō. This was my second time in Tokyo. At the time, I had no interest in tea whatsoever—it just wasn’t on my radar. He ordered me gyokuro, and it came with this beautiful set with a pitcher of water at just the right temperature, a tiny vessel, and a little teacup with the first steep. We shared it, and the first taste was so profound and new to me—it gave me a buzz that made me very present. Afterwards, I just was floating the whole day. The next day, I went back myself and asked Hiroshi where to get this tea. He said, “Oh, I don’t know… Ask my other friend,” and I just sort of followed that fishtail in Tokyo for a few years.
When I went back to New York after that trip, I picked up a bunch of books on tea and tried to educate myself as much as possible, because the flavor was so fascinating. I started to read about the myths and legends associated with it, learning about traditional tea ceremony and contemporary ceremony, and how these tea masters were artists (and, really, sort of the first performance artists). It just branched off—to my interest in architecture and space, poetry, ikebana, and things that are interrelated and the building blocks of what I think contemporary art is today.
What sets gyokuro apart from other types of green tea?
Green tea is a type of tea from the Camellia sinensis plant. This grows in many different countries and is cultivated, grown, and bred for a multitude of outcomes. Tea and wine are super similar in that way: There aren’t two types of wines, there are cultivars that are bred for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, right? Tea is the same. It’s about the region, the farmer. The best tea, in my opinion, comes from skilled, passionate farmers.
Can you tell us a little bit about how gyokuro is cultivated?
To farm it requires a little bit more effort, mostly because of the specific method, time, and care that it takes to grow. It’s a shade-grown tea. Right before the leaves are about to mature, they put a shade on the crop for ten to twenty days. Because of that, the plant has to fight a little bit harder to photosynthesize, and as a result, there’s a deeper concentration of polyphenols [antioxidants] and caffeine chemicals that make the tea special in terms of its flavor and fragrance, as well as scientifically. There’s an amino acid, theanine, that acts as a neuromodulator: It comes from the tea plant and, in the right concentration, increases our alpha brainwave activity and our ability to relax and concentrate. It’s really powerful.
How has your interest in tea evolved over time? Still chasing that first buzz?
Now, it’s less about that first taste, and more about how it’s been radical to me, and how I’ve been curious to authentically share it with others similar to me—people who [had] no interest in it, that [didn’t] know about the power of the tea. It becomes less about the tea, and more about the intimacy and curiosity that results from it.