LongJing or Dragon Well Tea is considered the National Tea of China, and for good reason. It is famous not only for its delicate flavor, but for the legends surrounding it. It is also has the most complicated and time consuming processing of any Chinese tea. Due to these reasons it has also become one of the most expensive teas in China. Last year in Hangzhou a man paid over $14,000 for just 200 grams of Dragon Well Tea. This is an extreme example, but it show how much Dragon Well Tea is respected in China.
Dragon well Tea received its name from a small village located on Phoenix Mountain in Hangzhou. It has been documented that since the Three Kingdoms Period (221-280) residents of this village believed that a dragon lived in the village well and controlled the rainfall. Because of this people would travel to this well to pray for rain. It has also been said that Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) made a point of visiting the village to have a cup of the local tea. During one of his visits to the village, Emperor Qianlong was picking tea. While he was picking the tender tea shoots he received work that his mother the Empress Dowager was seriously ill, and he was requested to immediately return to Beijing. Upon receiving this information Emperor Qianlong put the new tea shoots in his sleeve, and immediately sped back to the capitol. Upon his return, the Empress Dowager recovered considerably. While talking to her son, she smelled a beautiful aroma coming from his sleeve. She asked what it was and Emperor Qianlong removed the now dry tea leaves and had them brewed for his mother. Upon drinking the tea her health was completely restored. Overjoyed by the Empress Dowagers recovery he designated 18 of the village’s teas as producers of “Imperial Tea”. This ensured Dragon Well Tea’s reputation, and the tea trees which are still alive have turned the village into a major tourist destination for tea lovers.
The original Dragon Well tea came from Lion Peak Mountain in West Lake (XiHu). Due to its popularity it is now cultivated throughout China. Today any tea that is produced using the same technique is called Longjing.
Dragon Well tea is made of tender tea shoots, not leaves like many other teas. They are very small, no larger than 2 cm. One Kilogram of tea can have over 80,000 shoots. The best Dragon Well Tea is picked very early in the spring. There is only a 6 week window to harvest them. The first two weeks of harvest are considered high grade, while the remaining four weeks are considered low grade. The rest of the year the plants are allowed to relax and absorb sunshine. That is one of the many reasons why Dragon Well tea is so precious. They can only be produced for 6 weeks a year. The best Dragon Well tea is picked by hand in a process that resembles a traditional Chinese dance. A good tea picker can harvest only 2 kilograms of fresh leaves in a 10 hour day.
Once the tea shoots are harvested, they must be roasted the same day. After picking the tea is “Withered”. The tea is spread thinly to dry for 8 to ten hours. Doing this removes moisture and reduces any grassy,or bitter flavor. Once the tea is sufficiently dried, it is “Roasted”. Roasting is done using bare hands to allow the roaster to feel his work. It is an extremely hot job and takes a novice many years to harden their hands so they do not feel the heat. Watching an experienced roaster dry the tea is like watching a Martial arts master. It takes a novice over 5 years to master the 10 hand movements required to dry the tea. A master roaster can only fry 1 kilogram of high grade Longjing tea each day. After roasting the freshly processed Dragon Well tea is ready to drink.
West Lake Dragon Well Tea is extremely rare. Zhejiang Province produces 15,000 tons of tea each year, and only 6% comes from West Lake. This is another reason for the high price of Dragon Well Tea. Due to its high price there are many people selling fake Dragon Well Tea. When shopping for Dragon Well tea it is important to make sure you are purchasing authentic Dragon Well tea. There are a few way to be certain your tea is authentic. The most important is taste. Because Dragon Well Tea is pan fried it has a delicious chestnut aroma which should be high, and lasting. The brewed tea is floral with an exceptionally long sweet aftertaste. Lesser teas often taste weak, grassy, or bitter.
High quality Dragon Well Tea will never have these features. Another way to tell the quality of Dragon Well Tea is to know the date it was picked. This can be tricky because many shops will not know the picking date of the tea they sell. If it is possible a visitor should purchase tea direct from the growers. That way you can be sure of the date in which it was picked. The earlier the picking date, the higher quality the tea. The third way to tell if you are buying true West Lake Dragon Well tea is to ask to see a certificate of authenticity. Any grower will have one at their facility. If possible it is always best to purchase tea at an actual tea plantation.
By Mandy Lee