Dragon Well Tea: China's Most Famous Green Tea
Hangzhou's most famous product is Dragon Well Tea (called Longjing Tea in Chinese), an invigorating, bitter-tasting green tea highly prized by Chinese and foreigner all over the world. Dragon Well Tea is grown in the Longjing mountain area of Hangzhou, southwest of the West Lake. Reputed to be the "Empress of Green Tea," Dragon Well tea is primarily planted in Longjing village, 20 KM from downtown Hangzhou. Perching on a mountain southwest of the West Lake, and endowed with lingering clouds and mists as well as abundant rain and dew, Longjing offers favorable conditions for growing tea. Longjing tea has a history of more than 1,200 years. Excellent walks circle around the village and into the surrounding tea gardens and hills. The village is best reached by taxi or hotel bus or a lovely stroll.
The name Longjing is from a small village on the Fenghuang Hill, in Hangzhou Zhengjiang Province. It is said that residents in ancient times believed that a dragon dwelled there and controlled the rainfall. As a result, people went there from all the surrounding areas whenever there was a drought to pray for rainfall, from as early as the Three Kingdoms Period (221-280).
It's flat, shiny green leaves and sweet chestnut taste have been desired by Chinese people for centuries. It was first recognized in the West when President Nixon was served Dragon Well during a visit to the area with Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972.
Effectiveness of Dragon Well Tea
Dragon Well Tea is famous for its unique fragrance and flavor, distinguished leaf shape and green color. Dragon Tea and Tiger Spring match each other so well that they are rated together as the two superb specialties in Hangzhou. Furthermore, Dragon Well Tea aids one's health in many ways regardless of your age. It is used to deter food poisoning, refresh the body, stop cavities, fight viruses, control high blood pressure, lower the blood sugar level, and to prevent cancer. Hence, Dragon Well Tea is regarded as the elixir for health and is widely sold and accepted all over the world. Visiting the Dragon Well and Sipping Tea there was a visual and oral pleasure no one could afford to miss during those years.
Growth of Dragon Well Tea
The Dragon Well Tea plants are in the Camellia plant family (Camellia sinensis), which has a fairly nondescript smell or taste when fresh. The tea leaves are picked from late March to early April, when the new leaves appear. Tea cultivation is a labor intensive business, as all picking is done by hand so that the young leaves are not damaged. Tea leaves are pan-dried immediately after picking to prevent oxidation and bacterial growth. They then are rolled by hand to squeeze out excess moisture and to release flavor enzymes. The leaves are finally fired in large driers and packed.
The price of authentic Dragon Well Tea goes up each year, especially the tea picked between Qing Ming and Grain Rain, that is from April 5th to April 21st. The tea picked at that time of year is presumably of the highest quality. It is a great pleasure to visit Longjing during this period. Farmers are busy picking and processing tealeaves and their work produce fragrance overflowing all over the Dragon Well. Tourists love to visit the Dragon Well during this time so as to see farmers working, taste the first batch of the best tea in the springtime, and ask about tea farming and tea anecdotes.
Tea Plantations in Hangzhou
Today, the best tea is said to come from Shizi Feng, followed by Mei Jia Wu, and Xi Hu "West Lake". All are referred to as Dragon Well Green Tea. From each of these places the tea is further ranked into 10-13 grades. The very finest grade is picked as one bud and one leaf called Qi Qiang or "Flagged Spear" (when brewing, the bud floats like a flag and the leaves hang suspended like spears). The second highest grade is called Que She or "Sparrow's Tongue" and is comprised of a bud and two leaves. Most of the high grades never leave China and are sold domestically. Because of the popularity of Dragon Well, this tea is now being produced in other areas of Zhejiang Province (including ours), yet are still delicious tasting.
Characteristic of Dragon Well Tea
Teapeople often discuss the time of tea harvest. Dragon Well picked before the Qing MIng Festival (April 4-6) is ideal, especially tea from Shizi Feng. But even better is tea picked just before the Grain Rains or "Gu Yu" on the Lunar Calendar (April 19-21). In fact there is a rhymed saying that refers to picking Dragon Well around the Qing Ming Festival: "Picked 3 days before is treasure (bao); Picked 3 days after is grass (cao).
Traditionally, tea lovers described good Dragon Well as having four characteristics: green color, heavy fragrance, pure flavor, and beautiful leaf shape. Of course these are highly subjective traits, but it's nice to think of them when sipping this tea.
Processing green tea is very labor intensive, from picking in the mountains, carrying it down to the processing site, rolling the leaves to soften them, and then repeatedly hand pressing the tea in hot woks to produce the dry but shiny flat green leaves. During the pan-frying process, the large electric woks are oiled or greased slightly with round blocks of white tree pith from the Chinese tallow tree.
Around Hangzhou, locals and tourists often visit the famous Hu Pao Spring, or Running Tiger Spring, which reputedly has the most ideal water for making Dragon Well tea. The water has a sweet, clean taste and a high surface tension. Tour guides like to show how water can be poured into a cup and rise slightly above the rim before overflowing.
How to drink this kind of green tea?
The easiest way to drink Dragon Well green tea is to brew in a large mug or lidded cup (gaiwan). People around Hangzhou like to use clear drinking glasses, in order to watch the tea leaves unfurl and the water turn jade green. If you're going to do this, make sure the glass is heat resistant and has a handle. The leaves will mostly settle to the bottom, and those that float can be blown to the side with a few light puffs. Generally, we steep Dragon Well in slightly cooled water (180 degrees F.) for one minute, give it a stir, and then allow to steep for one more minute. You can replenish with hot water and steep 2 or 3 times.
See if you can notice the nutty chestnut flavors present in China's most famous green tea. And when you stir your cup to help the leaves settle down, don't forget to look for the dragon.
China tours inclusive of visiting the Dragon Well Tea Village, Hangzhou