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Green Spring Spiral (Pi Lo Chun or Biluochun)

This is the name Qing Emperor K’ang-hsi gave this tea, possibly on the same tour when he visited the Longjing gardens no great distance from the home of Biluochun, which is in Jiangsu Province just inland from Shanghai, where it grows on Dongding Mountain overlooking Lake Taihu. The name is usually translated “green snail (or conch shell) spring,” which has never made sense even as a reference to the tightly rolled spirals of the finished leaf. One spring, as my teacher Grace Fong and I watched the Biluochun leaf spiraling downward through the water as it was infusing, she mentioned that the word may also be rendered “spiral.” Surely it was this leaf’s habit of spiraling – and not images of snails – which inspired K’ang-hsi to give this tea its name. (Formerly it had been called Astounding Fragrance, though in fact it has faint or no fragrance.)

Biluochun looks like fluff. This downy tea is made from the very earliest springtime plucking of a single leaf attached to an unopened bud – some sixty thousand or more such sets go into each pound of made tea! It is processed entirely by hand and is still fired over wood – not electric – heat. Because of its delicacy, steeping Biluochun requires skill. The water should be cooler than the 175 degrees Fahrenheit that is ideal for Longjing, and this water is not to be poured on the leaf. Instead, the leaf is added to the water, either in cup or, often, in a glass, which affords the Chinese the pleasure of observing the agony of the leaves as they unfurl. This is an animated sight as each leaf of Biluochun corkscrews its way from the surface to the bottom. China Tea, Inc. markets two grades of this wonder tea (still labeled Pi Lo Chun) which convey at least some idea of what this tea is when fresh.

Next week, don’t miss Yellow Mountain Hair Tip (Huangshan Mao Feng) and  Melon Slice (Guapian)