Leaving the ridiculous (see last week’s post on mee cha and zhucha) for the sublime, we soar to the pinnacle of quality with the name Dragon Well, best known of all China’s green teas. (Longjing is the currently accepted spelling of the Chinese name, which one still sees printed as Lung Ching, also. Chinese often retain older spellings for teas, perhaps just as Sri Lanka kept for its tea the name “Ceylon.”) The locus classicus of this marvel is a mere eight kilometers from the heart of Hangzhou, the ancient capital of Song dynasty China. During the Tang dynasty the tea grown here was already famous under the name Fragrant Forest Mist; this tea was then likened to a beautiful woman in a famous poem by the Song poet Su Dongpo. Its modern name, which is already centuries old, is taken from Tiger Run Spring, said in local lore to be the lair of a dragon. (Dragons like to inhabit water, as is well known.) At this dragon-haunted site the great Qing dynasty Emperor K’ang-hsi came to drink tea made using the springwater and the year’s first leaves from the plants growing round about. The eighteen oldest tea plants were thenceforth reserved to provide Tribute Tea exclusively for the Emperor’s pleasure. Centuries later, in the same season in a guesthouse nearby, Mao Tse-tung drank the same tea with Richard Nixon at their historic first meeting.
Longjing fully lives up to its legends, and that in itself is high praise. In China it is praised for its “four uniques: jade color, vegetative aroma, mellow chestnutty flavor and singular shape. Longjing looks flat and smooth and is slick to the touch. When the leaf is infused and opens, you can see that it consists largely of intact buds. The emerald color is light and delicious, with a sweetness as of new-mown hay. It is a tea to write poetry by.
Every pound of top-quality Dragon Well consists of thirty thousand or more hand-plucked young shoots which are withered and then fired in a hot wok while the tea maker’s hands roll – or in this case, flatten – the leaf for perhaps fifteen minutes. Unless temperature, hand pressure and timing are perfect, the quality suffers. After an hour’s cooling off, the leaf is returned to the wok for a shorter period at a lower temperature; it is then hand-graded by leaf size and packed. The best – Qing Ming (or Ching Ming) – is always plucked “before the rains” which traditionally means before the Qing Ming festival on 5 April. The next most desirable is Guyu, which must be plucked before 20 April. Queshe or “sparrow tongue” is what the smallest grade, leaf bud and one leaf only, of these two pluckings called. These are distinctions which may all be tasted as well as seen, just as the local water from Tiger Run Spring makes a perceptible difference in the taste of the tea, exactly as the legend claims. No other green tea I know is capable of such refinement. A great Dragon Well is tea from heaven – a voluptuous, Chinese heaven rarely entered by foreigners.
If your tea purveyor does not buy Dragon Well from somebody who goes to Hangzhou personally to get it, chances are you drink a grade obtained from China, Inc. and this still may give some idea of this tea’s glories. If the leaf has a yellowish tinge it is growing stale. As long as it’s fresh enough, you’re not likely to meet a Dragon Well you won’t enjoy.
Read next: Green Tea: Biluochun