Dragon Well, or Long Jing, was what sparked my love affair with tea. When I first tried Dragon Well a decade or so ago, I realized “that’s what tea’s all about.” In fact, I blame Dragon Well for the fact that I usually order coffee when I’m outside because I can no longer tolerate bagged or low-grade CTC tea, refusing to believe those deserve to be in the same category as my beloved Dragon Well.
Like many fellow ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, my first encounter with Chinese tea was with the low-grade restaurant variety, left to steep in a huge pot, consumed only begrudgingly because Coke would be frowned upon by the adults (yes, when I read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, familiarity – rather than disbelief – was my reaction). “Western tea” seemed more appealing only because I could mask the bitterness with sugar.
West Lake Dragon Well changed all that for me. When I first tried it, I was blown away; it was sweet and smooth with a delightful bean-like fragrance, none of the choking bitterness and astringency that I had always associated with Chinese tea. There was also this “hui gan,” a sweetness that wells up and lingers in the throat and mouth after the delectable drink is consumed, literally sweetening the air I breathe.
That changed my life, and hit my wallet as well. Unfortunately, my obsession with Dragon Well coincided with the rising price of authentic Dragon Well. Sometimes I complain, but it has always seemed like a necessity for me. For many, though, Dragon Well does not evoke the same emotions.
“It is bitter!” some would say.
“Overrated!” others would claim.
While these reactions can be attributed to personal preference – I know I don’t like all types of teas – I suspect they are the result of sampling some of the many low-grade Dragon Wells that flood the market, especially the export market. Unfortunately, many vendors happily produce low-grade Dragon Well that sullies its good name. Ninety percent of all Dragon Well is produced in Zhejiang, outside the official area classified as West Lake or Xihu – including Xihu, Shifeng, and Meijiawu. These are typically a notch below West Lake Dragon Well.
Although there are many areas that produce excellent versions of Dragon Well – such as Da Fo Long Jing and Qian Tang Long Jing – many dishonest merchants try to pass off these varieties (or lower-grade ones) as West Lake Dragon Well, which commands a premium. Some even go to the extent of renting a place in Dragon Well Village and pretending to be a native. The end result is disheartening. What is one of the most exquisite and delightful green teas in China has been held up as proof that green tea is only consumed for its health benefits.
To those who have been disappointed by Dragon Well before, I beseech you to try again, perhaps one from a more reputable supplier. When you find the real thing, you may find true love, as I did.
Disclaimer: I currently do sell green tea, but not Dragon Well.