Flashback to Spring: Why We Love Dragon Well

It's out of season, but we recently got a request to write something about Dragon Well and in the process were reminded of our chronic spring infatuation with this exquisite beverage. Luckily, it's not too late to enjoy the excellent quality of the 2009 harvest. For the true connoisseur, our Imperial Lotus Heart Dragon Well provides the ultimate encounter, lian rui (lotus heart), the smallest and rarest form of que she (bird tongue)--a leaf set that includes only a single tiny leaf and bud. Imperial Dragon Well, also que she, offers another superb experience.

Here's some background on Dragon Well and the things that make it one of the world's most celebrated teas (not to mention a personal favorite here in the teahouse):

No tea variety exemplifies Chinese tea art more than Long Jing (dragon well). Unlike its more rustic cousins from Yunnan and Fujian, the best of Zhejiang’s Long Jing is exquisite and elegant, carefully hand-picked and hand-processed by skilled craftsmen to look as refined and flawless as it tastes fresh and delicious. Often at the top of the list of the Ten Great Teas of China, Long Jing is among the first green teas harvested in Eastern China each spring. Much as the revered plum flower is a harbinger of spring, the first cup of early spring Long Jing signals that the long-awaited season of growth and renewal has arrived.

Long Jing’s fame has motivated a slew of imitators, but connoisseurs recognize fine, authentic examples by four classic traits: the vibrant green color of new spring growth; the fresh, grassy aroma; the rich, sweet flavor with hints of chestnut; and the distinctive flat, pointy shape. Three other attributes distinguish top specimens: they must be picked before Qing Ming, the Chinese arrival of spring and tomb-sweeping festival that’s 15 days after the vernal equinox; consist of a single just-emerged leaf and bud, a configuration known as que she (bird tongue); and be grown in the Xi Hu (West Lake) area near Hangzhou. There are five Xi Hu growing regions: Shi Feng, Long Jing, Yun Xi, Hu Pao, and Mei Jia Wu. The tiny (many tens of thousands per kilo) leaves that meet all the stringent standards are carefully flattened and hand-fired in purpose-built electric woks to stop oxidization, then hand-sorted to an astonishing degree of uniformity. Visual presentation has a significant effect on the value of the final product, which even at wholesale is hundreds of US dollars per kilo for the rarest grades.

Many varieties of tea are harvested throughout the growing season, stimulating abundant new growth, but bushes that produce fine Long Jing are only picked during a period of about a month in early spring. Afterwards they’re coddled, allowed to grow at a natural pace so the plant can store the nutrients and complex botanical compounds that contribute to appearance, flavor, aroma, and Long Jing’s many reputed health-giving properties.

As the name dragon well suggests, exceptional water has always been inextricably associated with this variety of tea. By tradition, Long Jing is most delicious when prepared with water from Hu Pao Quan (Tiger Running Spring), a famed stream and now tourist attraction in the West Lake area. For anyone not fortunate enough to live near Hangzhou, care should still be taken about the water used to brew Long Jing. High quality bottled spring water, with a touch of minerals to raise pH, is a good substitute. Most important, the tea should be steeped in warm water, no hotter than 140 degrees F (60 degrees C), that has never been boiled. Boiling depletes oxygen, reducing the water’s ability to absorb and transport flavor from the leaves to the infusion.

A well-made cup of Long Jing is clear, bright yellow-green, neither pale nor too dark. It may sound like hyperbole, but if you’ve ever tasted excellent Long Jing you know that a sip is truly akin to taking a draught of the essence of spring, as the first-picked leaves release all the nutrients and spring growth energy that the tea plant has been storing since the previous year’s harvest. Long Jing is often served in glasses, the better to admire its striking appearance. But this technique is a poor choice because it usually leads to overbrewing and an unpleasant, bitter taste. By contrast, properly infused Long Jing is strikingly sweet, with a faint, pleasant tang of tannin. To get the most from these precious leaves, brew in a porcelain gaiwan, a traditional tea vessel whose thin body and wide mouth make it easy to control the temperature and avoid stewing the fragile tea. Place 3-5 grams of tea (a generous pinch) in the gaiwan and moisten with a few drops of warm water. Savor the potent aroma of the damp leaves, then fill the gaiwan with water and steep the tea uncovered (again taking care to avoid too much heat) for about two minutes, occasionally swirling the leaves with the edge of the gaiwan lid, until the infusion is the right color. At that point, using the lid to strain the leaves from the liquid, pour from the gaiwan into a serving pitcher.

The pleasures of Long Jing are as ephemeral as spring itself, lasting only about three infusions before the tea loses character. You’ll notice a weighty, luxuriant mouth feel and crisp, sweet, lingering finish. The experience of excellent Long Jing alone would be enough to bring it fame, but its reputation has been enhanced by a pedigree of imperial favor dating back to the 1600’s. Even in modern times, Mao Zedong and today’s political leaders have reserved a quantity of top-quality production. Like the season it represents, Long Jing’s peak period of deliciousness ends too soon; no matter how carefully preserved, the tea is at its best for only a few months before the delicate compounds that give it so much personality begin to fade. At that point many who truly love Long Jing turn to other seasonal teas and begin the long wait for next year’s spring to arrive.