Monday, August 18, 2008

Dragon Well Tea: China's Most Famous Green Tea

Dragon Well Tea: China's Most Famous Green Tea

Of the hundreds of green teas grown in China, undoubtedly the most famous is Dragon Well.

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.

History: Dragon Well, or Long Jing (sometimes spelled "Lung Ching") is first mentioned as "Long Hong" by Lu Yu (AD 733-804) in his Classic of Tea (Cha Jing). Although Lu Yu didn't rank the tea as extraordinary, his record proves the early recognition of this tea. Lu Yu called the tea "Long Hong." In fact, the Dragon Well name wasn't applied to the tea until the Ming Dynasty, when it was mentioned in a county gazette history in 1609. Tea from this area was mentioned by other poets through the ages, including the Song Dynasty statesman-poet Su Dongpo. Song tea names included Bai Yun (Treasure Cloud), Xiang Lin (Fragrant Forest), and Bai Yun (White Cloud).

Myth: The unique Dragon Well name comes from the well and village located in the middle of the tea growing area, an area of misty green mountains a little southwest of Hangzhou City in Zhejiang Province (a couple of hours by train from Shanghai). The most popular story explaining the origins of the Dragon Well, is of a Taoist priest living in the area around AD 250 who told farmers to end their drought by praying to a dragon who lived in a nearby well. The rains came and the well became famous. The Dragon Well Monastery still stands next to the well. On a few visits to the well, we've been shown how when you swirl your hand in the pool of water a twisted swirl or dragon-like effect appears deep within the water then disappears. It is believed that this is caused when dense, underground water is stirred and raised to the surface to mix with a lighter density ground water. The dense water then sinks again. You have to see it to believe it. Locals have a story that the well is connected underground with the sea and that a dragon lives within. Perhaps that's what is really going on.

Chinese Grading System: The different grades of Dragon Well are numerous and confusing. Traditionally, there were 5 grades based on the villages where the tea was produced:

Lion: (from Shizi Feng or "Lion's Peak")
Dragon: (from Long Jing "Dragon Well" and Weng Jia Shan "Weng Family Mountain)
Cloud: (from Yun Qi "Cloud Settlement"), Tiger (from Hu Pao "Tiger Run" and Si Yan Jing "Four Eyes Well")
Plum: (from Mei Jia Wu "Plum Family Village").

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.

Tea people 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.

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.

Articles source:

No comments: