The Hunt of the Dragon Well by David Lee Hoffman
Reprinted from Tea Talk Magazine
To Lovers of the Leaf:
There have been so many changes that have take place in China since my last trip. New construction is everywhere and the country is on the move. The economy grew by a staggering 30% last year, and this rapid growth has created problems of its own: pollution, traffic congestion and overcrowded public transportation. All these provide a great opportunity to practice one’s patience, and lacking this virtue would make travel and doing business in China an impossibility.
Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province, was my first stop. It is the home of one of my favorite green teas, Longjing (Dragon Well). The tea is grown west and southwest of Xihu Lake, just west of Hangzhou City. The finest Dragon Well was always picked before the Ching Ming Festival, around April 5th of each year. The cold spell this year reduced the supply of the top grade tea, thereby increasing its cost. The early leaves are always the most tender; they are literally good enough to eat. The locals prepare several dishes with them, and I enjoyed some myself.
Dragon Well got its name in the Ming Dynasty from a temple at Long Hong Shan. Here, while workmen were digging a well, they pulled out a large rock shaped like a dragon, hence the name, Dragon Well. The history of this tea goes back to the Tang Dynasty when the tea was called Xianglin Baiyun, Fragrant Forest White Cloud. Many poets have written praising this tea, along with the water taken from Hu Pao, the Tiger Run Spring.
Su Dongpo, the great Northern Sung Dynasty poet and court official in the 10th century, praised this tea and romantically compared this tea to a beautiful woman.
I stayed at the Zhejiang Guest House on the West Lake near all the famous tea gardens and near the actual historic site of the Dragon Well and Tiger Run Spring. A two-minute walk away is the new Tea Museum which I visited on my first day. The most interesting part was a display of various Zhejiang teas along with the actual samples attached (unfortunately most had been pried off, presumably pilfered while the teas were still fresh!)
While browsing through the Museum, someone came in with a large sack of fresh Dragon Well tea, creating quite a stir. Burying my face in the bag, as is my wont wherever I find tea, I understood their excitement. This experience completely redefined the limits of Dragon Well for me; its aroma was an olfactory orgasmic experience! Unfortunately, I had wrongly assumed that this tea was typical of what was available in the marketplace. Though I pleaded to purchase whatever they could spare, I only succeeded in obtaining a small sample. I later found out that this bag of tea was a gift to the visiting president of Portugal and his wife and that this tea was from the famous area of Shi Feng, or Lion Peak, that is situated at the top of the mountain overlooking the West Lake.
During my week in the Hangzhou area, I was able to sample hundreds of teas, and it was actually quite a challenge to find some worthy of purchasing. The presidential sample became my standard. Cupping teas side by side against other Dragon Wells, it became apparent that even the finest tea at $200 a pound could not compete! But the well-known tea mountains of Shi Feng, Ling Yin, Suan Feng, and Long Hong Shan, seemed so heavily polluted from the Hangzhou smog that I would be surprised if the lead contamination did not surpass the government standard for export at 2 ppm.
In my search for a better Dragon Well, I took an ancient foot trail which was laboriously paved and stepped with fitted flat stones. I proceeded to walk up the mountain over several hills where isolated tea gardens were scattered about. I came across several concrete pits which historically were used to make compost to fertilize their tea fields. Unfortunately, it looked as though they hadn’t been used in years. Amongst debris and duckweed floated the bloated carcasses of some animals which had fallen in. These days, everyone in China seems to have switched to chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, much to the detriment of soil fertility and healthy tea. The temptation of short term increased yields and the saving of labor costs have influenced their decisions. You can, alas, taste the difference, but, with patience and a lot of sampling, one can still find good tea fertilized by traditional methods. The neighboring hills were buzzing with cheerful chatter of the women picking tea. They were everywhere, bamboo baskets strapped to their sides, conical bamboo hats bobbing up and down. My musing was interrupted by a pleasant whiff of sandalwood incense. Rounding the next bend, I came upon a small ancient temple. Here, I was welcomed by over one hundred pilgrims. I sat down with them as they lit their candles and incense and watched while they prostrated themselves in front of three large wooden deities. The temple obviously once had a sizable population, judging from the extent of the now overgrown garden area. The wells were in good repair and still in use. Some exquisitely carved ancient stone panels had ignominiously been turned into kitchen tables. I thought of the monks who once had lived here, growing a little tea in their leisure, and for pocket money, selling some to visiting pilgrims.
Reluctantly, I left this peaceful mountain retreat, taking the trail southeast. I dropped down in the village of Yunxi where the entire population was involved with Dragon Well production. A neighboring village, Mejiawu, is also an important Dragon Well center. The air was much cleaner around these villages and I selected and eventually purchased the bulk of my teas from the finest of their harvest.
Dragon Well is known for its four qualities: jade green appearance, sweet fragrance, pure flavor, and pleasing shape of its leaves. This tea can be picked up to 30 times in a single year, beginning in April and continuing through October, but the best grades must be picked in April before the rains begin.
Production of Dragon Well tea, though seemingly quite simple, requires great skill and attention to obtain the finer grades. In school, students of this tea study no less than 43 kinds of Dragon Well, divided into 13 grades. At the top of the list is a Dragon Well I have never seen: it is made from just the buds, without the leaves, and is call Lotus Heart. The second grade, Flag Spear, consists of one leaf and one bud, and the third grade, Que She (Bird’s Beak) consists of one bud and two leaves from each picking. All three top grades are picked before the Ching Ming Festival.
It takes 70,000 to 80,000 pickings to make one kilogram (2.2 lbs) of finished tea. After the tea is picked, it is spread on bamboo mats indoors where, through evaporation, the moisture content is reduced 15 to 20%. This takes eight to ten hours. The tea is then sorted into three grades with the thinnest leaves selected to make the best tea. A large wok is then heated by fire to 80° – 100°C, wiped with an oily cloth obtained from the pressing the seeds of the tea plant in the fall, and about 100 grams of leaves are scooped into the wok. At this point, a skilled tea maker will use ten distinct hand movements manipulating the leaves to their proper shape. This is always done with bare hands, and takes 12-15 minutes. The first process kills the enzyme activity that removes the raw green grassy taste. Too high a temperature would reduce the quality and give the tea leaves a dark appearance. Too hard a pressure also lessens it quality. During this time, the tea makers’ hands never rest nor leave the wok.
The tea is then removed, spread out a second time to cool for 40 minutes to an hour, and then once again placed back in the wok. This time, a greater quantity is placed in the wok (about a pound) and the temperature is lowered to about 60° to 70°C. When the moisture content has been reduced to five or six per cent, the firing process is finished. The tea is finally sifted on a bamboo screen. The dust and small broken pieces that fall through make up the lower grades and the remaining full leaf and buds are reserved for the better grades. Well-made tea has a slippery feel, has a light green glossy appearance, and gives off a sweet fragrance.
To preserve the Dragon Well’s unique quality, the tea requires special care in storage. Traditionally, it was kept cool in large tightly sealed limestone jars. This kept the tea fresh for up to one year. Dragon Well is one of the most delicate of teas, and its flavor and freshness can be easily lost through improper storage. Refrigeration in a sealed container is recommended for long-term storage. Nitrogen or vacuum packing can also be used with benefit.
Brewing this tea, especially with the young tender leaves of the better grades, is actually quite easy. In China this tea is usually steeped in a clear glass or jar so one can appreciate the fine appearance of a well-made tea. The leaves will sink to the bottom and remain there. Additional steepings can be made throughout the day by simply adding hot water as needed until the flavor is exhausted. Of course you can brew in a teapot as well. Use about four grams for an eight ounce serving. You might find that short multiple infusions yield a better taste to your palate. Use good spring water with a temperature below 85°C.
Though my stay in the Hangzhou area was enjoyable, my most rewarding experience was in the remote mountains is southern Zhejiang and northern Fujian Provinces where I journey next. Often I was the first foreigner these tea farmers had ever seen. Sometimes the dirt road would wind up a mountain and dead-end at a village completely surrounded by tea gardens.
One place in particular was surrounded by pristine virgin forests with the mountain streams so clean I could drink directly from them. Birds, butterflies, and wild life were abundant. The tea was wonderful and, when the better grades were brought out, I opened my wallet generously.
But, the best part of the story begins after a three hour walk up a steep mountain through a park-like setting where no one lives but the animals and the indigenous Camellia sinensis grows wild. There is a small temple at the top of the mountain and a level clearing about 100 mu in size (6.6 mu = 1 acre). This land has been offered to me to develop an experimental organic tea farm. It’s pointless to try and conceal my enthusiasm. I’m excited! And very, very interested.
This story will be continued…