Verdant Tea

A Buyer's Guide to Dragonwell Tea

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A Buyer's Guide to Dragonwell Tea

A Buyer's Guide to Dragonwell Tea

how to choose and why

May 4, 2017

Dragonwell green tea is one of the most sought after teas in the world.

If you are ready to dive in and taste teas immortalized in poetry by emperors, it is important to understand what makes this incredible tea so unique.

Let's pull back the curtain behind this tiny region to understand how to find the real deal.

So, what is
“Dragonwell” tea?

Dragonwell, above all, is defined by location.

The vast majority of what is sold on both the Chinese and international market is not true Dragonwell.  At best, it is green tea made from one of the Longjing varietals, pressed flat but grown outside of Shi Feng on a nearby slope or another peak. At worst, it may come from fields growing within the influence of Hangzhou city and all of its pollution, or is simply a flat-pressed tea grown on plantation flat lands somewhere in the province of Zhejiang.

Shi Feng Dragonwell is tea picked on Shi Feng mountain (Lion’s Peak) above Dragonwell Village in Zhejiang Province. This is a truly tiny region. It can only produce a small quantity of tea each year, and every plot is owned by individual families that were lucky enough to receive a land distribution on Shi Feng Mountain after the communist revolution.

Larger plantations do exist outside of the actual Shi Feng region. Many spend millions of dollars working to convince consumers that teas such as “Zhejiang Dragonwell” (tea from the province of Zhejiang), “Hangzhou Dragonwell” (tea from near Hangzhou) and “West Lake Dragonwell” are something to be sought after.

Fish, meat, and laundry hang out to dry in a West Lake (Xihu) field of teaFish, meat, and laundry hang out to dry in a West Lake (Xihu) field of tea
Fish, meat, and laundry hang out to dry in a West Lake (Xihu) field of tea
behind the tea field, a line of cars idles in traffic on a busy bus routebehind the tea field, a line of cars idles in traffic on a busy bus route
behind the tea field, a line of cars idles in traffic on a busy bus route

For a true Dragonwell taste experience, seek out Shi Feng Dragonwell.

The soil of Shi Feng is a unique white sand and quartz mixture that lends an unmistakable minerality to every tea growing on the slopes of Shi Feng.

The actual Dragon Well at the base of Shi Feng is the source of incredibly sweet, clean water. This water flows in mountain springs and aquifers and feeds the tea with sweet mineral water.

sprign water collects in pool Longjing villagesprign water collects in pool Longjing village
sprign water collects in pool Longjing village

Even the shape of the Shi Feng range creates a tiny bowl of land safe from the air currents of Hangzhou and the nearby cities. This unique microclimate means that the air is cleaner and the tea is safer.

In fact, the Shi Feng region has been designated by the Chinese government as a protected region. This has resulted in a recent ban of any pesticides or non-organic farming techniques by any farmer cultivating or picking in the area.

Li Xiaoping’s Dragonwell all comes from the slopes of Shi Feng within the true Shi Feng designated region. Her entire annual yield is just a few hundred pounds of tea. Her land distribution is thanks in large part to her father’s work in the 60’s and 70’s at the head of the government body responsible for managing, tasting and distributing Dragonwell tea before privatization, and for his recognition as the foremost taster for competitions. Due to her family’s multi-generational claim as farmers and her father’s achievements, some of the most premier land for Dragonwell cultivation was entrusted to her family’s care.

Mrs. Li poses with her older siblings in front of some of the family’s teaMrs. Li poses with her older siblings in front of some of the family’s tea
Mrs. Li poses with her older siblings in front of some of the family’s tea

Even within the tiny area of Lion’s Peak, location can have a big influence.

Some years, the weather conditions align just right for Mrs. Li to pick a semi-wild grove of Dragonwell that is not trimmed back each year. This tea grows alongside native trees and relies on nesting birds as natural pest control. The flavor of this uncultivated Dragonwell is a great primer into the natural terroir of Shi Feng’s perfect confluence of conditions.

Hangzhou Dragonwell, West Lake Dragonwell, and Dragonwell without a single origin statement do not have these same protections and qualities. Most come from the Hangzou city watershed and are exposed to the air pollution that a Chinese big city such as Hangzhou creates.

The flatland soil is not as rocky or sandy, lacking minerality, and the size and convenience of the fields lends to larger scale conventional agriculture that utilizes pesticides.

It is easy to make a tea that looks like Shi Feng Dragonwell by flat pressing it and by roasting it to bring out a strong aroma, but the tea will be lacking in texture, sweetness and aftertaste if it doesn’t have the rich nurturing environment that Shi Feng provides

comparing native plants on Shi Feng vs. foliage close to the city of Hangzhou
Meat, fish skin, and laundry dry in the middle of a field of West Lake DragonwellMeat, fish skin, and laundry dry in the middle of a field of West Lake Dragonwell
Meat, fish skin, and laundry dry in the middle of a field of West Lake Dragonwell

What about
picking time?

Dragonwell growing within Shi Feng is differentiated and graded largely by its picking time. You may see terms thrown around like Mingqian and YuqianDragonwell. “Mingqian” simply means that a tea was picked before the Qingming Festival, while “Yuqian” means a tea was picked after Qingming but before the major rain of the season. The date of Qingming changes every year, but generally falls in the first week of April.

Within those broad designations, there are many different harvests. Small family farmers can afford to differentiate a harvest for a narrow picking date range, even if the yield was only several kilos, while larger plantations prefer to batch process and pack, combining all pre Qingming tea into one marketed product.

new spring tea buds in Shi Fengnew spring tea buds in Shi Feng
new spring tea buds in Shi Feng

Why is the picking date important for Shi Feng Dragonwell tea?

All winter, Dragonwell is left unpicked. The tea is taking in nutrients and storing energy to put out new buds in the spring. The earliest buds in the cold, early spring grow very slowly and contain the highest amount of stored energy (sugar), and nutrients from the soil. Later harvests start growing faster as the temperature rises. More sunlight exposure and higher temperatures mean more chlorophyll activated in the leaf and a greener color and flavor.

In fact, the specific “Ming Qian” designation is just a general rule. Every year, the temperature in the spring and the amount of rain vary dramatically. In 2017, the spring was so cool that picking started a week and a half later than usual, meaning overall less tea picked before Qingming.

Qingming Festival is not a magical line in the sand. We were in Dragonwell before, during and after Qingming, and there is no sudden change. Generally though, the frequency of rain and the temperature do start to rise more and more in mid to late April until it is too hot to pick by mid May.

comparing different Ming Qian tea harvestscomparing different Ming Qian tea harvests
comparing different Ming Qian tea harvests

The earliest pickings in Dragonwell are always the lightest in flavor and aroma but the thickest in mouthfeel with the longest sweetest aftertaste. Despite being lighter, they offer more subtle complexity for quiet contemplative tasting.  This year, these early harvests from Mrs. Li are her 1st Picking Shi Feng Dragonwell and her 1st Picking Shi Feng Longjing #43.

brewing Shi Feng Dragonwell green tea in a tempered glassbrewing Shi Feng Dragonwell green tea in a tempered glass
brewing Shi Feng Dragonwell green tea in a tempered glass

The later harvests have much stronger flavor and more pronounced aroma. Their texture is more subdued and their sweetness is more balanced with a deep green flavor. They provide the most classic and identifiable green tea flavor, like you’ll find in Mrs. Li’s classic Shi Feng Dragonwell and Shi Feng Longjing #43, as well as the Semi-Wild High Peak Dragonwell

Shi Feng Dragonwell green teaShi Feng Dragonwell green tea
Shi Feng Dragonwell green tea

Li Xiaoping only picks in the early spring, and forgoes a summer or autumn harvest to give her plants time to rest and recover. This means that every harvest she offers is still within the date range of cool, relatively dry weather and therefore has a balanced, satisfying flavor free of bitterness or dryness.

Avoid summer harvest Dragonwell, as the heat and sun often yield bitter tea. In addition, summer harvest Dragonwell is often an indicator of a larger plantation looking to increase its yield. Good Dragonwell should not be too finicky to brew as long as your water is of high quality.

brewing Dragonwell green teabrewing Dragonwell green tea
brewing Dragonwell green tea

How can you tell if your Dragonwell tea is early or later picking?

The earliest pickings are much more yellow in color and full of yellow and silver down. The leaves are quite small. Later pickings have less down and a more yellow green color with variagated darker shades. Only summer tea is going to be deep, deep green. Avoid overly green Dragonwell, as it is most likely not the real article.

early spring Dragonwell green teaearly spring Dragonwell green tea
early spring Dragonwell green tea

Tea Varietals:
Longjing Qunti vs. Longjing #43

Shi Feng actually cultivates two distinct varietals of tea.

The first is called Longjing Qunti, which is referred to by locals as lao shu, or old tree varietal. This is the classic and original Dragonwell, the same kind of tea tasted and recognized by Emperor Qianlong that propelled the region to fame.  In Mrs. Li’s collection, these are her 1st Picking Shi Feng Dragonwell, classic Shi Feng Dragonwell, and her Semi-Wild High Peak Dragonwell

The second varietal is relatively new, a kind of tea bred intentionally to fit the climate and soil and to yield small, perfect, early buds. This second varietal is called Longjing #43, or locally  xin shu, new tree varietal. In Mrs. Li’s collection, these are her 1st Picking Shi Feng Longjing #43 and her classic Shi Feng Longjing #43.

on the upper left, Longjing #43; on the lower right, Longjing Quntion the upper left, Longjing #43; on the lower right, Longjing Qunti
on the upper left, Longjing #43; on the lower right, Longjing Qunti

What is the difference between Longjing Qunti and Longjing #43?

In terms of flavor, Longjing Qunti is big on texture and mineral flavor. It is all about showing off the super distinct terroir of the region. If you like big rocky granite flavor, Longjing Qunti is for you.

Longjing #43 is way more about aroma. It is bright, tighter, and more focused. The texture is smoother on the pallet and the flavor and aroma are stronger. If you love the classic sweet Chinese green tea ideal, Longjing #43 is absolutely worth trying.

1st Picking Longjing #43 Green Tea1st Picking Longjing #43 Green Tea
1st Picking Longjing #43 Green Tea

Flavor aside, the two varietals look dramatically different and bud at different times. In China, the race to have the first Dragonwell to market is intense. The most desired picking on the domestic market is the earliest picking, and beating everyone else by even a day or two can mean hundreds of extra dollars a pound. Critically, varietal #43 buds almost a w