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 and how to pull back the curtain behind this tiny region to understand how to find the real deal.
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.
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.
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.
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
Dragonwell growing within Shi Feng is differentiated and graded largely by its picking time. You may see terms thrown around like Mingqian and Yuqian Dragonwell. “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.
Why is picking date important?
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.
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.
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.
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.
How can you tell if your 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.
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.
What is the difference between Longjing Qunti and #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.
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 week earlier than most Qunti varietal (depending on where the plants are growing and their particular microclimate).
In addition, varietal #43 has shorter plumper buds, more reminiscent of the classic queshe or Sparrows Tongue shape. For gifting purposes and for serving guests, the appearance of the buds in the glass have always been considered absolutely critical. The early budding and the beautiful shorter plumper and yellower buds were the reason this varietal was selected for wider cultivation.
Li Xiaoping has devoted a section of her fields to the new varietal to support the development of a new way to admire the unique Shi Feng terroir. Both varietals bring out different and equally worthwhile qualities.
When buying Dragonwell, be sure you know whether you are getting Longjing #43 or Longjing Qunti.
Some sources will sell Longjing #43 as early picking classic Dragonwell because the buds are naturally smaller and yellower, and because they can claim an earlier picking date. Sometimes this is deceptive, and other times vendors simply do not know and are too far removed from the source of their tea.
This unfortunate practice has spread across the imitation Dragonwell fields in the wider West Lake region and across Zhejiang, where the lower elevation and more sunlight of flat, low land fields encourage earlier budding.
This is truly not fair to either varietal. Both varietals deserve respect and recognition for what make them each unique and beautiful. As a taster, you deserve to know what you are enjoying, so that you can strengthen your familiarity with both varietals more clearly.
But great tea is always more than just environment, timing, and varietal.
Great tea comes from great people.
As with any region, the craft and the families who devote their lives to making us beautiful tea have the greatest effect of all on flavor and quality.
The decisions of a farmer on when to pick, how to care for their tea during the winter, and when to cut back and trim their plants can completely change the quality of the final product. The work that goes into picking just the most perfect examples of buds and leaves at their most tender and leaving just the right amount of stem on the leaf for sweetness are critical to having great tea.
The care of the craftsperson in taking the picked leaves and finishing them by hand in small batches will determine whether the finished tea accurately reflects the terroir and the varietal.
Anyone selling true Dragonwell should provide an accurate and respectful portrait of the people behind the tea.
A name is not enough. Every farmer we have met wants their stories and priorities to be shared, and you deserve to know. Being able to see exactly where a tea is picked and processed, and how that work is done, can help you decide where to place your trust.
Always look and always ask. Your insistence on transparency in the tea industry will not only yield you better fresher tea, but over time influence even the biggest players to adapt their ways to suit the priorities of today’s tea lovers.
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