Every block of Hangzhou has a teahouse specializing in Dragonwell tea, from the back alleys to the grand sweeping pavilions of West Lake. The teahouses are like shrines and altars to the presence felt throughout the city: the verdant green peaks that stretch across the lake opposite Hangzhou, the tea fields of Dragonwell. Emperor Qianlong found time to make a pilgrimage to Dragonwell Village four times in his life, even in old age, declaring Dragonwell green tea as the finest in the world and leaving inscriptions as a token of gratitude to the farmers. It is no wonder then that nearby Hangzhou is a city in tribute to the tea that could humble an emperor.
Like buying a bundle of incense to leave at the altar of Nanputuoshan in Xiamen, a visit to Hangzhou demands the ritual of tasting and buying Dragonwell tea. The city itself seems to be built with the nearby village in mind. The city center is far from Dragonwell, and the approach to the village takes you around the gorgeous West Lake, through huge green forests and parks full of flowers before finally up the winding roads through the foothills of tea growing land. The city transitions itself gracefully into low-lying tea fields, pavilions, temples, and the Tea Museum spread out among streams flowering covered walkways and attached to the National Tea Research Institute of Hangzhou. Teahouses line the narrow street as you climb further up the mountain and away from town. Finally, Dragonwell village emerges around a corner, two winding roads joined at a Y intersection with houses perched vertically along the hillsides. Most houses’ backyards are tea-lined mountain slopes.
We stepped out of our car at the one intersection of Dragonwell village to be welcomed by about a dozen locals looking for business, either guests looking for tea ceremony and demonstrations, or customers looking to buy Dragonwell tea by the pound. Because early spring harvest Dragonwell from high elevation peaks in the Shifeng area can go for well over $1,000 a pound, this famous tea is often imitated. Unfortunately, this imitation is not limited just to the street vendors along Dragonwell road. Even large companies are often fooled into buying green tea from lowlands around Zhejiang province and calling it Shifeng Dragonwell, or Xihu (West Lake) Dragonwell. The fact is, there just isn’t that much to go around. Demand is extremely high, and most farmers aren’t picking more than a few hundred pounds total each spring.
We count ourselves as extremely lucky to know Mrs. Li, a name that commands respect in town. We tell the street vendors that we are here to see an old friend, Mrs Li, and they understand immediately that we are here with purpose. They move aside and point us on, far down the road.
It was a real joy to see Mrs Li again after so many years. Her daughter who had been a shy student at our last visit has now graduated, married, had a child and found a great job in the city to keep her busy in the tea picking off season. Mrs. Li immediately pulled out a cloth bag with a sparkle in her eye. “Smell this,” she said. Incredible! There is nothing in the world like fresh picked Dragonwell. The perfect little buds were her first picking of the year, full of the sugars and nutrients stored up by the tea over the whole winter. Smelling this tea makes the whole world fade into the background- it is commanding, fresh, and fine as can be.
Mrs. Li’s father started picking tea when he was sixteen years old. She is proud that he spent his lifetime perfecting his picking and roasting skills. In his old age, his experience was tapped as the preeminent Dragonwell taster in China. His word would make or break the fortunes of a farm. His judgement would determine the grade and price on crops across Shifeng. Mrs. Li started learning from her father when she was old enough to talk. Despite her family’s pedigree, she is still one of the most warm and welcoming people that you will ever meet.
She tries to keep a low profile in town, selling only to family friends and those who come to her recommended by those she trusts. She says that big business in Shanghai and Beijing have offered to buy up her harvests at a premium, but she much prefers to sell a pound here and there, brewing the tea up for guests. We were lucky enough to meet her during a research trip and get to trust each other under the foundation of cultural exchange, not business.
We walked with Mrs Li to her tea fields. We asked her outright about pesticides and fertilizers, wanting to know if her tea meets organic standards. She was a bit scandalized. “Are you crazy? If I added chemicals to my tea, it would corrupt the taste and the health benefits. This tea is a gift from nature- pure and perfect as is. It wouldn’t even be worth the labor to climb these mountains every day to pick tea that wasn’t pure and organic.” To farmers like Mrs Li, or the He family in Laoshan, the organic question seems obvious. Why ruin a good thing? Why decrease the value of your crop, and pollute your own land when you are passing the fields on to your children? Anything but organic just doesn’t make sense.
We are excited beyond belief for the opportunity to share Mrs. Li’s spring harvest for the second year, and honored that she chooses to work with us when she so clearly has customers lining up to buy her tea. Mrs. Li hopes that her Dragonwell lives up to her father’s reputation and brings honor to her family and to the village as it is tasted around the world. She also hopes that if her tea is enjoyed enough, she can come visit the teahouse we are opening in Minnesota to meet those whose compliments we pass on to her every month.
As we leave the lush forests of Dragonwell behind, we look forward to the rocky ocean-facing slopes of Laoshan and picking tea with the He family.