Verdant Tea

Field Guide, part eight: Longjing, Zhejiang

Field Guide, part eight: Longjing, Zhejiang

Field Guide, part eight: Longjing, Zhejiang

exploring Dragonwell with Mrs. Li

August 28, 2018

Throughout the month of August, we’ve been exploring nine different growing regions across China with nine different partners. With each article, we’ve been working to understand what it is about each region that makes them unique, teasing apart how regional differences influence the values of growers and craftspeople, and why our partners’ particular combination of weather, soil, varietal and craft brings them awards, national recognition and inspiring tea.

The eighth article in this series visits the Li Family in the renowned village of Dragonwell (Longjing) in Zhejiang province.  Shi Feng (or Lion’s Peak) in Dragonwell is one of the most famous growing regions in China. It’s unique microclimate and the traditional craft of people like the Li Family makes Dragonwell tea one of the most sought-after teas on the market.

PART EIGHT: Li Xiaoping
Longjing Village, Zhejiang

The Place:

Dragonwell village is separated from the nearby city of Hangzhou by West Lake park and a tall wall of mountains. A tunnel through the mountainside and some winding switchbacks eventually lead to the small village of Dragonwell, nestled above Hangzhou but below the microclimate of Shi Feng.

The set of peaks form a small valley, a bowl of tea-growing land that is protected from the air currents of Hangzhou.

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 ( long jing ) at the base of Shi Feng is a source of sweet, clean water. This water flows in mountain springs and aquifers and feeds the tea with sweet mineral water.

The tea growing in this tiny region represents the heritage of true Dragonwell, a tea that rose to fame after praise from Emperor Qianlong.

The unique growing conditions and the historic significance of Shi Feng has led to its designation 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 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 respected taster for grading and 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 still, her family’s entire annual yield is just a few hundred pounds of tea.

In contrast, Hangzhou Dragonwell, West Lake Dragonwell, and Dragonwell without a single origin statement do not enjoy the same protections of weather and soil conditions as Shi Feng Dragonwell.

Many mass-market teas come from the Hangzhou city watershed and are exposed to the air pollution that a Chinese big city such as Hangzhou creates. The flatland soil of West Lake is not as rocky or sandy, lacking minerality, and the size and convenience of the fields lends to larger scale conventional agriculture that often turns to pesticides to optimize profitability and keep summer insects at bay.

laundry and meat dry above a field of West Lake Dragonwell; just beyond, a line of cars idles in traffic skirting through West Lake’s parkslaundry and meat dry above a field of West Lake Dragonwell; just beyond, a line of cars idles in traffic skirting through West Lake’s parks
laundry and meat dry above a field of West Lake Dragonwell; just beyond, a line of cars idles in traffic skirting through West Lake’s parks

The Tea:

Li Xiaoping grows two cultivars of Dragonwell in her Shi Feng terraced mountain fields: the original Longjing Qunti, and the new Longjing #43.

Longjing Qunti is the tea praised by Emperor Qianlong and cultivated hundreds of years ago in the area. In fact, Li Xiaoping has a grove of Longjing Qunti on the very top of her mountain plot that has been around so long that it has gone wild, left untended and allowed to propagate naturally from seed.

The second cultivar is relatively new, bred intentionally to fit the climate and soil and to yield small and perfect early spring buds. This second cultivar is called Longjing #43, or locally xin shu, new tree varietal.

In terms of flavor, the Longjing Qunti is big on texture and mineral flavor. It is all about showing off the super distinct terroir of the region. In contrast, Longjing #43 is more focused on aroma. It is brighter, tighter, and more focused. The texture is smoother on the pallet and the flavor and aroma are stronger.

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
on the left, Longjing Qunti; on the right, Longjing #43on the left, Longjing Qunti; on the right, Longjing #43
on the left, Longjing Qunti; on the right, Longjing #43

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, Longjing #43 buds almost a week earlier than most Qunti varietal (depending on where the plants are growing and their particular microclimate).

1st Picking Longjing #431st Picking Longjing #43
1st Picking Longjing #43

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 cultivar 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, while 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. Mislabeling is not fair to either cultivar. Both deserve respect and recognition for what make them each unique and beautiful.

The People:

We first met Li Xiaoping over a decade ago, when we were still university students researching and collecting the folk stories behind Chinese tea.

Sharing the story of her family and her tea was one of our first inspirations to begin the Verdant Tea project, and Mrs. Li’s hospitality, kindness, and giving lessons over the years are a big part of what make our work possible.

Li Xiaoping’s father was a nationally recognized tea taster who started training all of his children from a young age to grow and process tea to perfection.

Her family is lucky enough to have an incredible plot of land on the Shi Feng mountainside overlooking the “Shi Ba Ke,” the eighteen tea bushes recognized by emperor Qianlong on his first visit to the area. The Li Family’s tea grows at an even higher elevation than the “emperor’s” tea, a fact she is proud to point out. Even from her early childhood, Mrs. Li knew that she would carry on the family’s tea tradition, and often talks of her earliest happy memories learning about tea from her father.

Li Xiaoping is married to Shui Huamin, another talented grower and craftsman. Shui Huamin single-handedly finishes all the tea leaves that Li Xiaoping and her cousins and sisters pick using a single wok and a single oven for fixing the leaves.

Li Xiaoping and Shui Huamin have one daughter and now a young granddaughter. Through their work in tea, they were able to send their daughter to the college of her dreams, their biggest goal as parents. Now, they are excited to start brewing tea for their granddaughter in the hopes that the next generation is inspired to carry on the family work.

Li Xiaoping herself is a truly inspiring farmer and craftswoman. Even as her village is overrun by tourists and people selling fake Dragonwell, she feels a deep pride in the history of the region, and wants more than anything else at this point in her life to share the flavor of true Dragonwell with those willing to taste it.

For Mrs. Li, integrity and education are the only ways to combat the market being saturated with fakes and to secure a meaningful future for the area.

Verdant founder Wei Wei Ren and Li XiaopingVerdant founder Wei Wei Ren and Li Xiaoping
Verdant founder Wei Wei Ren and Li Xiaoping

The Craft:

The decisions and the craft of farmers like Li Xiaoping are what transforms perfect leaves into perfect tea.  

For Li Xiaoping, this craft begins in the fields with deciding which groves to allow to grow wild and which ones to trim back for more tender buds. It requires decisions on when and how to pick where even a few hours difference can make or break the quality of a harvest.

Their father’s legacy means the Li family is held to high standards. Li Xiaoping has built on that legacy with a lifetime of choosing quality over quantity and integrity over profit. When other farmers are busy trying to get in later spring harvests, and even summer picking and autumn harvests, Li Xiaoping lets her tea rest and recover to grow deeper roots and build up more nutrients for the next spring.

When her tea is picked, Li Xiaoping has exacting standards – picking only perfect and unbroken buds. She hands off her labor to her husband Shui Huamin who hand-finishes the leaves in tiny batches, pressing them flat against a wok over very low heat to fix the leaves from oxidizing and eliminating most of the moisture without roasting them. In the workshop beneath their home, Shui Huamin works quickly to stop oxidation, judging his work by touch and smell.

The Li family’s entire annual yield is only several hundred kilos. This makes all of their tea precious, for a year’s income can be made or lost on a few decisions. As with any agricultural endeavour, the risks of weather and changing conditions make taking a chance on something new difficult. This year for the first time, however, Li Xiaoping reserved a small fraction of her harvest to try making an experimental black tea, almost unheard of in a region so dominated by tradition.

Li Xiaoping and the handful of farmers lucky enough to have plots in Shi Feng Dragonwell enjoy a unique place in the world of tea. They know for a fact that they have a market for their craft. While it would be easy to become complacent in such a position, Li Xiaoping is motivated to preserve the honor of what she believes Dragonwell should be.

For Mrs. Li, the high price her tea commands is not an excuse for profit. Instead, it is a justification to focus on craft and meticulous farming, lowering yield and preserving the natural ecosystem of Shifeng.


Explore the teas featured in this article:

  1. 2021 Shifeng Semi-Wild High Peak Dragonwell
    2021 Shifeng Semi-Wild High Peak Dragonwell
    This limited offering from Li Xiaoping can only be picked in years where the weather is cool and temperate and the rain is very light. At the very top[...]
    Out of stock
  2. 2021 1st Picking Shi Feng Longjing #43
    2021 1st Picking Shi Feng Longjing #43
    #43 Varietal Dragonwell was specifically bred and selected to bud even earlier than classic Dragonwell in Shi Feng and yields yellower plumper buds th[...]
    Out of stock
  3. 2020 Shi Feng Dragonwell Black Tea
    2020 Shi Feng Dragonwell Black Tea
    For the third year in a row, Li Xiaoping is excited to be sharing her family's new Dragonwell Black Tea! She uses the same delicate early buds as her [...]
    In stock
    As low as $12.75
  4. 2021 Shi Feng Dragonwell Black Tea
    2021 Shi Feng Dragonwell Black Tea

    For the fourth year in a row, Li Xiaoping is sharing her new Dragonwell Black Tea! She uses the same delicate early buds as her famous green tea, [...]

    In stock
    As low as $13.50
  5. 2021 Shi Feng Dragonwell
    2021 Shi Feng Dragonwell

    Li Xiaoping grows this true Dragonwell cultivar on a perfectly-shaded mountainside in the tiny and sought-after Shi Feng microclimate- a uniquely s[...]

    Low Stock
    As low as $13.95
  6. 2021 Shi Feng Longjing #43
    2021 Shi Feng Longjing #43
    Dragonwell varietal #43 has been carefully bred and selected in the last fifty years as a new tea well suited to Shi Feng’s terroir. It buds earlier[...]
    Low Stock
    As low as $13.95
  7. 2021 1st Picking Shi Feng Dragonwell
    2021 1st Picking Shi Feng Dragonwell
    This early spring tea is all about a fine and subtle sweetness, and a long, drawn out aftertaste and crisp texture. Cool spring weather produces a sma[...]
    Low Stock
    As low as $26.85
  8. Tasting True Dragonwell with Mrs Li
    Tasting True Dragonwell with Mrs Li

    This bundle includes four 25g bags of Shi Feng Dragonwell tea for 100g to[...]

    Sale
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