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 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.
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.
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).
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.
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 Xiaping 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.
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.
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