Longjing ("Dragon Well") is China's most famous tea - no small feat! But what is it?
Longjing tea refers to spring-harvested teas grown in certified areas in Hangzhou, China. Longjing tea can be green or black, but we'll focus on the green tea in this article.
Why is Longjing green tea so famous?
1. It tastes amazing
It has a delicate grassiness evocative of early spring mornings, combined with a toasted nuttiness, and a signature 'returning sweetness' (回甘) that lingers in your mouth all day.
Its soft sweetness comes from the plump leaves nurtured by West Lake's misty terroir. And it is pan-fired on a hot wok, which flattens the leaves and gives it that wonderful roasted chestnut flavour.
2. It grows in a very scenic area
Hangzhou's West Lake area, home to the 5 certified productions areas of Longjing tea, has been the muse of famous poets, musicians, philosophers and artists for centuries.
Not only that, the terroir here is ideal for growing tea. Hangzhou has a temperate, rainy climate with high humidity and low sun radiation. This allows the plants to produce more amino acids and less polyphenols, giving a nutritious and fresh tasting tea.
3. It's steeped in history and folklore
'Longjing' translates to 'Dragon Well' which is the name of a water well in the area. Legend has it that a benevolent dragon kept the well replenished - even during decades of drought.
Tea has been produced here since the 8th Century, but it shot to fame when Emperor Qian Long (Qing Dynasty) tried it and loved it, and claimed that one sip of Longjing tea had restored his ill mother to health. It then became the sole reserve of the royal court in the 17th Century.
How is authentic Longjing tea defined?
Authentic Longjing tea must:
- come from one of the 5 certified areas in Hangzhou,
- be made with one of 3 cultivars, and
- be harvested in spring.
The 5 certified production areas are:
- Shifeng Mountain
- Longjing Village
- Wuyun Mountain
- Hupao Mountain
There are 3 major harvests in spring:
- Pre-Qingming 明前 (End of March)
- Pre-Guyu 雨前 (Mid April)
- Post-Guyu 雨後 (Late April)
In cool temperatures, the tea plants grow slowly, so the leaves are more nutrition-dense. Pre-Qingming is the most premium harvest, as it consists of the soft, tender leaves newly sprouted after winter. The flavour tends to be light and delicate.
Later harvests are less expensive, as the leaves have grown faster with more sunlight and rain, but tend to have more robust flavours.
How is Longjing tea made?
Most authentic Longjing tea is produced by a mix of machine and by hand (半手工).
The leaves are:
- Withered, to reduce water content and activate the aroma
- Pan-fired at 120°C to halt oxidation and fix the green colour and grassy flavour. (This is where the roasted chestnut aroma comes from.)
- Shaped (during the pan-firing process)
What's the best way to brew Longjing tea?
Pre-Qingming Longjing green tea does best in 80-85°C water, because its leaves are so delicate. Later harvests can handle slightly higher temperatures without getting too bitter.
If brewing Chinese-style with a gaiwan, we recommend starting with 4g in 100ml of 80°C water for 1 minute, and adjusting from there.
If brewing Western-style in a large teapot, we recommend 8g per 500ml of 80°C water for 3 minutes.
It is traditionally brewed in glass teaware, partly because its wonderful to watch the infusion process, partly because glass was a symbol of prestige in those days, and partly because glass dissipates heat quickly (which is good for green teas).
Actually, most people who live in Hangzhou drink Longjing green tea 'grandpa style' which is simply brewing the tea directly in the same glass you are drinking from, without straining the leaves. You will inevitably eat some tea leaves this way, but that's not a bad thing!
Types of Longjing tea to try
We source several types of Longjing tea from Meijiawu, all from the prized 群體種 cultivar:
Considered the best of the best, this tea is harvested before Qingming Festival while the weather is still cool. It is made of first leaves newly grown after winter, which are believed to contain the most nutrients.
Made entirely by hand by a small family farm, this Pre-Qingming Longjing tea has the same great flavour as the premium batches do, but without the signature flat shape of the leaves. The leaves are curly, due to the processing preference of the family who makes it.
The second harvest of the year, this tea is harvested before the "Grain Rains" which is usually mid-April. The plants have been exposed to more sunlight, so the leaves are bigger and the tea is more robust than the Pre-Qingming harvest.
Also harvested before Guyu/ Grain Rains, this tea is more "easy drinking" version of the other Longjings. We especially like its pronounced roast chestnut aroma.
Made from the same cultivar as the green teas and harvested in mid-April, this tea is fully oxidised and processed as a black tea. It exudes a sweet plum flavour with notes of toasted nuts.
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