The Tea Cup and the Dragon: Secrets of China's Favorite Green Tea

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[Photographs: Max Falkowitz]

For most of the year, Zhu Mei Na's family farm in Meijiawu Village is the placid place you expect a tea plantation to be. But by the end of March it's bustling, as 15 hired hands spread across its four acres, setting out before dawn to pick leaves for the spring harvest.

Once the sun rises it's too late. Morning light burns through the pre-dawn mist and the bushes resume their growing cycle. The sweet young shoots hulk out into waxy, bitter leaves, so the pickers will wait until nightfall for fresh ones to reappear.

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Welcome to springtime in Hangzhou, a medium-sized city of eight million people in Zhejiang Province, and home to the Lamborghini of China's green tea market: longjing, known in English as Dragon Well. I'm here to watch the spring rush in action: over a few short weeks in March and April, plantations like Zhu's face a daily race against the sunrise to pick the early spring harvest, which will earn them a sizable chunk of their annual income.

High-end Dragon Well, which tastes like spring's first green vegetables accented by roasted chestnut, can sell for 15 to over a hundred dollars an ounce. (By comparison, some totally drinkable but ordinary Gunpowder tea cost me $1 an ounce.) Like coffee and wine, this tea has its obsessives, the kind of people who dig into details like the day a tea was plucked and which side of a hill it came from. And right now, those fanatics are chomping at the bit for a taste of the first new harvest.

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So it goes in China, where tea is both daily necessity and revered fetish object. But when outsiders try to learn what all the fuss is about, they're usually stymied by the mind-boggling complexity of fine tea, and a marketplace rife with misinformation and counterfeit product doesn't do much to help.

That's why I've made the journey to Hangzhou myself, to learn how and why this little leaf from a plain-looking shrub drives a whole economy wild.

The How and Why of Dragon Well

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Fresh Dragon Well leaves ready to be roasted.

Like any other produce, tea has its seasons. Dragon Well is not shy about this. I stick my nose into a handful of freshly roasted tea and am struck down by the crisp, green aroma of springtime. The farmers brew a cup and the flavor is mellow but distinctly vegetal, spinach and fresh grass tempered by cream and chestnut. I sip and take a moment to appreciate the cool breezy feeling left on my tongue. With a quality Dragon Well, that feeling lasts for minutes.

Mellow sweetness is a hallmark of the Chinese style of green tea, one that emphasizes the aroma and texture of a brew as much, if not more, than its flavor. And if your Dragon Well is the good stuff, it won't turn bitter from oversteeping, nor will it twist an empty stomach into knots the way other green teas might.

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What "Dragon Well" means exactly is a little muddled. In China, Xihu longjing refers to a specific tea variety dried into a flattened feather shape and grown exclusively in the Xihu district surrounding Hangzhou's West Lake, a region with cool, moist air, rocky mountains, acidic soil, and dramatic temperature fluctuations—practically designed for growing good tea.

But the tea is grown and sold all over Zhejiang province, and overseas the regional distinctions are usually lost in translation. As a result, any mellow-vegetal green tea that's dried into a Dragon Well-like shape might be sold as Dragon Well.

Regardless of the source, all Dragon Well comes from the same plant as all other tea, a seemingly unremarkable shrub called camelia sinensis. Dragon Well's green color and special flavor are the result of climate, good farming, and careful handling, not genetics, which is why its range of quality is so wide. But that's not enough to explain its idolized status among tea drinkers; after all, China's full of great tea in all sorts of styles. What makes Dragon Well so highly prized?

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"It's simple," says David Duckler, the founder of Verdant Tea, a company in Minneapolis that buys fine tea directly from small farms. "Celebrity endorsement." Dragon Well's popularity stretches back to the Qing Dynasty, when emperor Qianglong declared it the official tea of the imperial court—a reputation that's carried weight ever since, and that received a second jolt of popularity from Chairman Mao during the Chinese revolution. Perhaps that's why members of today's Chinese bureaucracy exchange ludicrously expensive "gift" packages of Dragon Well in exchange for political favors, a practice that's artificially some plantations' prices well above market rate.

Which isn't to say that good tea isn't worth the cost, Dragon Well included. "Once you spend a day picking and processing tea," Duckler adds, "you'd think it's outrageous that it costs so little in the U.S." For all that modern technology has helped the tea business, ancient methods remain the surest way to grow great tea. That means good land, the hard-won experience of skilled labor, and careful handling, all of which demand time and money.

Out in the Fields

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Over on Zhu's farm, she's racing to beat the Qingming Festival in early April, a religious and agricultural holiday that also marks the official end of the early spring tea season. Pre-Qingming Dragon Well is the top of the line: the sweetest, richest, most delicate tea of the year, picked before spring's heavy rainfall or summer's rising temperatures, which draw bitter flavors out of the tea bushes. Late spring, summer, and autumn harvests still bring in valuable revenue but produce lower grades of tea: a little less fresh, light, and ineffably spring-like.

Her pickers, a crew of skilled laborers who've worked in the tea business for years, are looking for the youngest, sweetest tea shoots, less than a handful per bush. A seasoned picker, starting in the middle of the night (when harsh sunlight doesn't accelerate the shoots' growth) and working through sunrise, can only bring in a pound's worth of tea per day. The work is slow going and experience counts. Pickers who've spent years on the job know how to sort out bland stems and pass over too-young buds or bug-bitten leaves.

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A fresh Dragon Well shoot ripe for picking.

Once the pickers bring in their hauls, the tea is ready for roasting. "It's critical that the leaves be roasted within a few hours of picking to stop any oxidation," Duckler explains. The moment a tea leaf is plucked, it starts to oxidize, a chemical reaction that brings dark, malty flavors into the tea and enhances its tannic astringency.

Green teas are roasted before oxidation can kick in, which is why they're pristine reflections of their origins, of the soil, sunlight, rainfall, and air that fed them on that particular hillside at that particular moment in time. Drink enough tea and you'll taste the difference between a sweet spring harvest and a sun-drenched summer picking. As Duckler puts it, "the tea tells all."

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Wok-roasting Dragon Well.

Traditionally you dry Dragon Well leaves by tossing them in a blazing hot wok with your bare hands. It's incredible to watch: a skilled roaster (often the farm's owner) has his hands in the wok for hours at a time, doing the job entirely by feel—drying the leaves out but not completely desiccating them, layering in subtle nutty flavors without burning the tea. This step is also where Dragon Well gets its signature shape, as roasters press the leaves against the sides of the pan. It's a slow process: working three woks at once, a roaster needs hours to produce a single pound of dried tea.

That's why Zhu made the switch to machine roasting in 2005, a move that increased her productivity tenfold. With such a short season to sell her priciest product, it's hard to blame her for doing so.

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A roaster may operate three woks at once.

Some farmers are still committed to growing tea the old fashioned way: eschewing pesticides, relying on experienced pickers, and roasting by hand. But in an increasingly competitive marketplace, more and more plantation owners make compromises. They send lumbering tea-picking machines to climb like spiders over their bushes, breaking and oxidizing leaves along the way. Or they'll roast their tea in large ovens, a more efficient method than hand-roasting, but one that might burn off the tea's most precious nuances.

"The active season for skilled manual labor is only two to four weeks," says Peter Luong, the founder of San Francisco's Song Tea, who just finished his own spring tea hunt. "As the Chinese economy develops, fewer seasonal employees can commit to that. The labor shortage has a substantial impact on the market."

The Good, the Bad, and the Counterfeit

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With such high demand for premium Dragon Well and only so much of the good stuff to go around, tea buyers have a serious problem: there's a high likelihood that you won't get what you paid for.

"If you looked at all the tea sold as 'Hangzhou Dragon Well' and then looked at the size of Hangzhou's tea-growing area, you'd see there's no way that region could supply all this tea," Luong explains. "Dragon Well is grown all over Zhejiang Province. You'll even find bushes next to highways, taking in all that pollution." As it happens, most of the tea labeled as Hangzhou Dragon Well isn't from Hangzhou at all. "Even in China, a tea house may show you one tea and then switch it out for a cheaper one when packing it for you," Duckler told me.

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The sad truth of the tea business is that tea sellers (and farmers) can lie—about where a tea comes from, how it was grown and processed, and how "special" it really is. "If you go to most tea websites and houses," says Luong, "you'll see marketing spiels of a tea's rarity and exclusivity, but when you pay attention to the types of tea being sold, the price may not match up to what's being advertised."

There's a reason Duckler sells his Dragon Well for $14 an ounce. His source, a Hangzhou farmer named Mrs. Li, is still committed to growing tea the old fashioned way. The quality shows—her tea has an incredible depth of arboreal flavor and an almost juicy sweetness—but she produces only a few hundred pounds of tea a season, not enough to sell at a bargain.

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Mrs. Li is in the minority. Most plantations in China opt for lower quality tea that's still well worth drinking, and is priced to match. The problem comes when unscrupulous farmers or merchants price a cheaper tea like a premium one, all in the hopes of making a quick buck. Unless a buyer knows what to look for, it's all too easy to get hoodwinked into overpaying.

Some buyers think that as long as they're purchasing from a prized tea-growing region they'll get a reliably delicious product. Not so with Dragon Well—Hangzhou's green tea isn't all created equal, and though it's the most famous region for the tea, certain plantations are more diligent than others.

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Meanwhile you'll find some great Dragon Well grown far outside of Hangzhou, such as the variety Luong will be offering in a few weeks. "It's from a high elevation and good climate, and since it's farther from the city, it doesn't suffer from the same pollution as plantations right near Hangzhou."

Sammy Levine, the founder of New York's Everlasting Tea, offers a Dragon Well grown over in Taiwan. "I won't lie and say it's the same quality as the Hangzhou plantations—it's darker and more astringent—but it's still a good tea, and I'm honest with my customers about it. Many of them even like the subtle bitterness."

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That's a rare honest admission in the fine tea world, an industry based on fomenting desire for luxury products that may or may not be worth their price. And it's a lesson in why, at the end of the day, the best way to ensure you're getting quality tea is to trust your vendor. "For me it's about the quality of the tea and the people who make it," Levine tells me, "not the name of a famous mountain. When farmers love their farm and their tea, they want to tell you everything about it. There's no substitute for that."

When Levine, Luong, and Duckler hunt for tea, the final sale always comes down to a cup of tea with the farmer and an honest conversation. "We build trust with the farmer," Duckler explains, "and they build trust with us."

How to Find Great Tea

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What's true for these tea sellers is true for the rest of us. The best way to buy quality tea is to trust the person selling it to you.

"Before we opened our retail shop," Luong told me, "I told my staff, 'these teas are going to be very expensive. Let's be sure not to be assholes about it.' We want to be straightforward about what these teas are and what they're worth."

Look for a tea seller who's generous with the details. Ask who the farmers are and how they grow their tea. Some teas are designed to be aged, but others, like most greens, are meant to be brewed within just a few months of picking. If a tea seller is trying to push some spring Dragon Well on you while it's snowing outside, take a pass.

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If a tea seller knows their stuff, they'll likely be thrilled to tell you all about where they buy their tea and how it's grown. "You want a company that's on the ground at the source," says Levine, "that can show you that they know their farmers." Larger tea companies often buy their tea through brokers, not directly from farmers, and the more middlemen involved in a transaction, the less assurance you have of a tea's quality.

When you're buying Dragon Well in particular, look for bright green leaves, not super-dark ones. They should be flat, tapered at one end, and not completely brittle. If you take a sniff, the fresh green aroma should reach out and grab you by the nose.

Above all, ask for a taste. "That's the only way you'll know if it's a tea you like," Levine says. Not all tea sellers offer tastings, and online stores certainly don't, but tasting is the only way you can decide if a pricy tea is right for you.

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Lastly, a cautionary note. There's only one type of tea you absolutely have to buy: the kind that tastes good to you. Tea comes in an infinitude of grades, varieties, and styles, and while prices certainly correlate to quality, they have a more direct relationship to scarcity and production costs. None of which matters to your palate, so if you like a $10 Dragon Well as much as a $100 version, keep an open mind, but buy what makes you happiest.

"When I was studying tea," Duckler told me, "one tea master forced me to drink only the foulest, lowest grade tea he had until I could describe and appreciate its flavor, aroma, and texture. Only then was I allowed to drink the 'superior' tea. If someone brings you an ordinary tea bag and you can't find anything good in it, that's your fault, not the tea's fault."

Brewing and Buying Quality Dragon Well

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When tea people talk about brewing, the conversation can fast turn to the annoyingly obscure. But here's the truth: there is no absolute right or wrong way to brew a cup of tea, and rules are meant to be broken.

I'll give you an example. Plenty of conventional wisdom dictates that you should brew green tea with cool water, about 175°F, lest you draw bitter flavors out of the leaves. But with a nice Dragon Well that doesn't taste bitter, I prefer the bolder flavor of tea made with boiling water. Every tea, and every palate, works differently, and I've yet to see a brewing chart or rulebook that makes a tastier cup than my own trial and error.

Here's how I drank Dragon Well all over Hangzhou. Take a pinch of tea and drop it in a glass, then pour water on top—somewhere between 175° and boiling—and let the leaves sit anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes. Drink straight from the glass, filtering the leaves out through your teeth and refilling as necessary. No timers, no scales, no strainers, no measuring. You may find the freedom as refreshing as the tea itself.

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You can learn a lot about a tea from its brewed leaves. Note that the leaves are small and unbroken with minimal stems.

The rule you should keep in mind is freshness. Green teas fade over time and are best brewed within a few months of harvest, so buy small quantities and drink them quickly.

And yes, you'll have to accept that great tea, when diligently sourced, costs more than the teabags you're used to. But consider it this way. Let's say a two-ounce package of great Dragon Well costs you $30. That's about 60 grams, and for a six-ounce tea cup, a good serving is roughly three grams. One of the joys of fine tea is that you can re-steep the same leaves several times—I typically use drink the same pinch of tea all day. But let's assume you get five steepings out of your three grams. At $1.50 per pinch, that's a mere 30 cents per cup! Compare that to the price of a single cup of coffee or glass of wine and you'll see that even ultra-expensive tea is one of the world's most affordable luxuries.

Now that you've slogged through 3,000 words about Dragon Well, here's where you can buy it.

  • Verdant Tea carries a limited supply of premium Hangzhou Dragon Well tea in the spring. $14/ounce.
  • Song Tea will start selling this year's spring harvest in a few weeks. Call or email for details.
  • Everlasting Tea carries a unique Taiwanese take on Dragon Well, but not every year. Email for details.
  • Red Blossom is offering a pre-Qingming Dragon Well from Pan'An county in Zhejiang Province. $15.50/two ounces.
  • Rishi sells a USDA certified organic Dragon Well. $10/ounce.

Disclosure: Travel to Hangzhou provided by the Hangzhou Tourism Commission.

Interview with Zhu Mei Na conducted through a translator. Special thanks to Chang Li.

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