Foundations: A Look into Longjing (Dragonwell)

Heralded as the most famous Chinese green tea and legendary around the world, Longjing or Dragonwell, is one tea we’ll want to know a thing or two about. Accessible in flavors and simple to prepare for taste, let’s dive into this smooth tea known for its roasted chestnut, fresh beansprout, and creamy flavor and mouthfeel profiles. While Xihu is regarded as the optimal location for harvest, there’s a lot that goes into understanding just why. In this post I’ll cover this region and the ones that commonly source Dragonwell, as well as cultivars and processing methods in order to provide a foundation worth expanding upon through more searching and tasting!

Xihu (West Lake), located in Zhejiang province, is regarded as the pinnacle growing location for the this beautiful tea. It’s this district area that commands renown status and price. If a Longjing’s origin can be traced back to any of these areas included in the picture below, it can be truly regarded as Xihu Longjing. Listed below is Shifeng (Lion’s Peak), Wengjiashan (Weng Family Mountain), Hu Pao (Tiger Run), and more. This Xihu area primarily focuses on the Longjing #43 and Qun Ti Zhong cultivars. Three mountain peaks in the area advantageously prevents cold air from the north from reaching the land and holds warm air in from the south. Pair this with ample sources of good water and it’s no wonder why this is regarded as a must have source for tea.

Areas included that make up Xihu (West Lake) Longjing

The regions below showcase many other areas in which Longjing is cultivated outside of Xihu and grows Zhejiang Longjing. High quality Longjing from Shaoxing, Xinchang, and regions below can most certainly be found, and I can’t stress enough just how important it is to let our senses do the judging and evaluating. They’ll generally come at a lower price since it won’t have the Xihu name attached to the leaf – a huge win when thinking about accessibility and evaluating the leaf without the hype.

Xihu – and other regions in Zhejiang Province that make up Zhejiang Longjing

With growing regions outlined, it’s much easier to take a look at any Longjing we may have in stock or research when making purchases. I recently had a Longjing from Wengjiashan and knowing were this falls within Xihu helped me understand the price I paid. Let’s carry on with picking seasons and the differences time has on this tea.

Season: As with just about all Green teas, I strive to opt for Spring-picked. When it comes to this Longjing, I generally seek a Pre Qing Ming crop. The Qing Ming Festival is a traditional day that has been observed for over 2500 years, and consists of Chinese families visiting the graves of ancestors to clean the sites, offer prayers, and rituals. This takes place sometime in the first week of April (4th or 5th). Longjing, especially Pre Qing Ming from Xihu, will be a an expensive one to purchase so I recommend treading lightly.

Why is this important? The tea bushes have had the winter to take in nutrients at a slow and steady rate. The highest levels of sugar and amino acids it takes to energetically sprout gives it the beautiful balance of flavors and freshness. If it’s too early though, it may be missing the balance in flavor and be too light in taste.

Summer pickings will provide a more bitter taste and since more insects arrive with the warmer weather, there are more chances for pesticide usage. Based on my own tastings, I recommend tea pickings completed before the end of April. Knowing that the first pickings of the year come with the highest prices, I couldn’t help but explore cultivars and the differences that come in harvests and profiles.. Are there some that naturally flush earlier? How does that impact taste and price?

Cultivar: Longjing #43

Common Cultivars

  • Wu Niu Zao: Green freshness, light in texture, less nutty and roasted profile. Green sea air and crisp in texture, this is an earlier harvest cultivar (meaning it can get out to market faster) and produces a higher yield.
  • Longjing #43: Balanced in fresh greens and chestnut flavors, #43 comes with a thicker taste. the leaves from this tree grow thicker and fatter than the Qun Ti variety, yielding a lustrous sheen. The aromas are more present and provides a sweeter green taste than Qun Ti.
  • Qun Ti Zhong: The original cultivar for Longjing, it yields a stronger presence of chestnut, cream, and roasted nuts. Thick in mouthfeel with a herbal spices and a sweet cream sensation. Qun Ti is harvested later than Longjing #43. It also possesses a stronger mineral taste providing a lovely depiction of the terrior that makes Longjing unique.

Picking: Bud + 1 leaf or Bud + 2 leaves – Handpicked

Longjing: Bud + 2 leaves

To understand just how careful the producers must be in order to craft high-quality Longjing, it’s important to understand the processing involved

Processing

Leaves arrive freshly picked as a bud and 1 or 2 leaves

Withering: spreading leaves out in cool,dry indoor atmosphere so that the leaves begin to lose moisture. The cell walls of the leaf begins to break down, making the stems pliable and malleable. This can generally take 5-8 hours depending on the weather.

Shaqing (kill-green): Longjing is pan-fired in order to stop enzymatic processes from taking place. Traditionally pan-fried in woks, most Longjing sees this first firing process completed via machine drums that rotate the tea against heated metal. This provides a consistent roasting that never stays on the hot metal for long at a time.
Once this first pan-fired process is completed, the oxidation process has been halted. A second round of firing will take place in order to shape, build flavor at a detailed level, and continue reducing moisture. Finding a source where this process is completed by hand is a beautiful find. Passion meets craft as the firing in woks by hand means that the longjing is expertly shaped and kept moving under ~200 °F. It’s even better if both the first and second firings are completed by hand!

Dried and stored properly, this tea is ready for market!

Longjing grandpa style

So, what have I learned through tasting, talking, and researching up on this tea? See the conclusions below:

Xihu Longjing – West Lake origin that surrounds the local area. High-quality and consistent, yet highly priced.
Zhejiang Longjing – Regions outside Xihu that produce Longjing tea. More affordable containing stellar Longjing tea with thoughtful searching.

Prices depend on location and namesake of origin, time of picking within the season or year, and the visual quality of the leaf.

Main Cultivars for Longjing include:
Wu Niu Zao
Longjing #43
Qun Ti Zhong

General visual signatures provide some insight but should follow with tasting it yourself:

White fuzz = results of an early-picked Longjing and provides a nice texture
Leaves are more yellow = nuttier
Leaves are more green = fresher and greener in taste
Burn marks – scorched marks present an indication of the lack of care or accuracy in the longjing under high temperatures

At the end of the day, our preferences in taste should be the ultimate deciding factor. I try to purchase a range of cultivars and color consistencies in order to match whatever given mood or flavor I’m craving. That’s not to say I have preferences, I just know they can change as the months and years go by.

What are your feelings towards Longjing? I hope there were experiences I shared that were new or were made clearer. Now you know some of the aspects that go through my mind as I look for delicious Longjing, and I hope to share more as I continue tasting!

Steep well!

Marco

3 Comments

  1. Dragonwell was the first “fancy” tea I ever tried and was probably the second jumping-off point into my tea-loving life (after childhood tea parties with my mother!). Thank you for such a lovely look at the background into it.

    Like

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