Ancient Dragonwell Tea Cultivar and Its Unique Terroir with Farmer Mr. Chen
Dragonwell (Longjing) is the most classic green tea from China, immortalized as a tribute tea by emperors and revered the world over. The original Dragonwell that was recognized by Emperor Qianlong and propelled the Hangzhou Westlake region to fame is made from an old tree tea cultivar, called Qunti. Ours is a premium-grade Organic Dragonwell made from this same ancient cultivar. It very distinctly conveys the rocky granite terroir of the pristine region where it is grown on a 500-acre terrace tea garden spanning the lush hillsides of Qiandao Lake, about 100 miles from Hangzhou. The fresh Spring tea leaves are collected and hand processed annually in early April. Big on texture and mineral flavor, this is a beautiful example of what a traditional Dragonwell tastes like.
The far more common variety of Dragonwell today, which most people associate with what that tea should look, smell and taste like, is grown from an engineered modern cultivar, Longjing 43. It is the predominant tea grown in the Westlake region, within the city of Hangzhou, China, an upscale metropolis with more than 12 million inhabitants which I endearingly refer to as “Beverly Hills on steroids.” Within a few miles of the city downtown is the National Chinese Tea Research Institute, the largest and most prestigious of all the tea research labs in China. I had the distinct honor to visit and learn there for a few days, from a team of tea researchers working on developing new tea cultivars, with the goals of tackling everything from withstanding the effects of climate change, better inherent insect protection, and resistance to air pollution. The institute includes a garden which is said to grow every single cultivar of Camellia sinensis in the world, from the finest little Camellia sinensis sinensis buds, to some of the biggest, baddest Camellia sinensis assamica leaves I’ve ever seen. The institute is nestled between large Longjing tea farms.
I respect and celebrate the scientific work that’s done to promote tea. Without these adaptations, specialty tea would become even more scare and pricey, and eventually disappear. It was hugely encouraging and endearing to hear the young tea scientists in Hangzhou speak passionately about their research projects.
Our choice of which Dragonwell to offer our customers lands on the side of history and tradition, however. This isn’t because I choose to shy away from engineered cultivars. What seduced me into choosing our Ancient Spring Dragonwell is a combination of reasons, most importantly, the clean air and very low density of the remote Qiandao Lake region, far from the air currents and water table of Hangzhou.
The Qiandao region has been designated as a protected region by the Chinese government, meaning that pesticides are completely banned, and farmers can only do organic cultivation there. The soil around Qiandao Lake is a unique mixture, grounded in quartz. The ultra pure, clean air, combined with the clear, quartz groundwaters bring big texture and an unmistakable minerality to the tea.
We buy up the first harvest of this tea from the Spring, which gives it bolder flavor and more antioxidants, since they come from the first budding after being dormant throughout the winter. This also means that the leaves are more yellow-green in color than the later harvest Dragonwells, which have had more time to absorb chlorophyll and turn into a more jade shade.
Lastly, because our tea is hand-harvested, and hand-processed, its classic flattened leaves can be less consistent in shape than those processed in a larger mechanized facility. Our tea farmer, Mr. Chen, has established his garden with one of his best friends from childhood. His Dragonwell grows alongside native osmanthus trees and relies on predatory bugs and nesting birds and for natural pest control. The flavor of this uncultivated Dragonwell is a great example of a natural terroir which can happen with the ideal convergence of conditions.
All of this adds up to our choice of selecting a tea which we love, which is safer and cleaner. The more prevalent Longjing #43 is lighter in texture, sweeter in taste, and more focused on the aroma than the flavor. It is classic now. Our Spring Dragonwell is, in contrast, all about showing off the distinct terroir of the remote lakes region from which it hails. Its quartz-based minerality makes this tea an experience in umami. If you enjoy big, rocky flavor (think Sauvignon blanc) our ancient Longjing Qunti could be for you!
We recommend a shorter, cooler steep on this tea: 170F for 2 minutes for the first steep. Thanks to its leaves ample flavor, you can progressively increase the water temperature and go for longer steeps. I always get three excellent infusions out of every serving.