I must thank Teavivre for sending me this sample to try. It reminded me how rarely I actually make green tea for myself lately. Partially that has to do with the season (it’s -19C outside right now) but it also has to do with my tea collection. Green teas last so much less time in storage than oolong and puer that most of my drinking at home is within those two venerable categories. The result? I forget how important the proper water temperature is for a classic green like Dragon Well (Long Jing, Lóngjǐng, 龙井, or 龍井 — I love the traditional character for Dragon).
I had to make this tea twice, because in my excitement for the first infusion I made a very poor cup with water that was probably 95C and something like 6g of leaves. It was strong and flat, with only the essence of a grassy green in the background. In fact, it came out much like a generic bagged green tea might taste. After scorching the leaves like that, there was very little I could do to restore the tea’s luster. Sometimes when I realize a mistake like that, I can save the tea and brew it more carefully the next few infusions, but not always. Delicate green teas especially can have all the flavor sucked out and replaced with a taste of scorched grass. Such is the price of experimentation and lack of mindfulness.
Luckily, I had more than one sample! This time I was prepared. Careful brewing with 4g of leaf and a thermometer to test my assumptions. I played around a bit with the temperature to see if I could find the right balance. First, 75C for 45 seconds. Ah! Much improved. The wet leaves have the aroma of dried figs and moss in the rain. The taste was of coriander and rosemary with a bit of osmanthus flower, quite pleasant. The texture is powdery a bit, drying the front of the tongue (I associate this with Lóngjǐng) and full bodied in the mouth. There’s a gentle sweetness in the aroma and the aftertaste.
For a second infusion I tried 60C water for 1 minute. The tea definitely had a lighter body from the decreased temp. I detected much more of the aroma in the taste this time: more grass and figs and less of the rosemary. My third try was 80C for 1 minute and I noticed that it was sweeter this time with some black cherry in the taste and less grass.
The leaves were moderately broken but with a decent number of beautiful two-leaves-and-a-bud sets to be found. You can always tell a Dragon Well leaf: they are generally medium-to-large leafed full and partial leaf sets, and when they’re dry, they resemble flat blades with a cross-thatched pattern on both sides from a pressing step during processing. A bright green is desirable, which I certainly see here. Lóngjǐng that’s been exposed to too much air, light, or time will have lost its green glow and will appear dull and sometimes a bit brown (look in many grocery stores and you’ll see it).
To be fair, I’ve certainly had Lóngjǐng that I’d rate higher than this — teas with overwhelming sweetness and aroma overflowing with perfect leaf sets — but those are the exception to green tea and can fetch a very high price indeed. For a more accessible tea, this Dragon Well is a really good find. It’s nice to see that it’s from the Xīhú (西湖, West Lake) area of Zhèjiāng province as well, which is the traditional home of Lóngjǐng. Since Dragon Well is so popular, this style of tea is often made in other places, but in my opinion these versions tend to lack the same sweetness and energy of tea from Xīhú.
When I visited the gardens in the hills around the lake region, I was impressed most by the feeling of the place. It was calming and energizing at once. Probably because Lóngjǐng is arguably the most famous orthodox tea from China, there has definitely been some care taken to preserve and cultivate the region. A definite peace surrounded the forests, paths, and springs which was notable given that the populous city of Hángzhōu is very close by. While the historical veracity for such a beloved name is unclear, I did visit the fabled “Dragon Well” itself: a small circular stone pool which has some interesting rippling properties when it is stirred. If you are ever in the South-East of China, I definitely recommend a visit.
Thanks again to Teavivre, and Happy New Year all!