I love Chinese teas. While I won’t turn down a full-bodied British cuppa or Indian Assam, China is where I fell in love with tea, and it’s Chinese teas that keep me coming back for more. The world of tea is at least as complex as the world of wine, but like wine, the most important part is that you enjoy what you’re drinking! While there are “best practices” for brewing certain flavors, Chinese tea culture emphasizes that the same tea leaves can be prepared different ways and multiple times to create different taste experiences. With so much to choose from, tea drinking really becomes a very personal experience, and tea drinking in China is all about this kind of casual enjoyment among family and friends.
I spent over a year working, studying and traveling in China and, at the request of several of my fellow staff members, I’ll be sharing a few of my favorite teas and tea experiences in a series of blog posts. China is a vast country and, as you might expect, Chinese teas (like European wines) are all about regionalism — different landscapes and gardens are prized for their production of different qualities. The last time I was in China in autumn, I traveled to a tea-growing region in Zhejiang Province, exploring the roots of the most famous green tea in China: Longjing.
Also transliterated as Lung Ching or translated into English as Dragon Well, Longjing (Chinese 龙井) is grown near Zhejiang Province’s capital of Hangzhou, just one hour southwest of Shanghai by train. While similar teas are grown elsewhere in China, true Longjing teas always come from the outskirts of Hangzhou’s West Lake, one of the most storied places in Chinese history and mythology. Among other things, Hangzhou and its twin city Suzhou are famed for their natural beauty and their role at the hub of porcelain, silk and tea production throughout Imperial China. As anyone in China will tell you, “in heaven there is paradise, and on Earth there are Suzhou and Hangzhou” (上有天堂，下有苏杭 — shang you tiantang, xia you suhang).
While Longjing tea is grown throughout the West Lake region, it gets its name from a particular well whose swirling waters reminded locals of Chinese dragons. It was launched to prominence in the 1700s by one of China’s most famous emperors, Qianlong. Legend says that he was vacationing in Hangzhou when he learned his mother had gotten sick. In his haste to ride back to Beijing, Qianlong stuffed the tea leaves he had been examining into his sleeve and immediately left Hangzhou. When he arrived to see his mother, he discovered the leaves and decided to brew them for her, speeding her recovery. While Longjing tea does not contain any particularly miraculous healing properties, the leaves of certain trees are still treasured for their imperial connections and all Longjing tea is pressed, mimicking the shape those tea leaves might have taken in Qianlong’s sleeve.
Like other Chinese green teas, Longjing is roasted during processing to stop the leaves from oxidizing, a fermentation-like process that turns tea into oolong or black tea over time. This process is distinct from Japanese green tea such as Sencha, which is steamed, and roasting gives Chinese green tea more warm, toasty flavors and less grassiness.
In my experience, the first time you steep Longjing tea it will have more of the sharp, grassy notes we associate with green tea, but if you continue to use the leaves it will quickly mellow into smoother flavors that remind me of fresh cooked, sweet rice. A short steep (between 30 seconds and 1 minute) of Longjing brews a sweeter, more floral tea with notes of honeysuckle, lavender, and dandelion flowers, while a longer steep (around 3 minutes) will bring out darker flavors of roasted grains or dandelion root coffee, as well as a little more bitterness. Green teas typically steep well three successive times before their flavor becomes too weak, but if you steep for shorter amounts of time you can get a few more cups out of it.
If you’re just starting to get interested in tea drinking, or if you’re just looking for something nice to sip this fall, I think Longjing is an excellent choice. Not only does its mellow body and roasty flavors pair great with windy afternoons or chilly mornings, but it is truly steeped (haha) in Chinese history and culture.
If you’re not going to make it to Hangzhou this year, you can still come by our Cambridge shop for loose Longjing from Dammann Frères (labeled “Lung Ching”) or for lovely Longjing tea bags from Silk Road Teas (labeled Dragon Well).
If you’re interested in reading a little more tea history, I like the summary of Longjing and other Chinese tea topics here.
Rob Campbell is a culinary adventurer, world traveler, science geek, and also the assistant tea buyer at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.