China’s most famous tea, fresh picked in the Spring on the hills above West Lake
Just an hour these days on the high-speed train southwest from Shanghai, Hangzhou has for at least a thousand years been one of China’s cultural centres, with a rich history of poetry, painting and philosophy. The city, capital of the province of Zhejiang, is famous for two things in particular: the tranquil and atmospheric West Lake, and the Spring-fresh, spear-bladed Longjing tea. The two are intimately connected, for the most notable variety of this famous green tea is grown in the hills bordering the west of the lake and called, not surprisingly, Xi Hu (West Lake) Longjing. It’s four characteristic virtues are the jade colour of the leaves, the yellow-green or lime-green colour in the cup, a warm, toasty aroma with notes of chestnut or hazelnut, and a fresh vegetal flavour with a slight malty or savoury aftertaste. The name, meaning Dragon Well, comes from an old well deep in the hills. Stirring the water is supposed to cause denser underground water below to briefly rise and swirl just visibly in sinuous curves.
Green tea, most of which comes from China and which makes up three-quarters of the nation’s production, is all about freshness and timing. Longjing is tea that is freshly picked, immediately processed, and drunk as soon as possible after that. Here in the hills west of the lake, the most highly regarded picking is in early April, just before the Qingming Festival, also known as Pure Brightness Festival, which marks the beginning of Spring, around the 5th of April. Timing is critical, as is the weather. The local pickers’ saying is “three days before, it’s treasure, three days after it’s trash”. This is followed two weeks later by another important picking before the ‘Grain Rains’. After this comes Spring Tea (Gu Yu) before May the 6th, and Late Spring Tea (Li Xia) before May the 21st.
This is hand-picked tea with an important pedigree (important enough to be the tea served to President Nixon and Zhou En Lai on the famous 1972 state visit), and is graded and classified down to the smallest detail. And priced accordingly, so buyers take great care in sourcing, paying great attention to the plucking standards. The top three standards are bud only, bud and one leaf, and bud and two leaves. The proportion of these defines the top three grades, and there are many below these. Indeed, much Longjing tea on the market is grown outside this special area. Zhejiang Longjing means just that—grown elsewhere in the province—and less reputably there are ‘Longjing’ teas from other provinces entirely. A measure of the importance of Longjing tea and its city is that both the National Tea Museum and the Tea Research Institute are here.
Longjing gained its reputation early, written about in the 8th century by Lu Yu in his famous book The Classic of Tea. In the Song Dynasty, one of Hangzhou’s governors was the poet and statesman Su Shi (1037-1101), who also took the name Su Dongpo. He celebrated this tea in his poem White Cloud Tea (the name Longjing came later), writing “The tea sprouts are fresh at the foot of White Cloud Mountain. It is always lush during the Spring Grain Rains.” Its reputation was finally sealed when Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) of the Qing Dynasty was served it on a visit. Reputedly, he was so taken with the elegant movement of the tea-picking girls that he joined in, tucking the plucked leaves in his sleeve. He was suddenly recalled to Beijing where his mother had fallen ill, forgot about the leaves in his sleeve, but the Queen Mother smelt the fragrance and asked. He found the leaves, now flattened, had tea prepared, and his mother recovered. After that, he named the 18 tea trees in front of Hugong Temple ‘Royal Tea’.
This story is also held to explain the flatness of the dried leaves, which is achieved skillfully during the processing. This always has to be done on the same day as picking, however late, and involves pan-frying in a wok, which halts the oxidation and removes water from the leaf cells that would speed fermentation. Great care goes into shaping the leaves, which are flattened and blade-like, with tapering ends.
This fresh tea needs to be drunk as soon as possible after picking, which explains why green teas as a whole are much less known in the West. There is no better way to enjoy the full fresh intensity of Longjing than sitting by the lake shore in the first week of April, under the peach blossoms, or on one of the small boats. A local recommendation is to use clear glass tea-ware, so that you can watch the leaves unfurl. If you bought the top quality, you’ll see what’s called ‘flagged spear’ as the bud floats like a flag and the single leaf hangs suspended like a spear. With bud-and-two-leaves this is called ‘sparrow’s tongue’.