Written by Will
Organic Dragon Well Supreme, Spring 2020, picked from 1st – 10th April and produced by Shentang Wen in Yong’an garden, Chun’an County, Hangzhou, Zhejiang.
Dragon Well or Longjing is one of, if not the most, celebrated teas in China. This deep dive introduces our latest supreme grade of this pan fired green tea.
We’ll be exploring the region, as well as introducing the producer, Shentang Wen, whose firing skills are some of the best we’ve ever seen. It’s our second batch from Shentang and he really knows how to bring out the warm nutty notes while locking in the spring green freshness – it’s that combination that makes the tea special and our Organic Dragon Well one of our favourite green teas.
As always, I’ve shared a few tips on how best to infuse and enjoy this tea at home.
This is a tea that is as engaging as it is refreshing and one that many will be looking forward to tasting this year. So let’s dive in.
Origin: Yong’an garden, Chun’an County, Hangzhou, Zhejiang
Cultivar: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis ‘Jiukeng’
Name: Dragon Well (known locally as Long Jing) refers to a mythic dragon that lives in a well near to where this tea was first produced.
Style: Pan fried green tea
Terroir: Grown in an organic garden which is surrounded by lush green forest in a mountainous area.
Picking Season: Spring
Leaf: Iconic pressed spears of hand baked green tea.
Production: Certified Organic
Infusion: Bright, translucent straw-green colour.
What kind of tea is Dragon Well?
Even though it’s only produced for around four weeks a year in the early spring, Dragon Well is always top of the best seller list for total annual tea sales (not even including export) in China. It is important culturally as a gifting tea and loved by many. Hangzhou, the home of this tea, is awash with domestic tourists every spring who come around the time of the Qing Ming festival. The Qing Ming festival is traditionally a time when graves are swept and ancestors are honoured, however in Hangzhou this time has become intrinsically linked with the tea season and so locals use this time to visit tea gardens as a family and choose their tea for the year ahead. This demand for the tea and reverence in which it is held locally means it can command a high price and sells out very quickly. This means that producers are well incentivised to focus on quality and producing the best that they can every season.
Like most Chinese green teas, the best time to produce Dragon Well is in the early spring, when the tea bushes begin to flush again after winter and produce the most prized new buds and leaves, which are full of bright, fresh flavour.
The key processing steps for making Dragon Well are what imparts its iconic spear shaped look and sweet, nutty and very fresh flavour. It is precisely the combination of both intense freshness and sweet, slightly roasted nuttiness that makes it so iconic and delicious. After being hand-picked and lightly withered, the tea is pan fried, traditionally in a wok, to lock in the bright green colour, prevent oxidation and develop a distinct sweet chestnut flavour. The tea is rested and repeated fired until around 3% moisture remains. It is a highly skilled process. Often nowadays, small machines are used to do this – although of course they still need to be operated with care and precision! The machines can produce very good results provided that they are meticulously controlled and adjusted to fit the specific conditions of the tea and the weather.
The process means that the leaves are heated by being applied to a dry hot surface – a similar process to when vegetables are dry fried in a griddle pan for example. Other green teas in China will be heated by passing through a hot rolling barrel (a bit like a big cannon), and in Japan the heat is applied using steam. The heating process of green tea has one of the biggest impacts on taste. For Dragon Well, this hot surface press brings out a sweet chestnut flavour that balances with the spring fresh flavours of the new buds.
How did we source this batch of tea and who made it?
The authentic region for Dragon Well is split into a few different production areas around Hangzhou. West Lake is the most well-known and is the tea growing area closest to Hangzhou city. Because of its reputation and the prices its name can command, there’s pressure on producers to deliver both maximum quality and maximum yields, which means they often use a lot of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. That’s why – even though we use ‘West Lake Dragon Well’ as a reference point for quality – we tend to look beyond West Lake (known as Xihu in Mandarin) itself because we find the flavours can be lacking and the textures and body thin. We have found that some organic gardens nearby, with their richer soil, biodiverse environments and purer air can produce much more full flavours and textures.
Close by to West Lake, Qian Tang and Yuezhou are still traditional, authentic origins within Zhejiang province, but without the premium (and burden) of West Lake itself.
We met Shentang Wen when we were looking for organic producers. He produces in Qian Tang, which is a mountainous area, far from the city. His tea bushes enjoy a sheltered micro terroir in a valley. The tea he grows is very good – and so is what he does to it. We like a relatively light firing of the tea that brings out its nutty, roasted flavours, but retains the spring freshness of the leaf. Because we’ve got a close relationship with Mr Wen, he’s willing to fire it just how we like it.
The cultivar of Camellia sinensis that Mr Wen uses to make this tea is called Jiukeng, a traditional cultivar that originates from the Chun’an district of Hangzhou. This tea plant produces leaves which have a rich flavour and thick texture which compliments the nuttiness that comes from the firing.
What is this batch like to drink?
The first thing that hits you about this tea is the clean and bright aroma, with a fresh spring grassiness and hints of warmth from the dry frying. The colour of the infusion is transparent pale jade, the kind of light green that makes me think of spring gardens. The first sip is very refreshing, with a pleasant grassy sweetness that transforms into a deeper character that reminds me of the smell of roasted chestnuts still in their shell. There’s no bitterness to be found at all and texture is smooth and syrupy which makes it a pleasure to drink, accentuating the sweet quality of the tea. It leaves me feeling cool and refreshed, but with some warmth from the roast – it’s a very satisfying combination of flavour.
Where and when is this tea for?
With a tea of this quality I would suggest choosing a time and place where you can simply sit and get the most enjoyment out of your infusion, rather than rush it down in a hurry. It has plenty of character and it’s satisfying to notice this combination of spring refreshment and warm roast. I think it leaves you feeling fulfilled, clear and refreshed. The cooling nature of this tea makes it really pleasant to drink in hotter weather (traditionally it is enjoyed as something to cool you down in a hot summer), perhaps as a gentle pick-me-up on a sunny afternoon.
What is it like to make and how easy is it to get a good taste?
Single Serve, One Cup Method using 250ml teapot and cup:
Although a supreme grade of Dragon Well tea, this is still an easy to make well. I like using a glass teapot for this tea (instead of porcelain). I find when I use glass, the infusion cools at the right speed – and so the tea is ready to drink when it has what I think is the best expression of the flavour and aroma, and I can appreciate the leaves. Pre-heating your teaware is a must, so you get the full fragrance when you add dry leaves.
When you’re ready to infuse, there’s only one thing to remember and that’s 80˚C water. At this temperature you’ll get the right level of delightful sweetness and characterful nuttiness from the leaves. You can achieve this simply by adding a splash of cold water (roughly a 1/5 of the volume) before adding boiling water to the top. If the water’s any hotter, you risk over-extracting the heavier, fried notes of the tea, which will result in more tannins and a slightly rough feeling in your mouth – you get very little bitterness from high quality Dragon Well though.
Remember, after three minutes, pour out the whole infusion into your favourite mug or glass for the complete, perfect cup. Re-infuse the leaves too, and add 30 seconds on the next infusion to get maximum flavour the second time round.
This is our go-to method: 4g per 250ml; 80˚C; 3 minutes per infusion.
Long Glass (Grandad style):
Method: 3g per 250ml; 80˚C, leave to cool and continue to drink.
Locals in Hangzhou like to drink their tea “Grandad Style” – and I enjoy it this way too! It’s so simple – all you need to do is add a tablespoon or a large pinch (roughly 3g) of leaf to a tall glass, fill it up with 80˚C water and leave it to cool for a few minutes.
The leaves will plump up with the water and slowly sink to the bottom of the glass. Sipping from the top, you’ll get a light infusion and it’ll be easy to pick out the grassy top notes. As you drink and get closer to the leaves, the infusion will get heavier and more intense. When you have only a few centimetres of water left and the infusion starts to get too strong, just keep topping it up with hot water. It is a wonderfully easy way to explore the flavours of this tea.
Who is this tea for?
This tea will appeal to many as it has a very sweet, easy drinking character. Being a supreme tea, it really does deliver on the classic Dragon Well flavours of intense green freshness, some umami and the sweetness of something similar to hazel or roasted chestnuts. If you want something that has the refreshment and coolness of spring, but with a slight warming, nutty edge, you’ll love Dragon Well.
If you’re drawn to green tea in general, then you really should try Dragon Well if you’ve not already – it’s a classic tea for a reason! If you’re new to green tea, but like a sweet, syrupy texture and no bitterness, I would recommend Dragon Well as a great place to start – it will show you how engaging and satisfying green teas can be.