Tea, produced from the Camellia Sinensis plant, can be divided into 6 different types depending upon the processing and degree of fermentation of the freshly picked leaf. In comparison with the other varieties of tea, Green teas undergo very little processing. They are unfermented teas, this means that the fresh green colour of the leaves is kept and they are not allowed to darken through oxidisation, as is the case for oolong and black teas.
The traditional method of preparing the tea leaves to achieve green tea is to spread them out in the sun on a bamboo basket to dry off in the sunlight. The tea is then baked, fried, roasted or steamed at a high temperature to prevent fermentation. The traditional method of pan frying by hand is still practiced in the hills of the Zhejiang province, which is home to the Long Jing, or Dragon Well, tea. This method of preparing the tea-leaves is passed down the generations and is a highly coveted skill. After being dried, the leaves are put into the wok a an exceptionally high temperature and then rubbed by hand against the sides of the pan. This creates the distinctive shiny flat surface of the Long Jing tea leaf. The tea is processed in a single day and a very early start is therefore required for the tea pickers, and a late finish is typical for the tea masters who fry the leaves.
The name ‘Dragon Well’ dates back to the Ming Dynasty, when local people found a dragon shaped rock whilst digging a well near to the West Lake of Hangzhou. Long means dragon, and Jing means well. The distinctive flattened shape of the leaf is said to originate from the Qing Dynasty. The myth goes that Emperor Qianlong went to drink Long Jing tea at the West Lake and was so impressed with the flavour that he began to learn how to pick the tea leaves for himself. Upon hearing that his mother had been taken ill, he quickly put all the tea leaves up his sleeves and returned back to Beijing. His mother turned out to be okay, she had indigestion and just missed her son. She smelt a wonderful aroma coming from her son and asked him what it was. He had forgotten about the tea leaves, and they had become flattened in his sleeve. They drank the tea together and found it to be sweet, strong and full of flavour. They ordered the 18 tea trees in front of the Long Jing temple to be named Royal Tea and for the leaves to always be pressed flat. The leaves from this tree still fetch the highest price; in 2005 at auction the price was higher than for the same weight of gold.
Long Jing is known as the queen of the green tea and is one of the most beloved teas in China. The leaf shape is flat, smooth, and bright in colour varying from deep green to pale yellow. Upon brewing the hand fried leaves plump up into the classic shape of the top two leaves and single bud. The tea has a gentle spring taste with a hint of nuttiness and a light sweet aftertaste. The liquor is bright amber with a pleasant and distinctive fragrance.
Long Jing tea is classified by region, and by the time of year it was picked. You can look for the quality of your tea by asking about these two things before you buy your tea. The tea is picked as soon as the first buds arrive, this can be in late February to early March. The first tea to be picked is called ‘Toucha’. The highest quality Long Jing tea is picked before ‘the rain’. This is defined as before the Qingming festival on the 5th of April. This tea is called Mingqian Long Jing. It is sweeter and lighter and 烏龍茶葉 commands a high price. Following this period, the next 15 days of tea will be labelled Gu Yu, which refers to the ‘grain rain’. This tea is known for having a full flavour and is also of a high quality and in demand. Higher quality tea can be seen to have shorter leaves and is more yellow in colour.
The Long Jing production technique is now imitated by other areas, but the original and most prized tea is still from the West Lake (Xihu) areas around Hangzhou. The West Lake area was made a UNESCO heritage site in 2011. There are 168 square kilometres of National Designated Protected Zone wherein the tea grown can be called West Lake Long Jing and it is estimated that around 63 square kilometres of land around Hangzhou are dedicated to tea plantations. Traditionally, the West Lake Long Jing was classified into one of four regions where it was cultivated; these were Lion, Dragon, Cloud and Tiger peaks. Now we just refer to Lion Peak and Mei Jia Wu. Of these, the most highly prized tea is that from the Lion’s Peak. It is thought that it’s altitude at 300 meters above sea level contributes to the unique flavour and fine taste. If you cannot afford tea from Lion’s peak, the tea produced in the areas around Hangzhou is also of a high quality, but imitation teas from outside of the region may not be of such a high quality. Remember to look for a short leaf that is yellow in colour.