My parents came to visit in October, and we decided to spend the weekend in Hangzhou. Hangzhou is the provincial capital of Zhejiang, about 90minutes train ride west of Shanghai, although now there is a new bullet train that does the trip in 40minutes.
Sunset over Hangzhou's west lake
Thanks to the Xihu 西湖 “west lake” and surrounding forested hills, Hangzhou is one of the prettiest cities in China . It is also the home of Longjing “dragon well” tea which is the most famous green tea in China. Only tea grown in the west lake region of Hangzhou is allowed to be called Longjing, but you never know if you’re getting the real deal, unless you buy directly from the farmers.
On previous trips to Hangzhou we had local food cooked for us in the middle of the tea fields adjacent to the lake itself. This trip I wanted to visit the tea fields around Shi Feng Shan, about half an hour’s drive into the hills outside of Hangzhou.
Shi Feng Shan 狮峰山 literally means “Lion Peak Mountain.” It is commonly said that the Longjing from Shi Feng Shan is the best, with tea from neighboring Meijiawu 梅家坞 coming in second. However the cultivar, picking time, microclimate and the skill of the tea firer all make a huge difference! If you're interested in finding out more, there is a fascinating discussion about the merits of different Longjing cultivars on Steepster. From personal experience I can say the most tasty longjing I've tried was from Meijiawu, not Shi Feng Shan. Which just goes to show, you should follow your taste buds, not popular opinion!
To my surprise, Hangzhou cab drivers don’t know where Shi Feng Shan is. They do however, know Longjing village 龙井村, where old women line the roadside, inviting tourists to sit down for a home cooked meal and some tea. I asked the locals if they knew where Shi Feng Shan was, and they pointed at a nearby hill crest. Not the impressive “lion peak” I was expecting! We sat down with these old folks who grow longjing on only 3 acres of land! They only pick their bushes once a year, and spend the rest of the year sitting out front of their house, convincing tourists to sit down on one of two tables, for a meal. Their children work in the city, as it pays better than tea farming. In the future there will be less small plot farmers like them, and more factory farms.
Yuqian longjing tea leaves
They wrap their tea leaves in linen bundles which are stored in a large earthenware pot, with a large amount of ash wrapped in linen placed at the bottom of the container. The ash absorbs moisture out of the air. I asked to see the organic fertilizer they use - a fragrant compost made from rapeseed husks, a by-product of canola cooking oil production. The local cooperative has everyone using it, but they hinted it was a lot of work to move all that compost up the hill & bury it near the roots of the tea bushes.
They usually start picking Longjing from March 23rd, although this year unseasonally cold weather delayed the start of picking season. The best, most tender shoots are picked before Qingming Jie festival (清明節 literally “clear bright festival”) also known as tomb sweeping day, around April 5th. This pre-Qingming first flush is called “Ming qian longjing” 明前龙井and commands a higher price than longjing picked later in the season. The farmers pick the newly sprouted bud & two leaves, plucking just above the nearest branching stem, so another bud will grow in its place. Tea picked between qingming and guyu (谷雨 literally “grain rain” on April 20th) is known as yuqian雨前龙井 or “before the rains” and there is also “yu hou” 雨后龙井 or “after the rains” pickings which is considered the lowest grade. The size & taste of the leaves will give you a hint of when the leaves were picked. “Ming qian” leaves are smaller & sweeter.
Larger yuqian leaves on the left, smaller mingqian on the right
After picking, Longjing leaves are withered in the shade and then fired in a lightly oiled electric wok to reduce the moisture content & fix the oxidation process. Firing is hard work and requires many deft hand movements to press & dry the leaves against the burning hot wok! Farming & firing are 2 entirely different professions and the top firers get very little sleep during the picking season as their skills are in high demand! Check out this interview with China's Longjing firing king at Single Estate Tea for more insights into this arcane & demanding profession.
Firing longjing leaves
When buying longjing look for consistent colour & appearance in the leaves – you want lots of bright young greenish yellow sprouts. Broken stem pieces or bruised leaves are a sign of lower quality. Best time to buy is April-May when the leaves are freshly processed. Green tea is best drunk within the first year, and the leaves can get a bit waxy coloured towards the end of the year if not vacuum sealed & stored in the freezer.
Chinese like to serve steep longjing leaves directly in the glass, without the fuss of a teapot or gaiwan. The leaves are not supposed to dry out, so the glasses were refilled everytime the water level approached the tealeaves. I love how longjing leaves hang vertically in the glass, even when they start to sink to the bottom, they stand up on their tips. A good reason to serve longjing in a see through glass!
Mingqian leaves falling vertically in the glass
Very fine white hairs cover the leaves, these come off when you add hot water and can be seen floating like dust on top of the water. Some people say the tiny hairs can make the throat itch but I’ve never experienced any irritation. As green tea is relatively delicate compared to black tea, it is recommended to steep with water around 80 degrees celsius. I've been following Yumcha from The Tea Gallery's Longjing preparation guide which recommends an initial "flash rinse" using 80 degrees water, which scalds the buds & opens up the full range of flavours, followed by steeps using water at 70 degrees celsius.
Rule number one of buying tea in China is to never buy a tea until you've established rapport with the seller and actually drunk the tea with them! Always try to drink several different grades together and compare. And watch them package the tea leaves in front of you, to make sure the tea you liked is the tea that actually goes into the bag. I found the mingqian tea was sweeter and more fragrant than the yuqian, so I decided to purchase 1 jin (500g)of the mingqian, which was packaged up into 4 boxes.
We went into their living room to weigh & package the tea, and were surprised to see a large poster of Jesus, Joseph & Mary. Christianity is spreading quickly in China, and there are many underground churches. Mum was so happy to meet some fellow Christians. They even broke out the hymnbook and sang a few songs together! It was touching to see how happy & carefree these village women were.
Showing off her collection of Christian songbooks
This was more of a family getaway than a serious tea buying trip, but thanks to tea, we made some new friends and trekked through some beautiful landscape. The Longjing tea gardens are surrounded by a national park that is popular with hikers, bike riders & young couples taking wedding photos. The 9 streams(jiu xi九溪) hiking trial is a must-see for tea-lovers. It’s a 45minute hike through forest & tea plantations, with stepping stones to cross the 9 streams. You can also visit the Dreaming of Tiger Spring, which locals say has the best spring water to prepare Longjing tea.
Stepping stones over one of the 9 streams
This manmade waterfall is a popular place for wedding photos