How to select a Long Jing (Dragonwell) product of your taste
I have been pondering on this for a while, and would like to start a discussion about it. Not sure if it should be in the general discussion, I will put it under “companies and promotions” (since inevitably I will have to mention a few of my favorite products, which are sold in our store). However, the purpose of this thread is not promotion. Nor do I mean to give people one-directional advice. I will talk about my understanding of Long Jing tastes, and would love to hear what people think. Long Jing (like many other teas), is like an unfathomable pond. It may take forever to thoroughly understand it, but it’s always fun to explore it.
I will focus my discussion on factors affecting Long Jing flavor, and how can one choose a Long Jing product based on these factors. I will go over these factors in this sequence: climate (brief), processing (brief), cultivar, harvest date, geographic site of plantation.
Isn’t Lung Ching another name for Dragonwell? I’m asking because I’ve only had Lung Ching and have not had Long Jing.
Factors affecting tea flavors:
The flavor of most tea products are determined by several key factors, including cultivar from where the tea is harvested, geographic region where the tea is grown, climate of the production year, harvest time and how well the tea is processed.
1. Climate factor
For Long Jing (and many other green teas), the drinkers’ focus is almost entirely on the early spring tea of the current year. Therefore climate of the production year is entirely out of control of tea drinkers.
2. Harvest date
Compared with other tea genres such as black (red) tea and oolong, harvest date of Long Jing is extremely important, because during the harvest season (late March to early May), the new leaves and buds change every day. Each year, prices of Long Jing products are directly related to their harvest dates, and generally the earlier the harvest, the more expensive the tea is (if other cultivation conditions are same). In the harvest season, the day of Qing Ming (which is April 4th or April 5th on international calendar) is a landmark. The pre-Qingming tea is made with the youngest and freshest leaves. Gu Yu (also called Grain Rain, around April 20th on international calendar) is another landmark. Tea before Gu Yu is also very fresh, but not as precious as pre-Qingming tea. Therefore, early spring harvest of Long Jing can be divided in three sections.
1. Pre-Qingming, which is from late March to the day of Qing Ming.
2. Pre-Guyu, which is from the day of Qing Ming to the day of Gu Yu.
3. After Rain (post-Guyu), which is after April 20.
Pre-Qingming Long Jing is the most precious. However, tea tasting is always subjective, and some people do prefer pre-Guyu tea to pre-Qingming tea. Pre-Qingming Long Jing has more subtle, sweet flavor (often described by Chinese tea professionals as “chestnut-y”, while pre-Guyu tea has stronger toasty flavor which may be favored by people who have heavier taste on tea.
Long Jing, sometimes is taken as a tea processing method, sometimes as a place (Long Jing Village), and sometimes as the name of tea cultivars named Long Jing (including a few similar cultivars). Traditionally it was simple – Ling Jing was just understood as tea from Long Jing cultivar cultivated in Long Jing village and surrounding areas. In modern agriculture, the Long Jing cultivar is propagated into different regions of the province, even to other provinces. And traditional Long Jing production region (such as Long Jing Village) started to grow non-Long Jing cultivars (most of which are early ripe cultivars, because the tea can be sold for a very high price in late February to Mid-March, before the real Long Jing is harvested).
(I once discussed in my blog about Wu Niu Zao, a non-Long Jing cultivar that is commonly used to make Long Jing style tea, even in the hometown of Long Jing.
The names of Chinese tea are very confusing. Some teas are named after their cultivars (such as Da Hong Pao and Tie Guan Yin), but many are named in other ways. I personally wish the name Long Jing restrictively used on tea made from Long Jing cultivars only. But there is no strict official definition yet for the term Long Jing. Therefore, I believe it’s always important to know what tea cultivar your Long Jing is from. After all, the genetics of a tea determines many of its most important inner characters. Cultivar is a more important determining factor of the tea quality than all the other factors discussed here. For example, if you like Gala apple, you may find Gala apples shipped from different states share much more similarity to each other than the similarity between Gala apple and Macintosh apple from the same ranch.
When I buy Long Jing, I stick to Long Jing #43 and Long Jing Jiu Keng Group cultivar, two popular Long Jing cultivars of relatively large annual production. Between the two cultivars, many people believe Jiu Keng Group cultivar tastes much better, but some people believe both are great and each has its own characters. In terms of leaf shape, Long Jing #43’s leaves look slightly prettier, and this partially contributes to its popularity. Besides, Long Jing #43 grow buds and leaves about one to two weeks earlier than Jiu Keng Group cultivar, and the latter one sometimes does not have pre-Qingming harvest.
It’s up to each tea drinker to find out which Long Jing cultivar she likes the best. But I would definitely find out the cultivar of a Long Jing product before purchase, and I believe cultivar overrules harvest date and production region.
Very interesting information. “Serious” tea can be confusing and I always love learning more. A cultivar is a specific tea grower or farm, right? Not a geographical region.
A cultivar is a plant variety. For example, Macintosh, Fuji and Gala are all apple cultivars. I wasn’t quite sure if I should use “cultivar”, or “varietal”, or “variety” though. Almost all Long Jing farmers will grow Long Jing #43 and/or Jiu Keng Group cultivar, at least one of the two. But some farmers focus on only one, some farmers grow both, and some may grow some non-Long Jing varietals for their benefit of early harvest.
Okay, that makes total sense now.
As someone who loved the first and only Dragonwell she’s had, compared to mostly Japanese greens, mostly senchas I think, and someone who loves to learn, even if I don’t use this knowledge right away I think it’s good to know. At the very least, I’ll remember I read something about it and to look here in the forum for it.
Ginko, you may be a little preemptive helping people shop for dragonwells by cultivar. And most people people don’t even know the difference between a green and a white tea, let alone the difference between pre-Guyu and pre-Qingming.
Once you start getting into cultivars things get really convoluted for someone just discovering loose-leaf tea. And most people are not really in the position to shop by cultivar anyway. Also, Qing Ming dragonwells are not a good place to start, mostly because It takes time to develop a palate for it’s stronger flavor and finish.
For people just getting into dragonwells, there is one thing you should always look for and that is the harvest year. If you see a loose leaf tea and all it says is “Spring Harvest Dragonwell”, you don’t know if it’s last years tea or tea from four years ago and more than likely- it’s stale.
I agree pre-Qingming may not be the favorite by all the people. For most people, if they taste typical per-Qingming and pre-Guyu tea side by side, they can tell the difference (unless in rare cases when the pre-Qingming is April 4 and pre-Guyu is April 5). The problem is, many people are not told whether their tea is pre-Qingming or pre-Guyu. Same for the discrepancy of cultivars. People can tell the differences if they taste them, but very often, they are not told (sometimes even their vendors and the wholesalers are not told) what it is.
In these a few years, I feel western tea drinkers are rapidly getting more knowledgeable. Just a few years ago, much fewer drinkers even knew to care about the harvest year of their tea, now more people do ask and care. Although now many drinkers don’t know all the production parameters (geography, cultivar…) involved yet, I expect many of them will learn more and care more. Overall, I think, it’s ok to buy cheap tea or expensive tea, as long as a tea drinker gets the information about what she is buying. And that’s why I think discussion on information is important.
4. Geographic regions
Authentic Long Jing is from Zhejiang province of China. In the market, there are also “Long Jing” products from Yunnan, Sichuan and other provinces. Whether or not tea from other provinces should be called “Long Jing”, I will not discuss about it here because it’s a “should or should not” question. But most people agree on the fact that teas from other provinces, even made with Long Jing processing method, are dramatically different the real Long Jing from Zhejiang province.
So I will focus the discussion on Long Jing from Zhejiang province only.
The central production region of Long Jing is Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province. If you are highly selective about geographic site of your Long Jing, then you would want your tea from one of the tea districts in Hangzhou. According to Chinese national standards (yes there is a set of national standards for various teas, but not all of them are enforced in tea industry. Should be though!) there are three types of Long Jing based on production districts in Hangzhou. All of them are currently called Xi Hu (West Lake) Long Jing or Hangzhou Long Jing.
1. Shi Feng (Lion Peak) Long Jing. Many people believe this is the best of the three types of Hangzhou Long Jing. Historically Shi Feng Long Jing has been always priced slightly higher than the other two types, although all three types of Hangzhou Long Jing are always priced much higher than Long Jing from out of Hangzhou. The most famous villages for Shi Feng Long Jing are Long Jing Village, Weng Jia Shan and Shi Feng.
2. Mei Jia Wu Long Jing – From Mei Jia Wu village and surrounding area.
3. Other tea producing area near West Lake. (This third type used to be called Xi Hu Long Jing. But currently Xi Hu Long Jing is used as a general name for Long Jing from all Hangzhou production districts. Therefore it will be less confusing not to call the third type Xi Hu Long Jing).
Historically, Long Jing has been cultivated all over Zhejiang province. Overall there are three Long Jing regions in Zhejiang province. They are:
A. Hangzhou – as above mentioned, it is the most central and most famous Long Jing region.
B. Qiantang – about 30km (20 miles) from Hangzhou
C. Yuezhou –about 100km (60 miles) from Hangzhou, of the highest geographic elevation among the three regions. The famous Da Fo (Great Buddha) Long Jing is from this region.
I hope I didn’t make a mess listing all these production regions. Overall, Long Jing production regions include:
A. Hangzhou (tea from this region, including A1, A2, and A3, is called Hangzhou Long Jing or Xi Hu Long Jing)
A1 – Shi Feng Long Jing
A2 – Mei Jia Wu Long Jing
A3 – Oher Xi Hu Long Jing
B. Qiantang (tea from this region is called Qiantang Long Jing or Zhejiang Long Jing)
C. Yuezhou (tea from this region is called Yuezhou Long Jing or Zhejiang Long Jing. Tea from Xichang county of this region is called Da Fo Long Jing)
All above mentioned regions are under geographic patent protection, which means, tea produced out of above regions cannot be called Hangzhou Long Jing, Xi Hu Long Jing or Zhejiang Long Jing.
Ok, now I feel this is all dry information and I am half way exhausted :-p I guess next I would like to discuss on how important the geographic regions are. What do you think? Would 20 mile or 60 mile distance cause large differences in tea leaf flavor?
Fantastic post by gingko, thanks for all that information. I’m a big fan of LongJing, and I have a question for you re the 2010 harvest. I just bought some (alleged) MingQian LongJing from my usual purveryor in Singapore where I live. I haven’t tasted it yet.
Interestingly, as I was walking around in the Takashimaya department store, I happened to stop by the Cha Guan on B2 level, and met the owner, an extremely interesting and knowledgeable man, who educated me on the LongJing #43, how to properly mugbrew LongJing (I was wondering why most people in Hangzhou drink it out of a tall glass.. was it just to show off the leave, I asked, that was before reading your post on the subject), etc.. Anyway, without any further digression, this man’s POV on the 2010 MingQian was that, due to the cold weather this winter, the production was small, therefore quite expensive and furthermore no so good compared to the 2009… Thoughts anyone?
That’s a good question! The weather impact is quite different on Longjing #43 and Longjing Jiukeng group cultivar. Longjing #43 starts budding about 10-14 days earlier than the Jiukeng cultivar. So this year the production of it was reduced a lot by the snow and frost in early March. The flavor, I think, is not affected much, because experienced farmer will not harvest on the bud until it’s ready and can yield good flavor. The harvest date was very late this year and production is much lower. The frost-killed buds would soon turn black due to “frost-burn”. So all the harvested leaves and buds grew after the frost days, and the mid-March and late-March weather was quite normal. Possibly the early March cold weather also had impacts on the new leaves and buds, but I think the impacts are rather small. Another factor that may blur such impact is, for Longjing drinkers, new tea from the current year is the only choice. New tea always tastes the best, so it’s rather hard to judge its flavor objectively.
Another option is choosing Jiukeng group cultivar, which wasn’t impacted much (in terms of flavor and leaf shape) by the weather, because it had not started budding yet by the time of snow and frost. But its price is impacted because currently most Long Jing cultivated is Longjing #43, and its reduced production will affect the entire market. Longjing #43 is offspring of selected single plant from the traditional cultivar, hence it bears some best features but doesn’t have the genetic diversity of traditional cultivar. A big advantage of #43 is early budding, but this very advantage caused its loss this year in early March, when the budding of #43 had already started.
Overall, the early March snow and frost had much greater impacts on many other teas than Longjing. The overall reduction of production in Longjing is largely because in recent years early-budding cultivars (some of them are not even Longjing cultivars) are largely propagated and they were hit hard by the early March snow.
As for the price fluctuation, there is surely some, but usually such fluctuation is amplified throughout the entire trade chain. Besides, every year there is very expensive Longjing and much lower prices. So it almost looks like there is no “market” price but only arbitrary price. I think what we can do is buying directly from the farmers (whose price fluctuation is usually the smallest). Besides, in recent years, I tend to pay more attention to Longjing products from surrounding regions, such as Da Fo Long Jing. They are not as prestigious as Xi Hu Long Jing (which as the best natural environment for Longjing), but they are also very good (because they are from the same Longjing cultivars) their price is less mysterious.
What an interesting read – thank you for the post.
Gingko, thanks again for this most valuable information. May I impose with a couple more questions:
1) For a relative neophyte, can you really tell the difference between a “real” LongJing (from Hangzhou area or Westlake), v/s the other areas using the same cultivar? The reason I’m asking is that I now wonder if all the LJ i’ve been drinking these past few years really comes from Hangzhou area at all, given their relatively low production, compared to the worlwide demand for this tea, which presumably far exceeds the local production capacity?
2) I read in your blog that you do not believe in “lower” temperature for green teas. I guess is it a bit iconoclastic, given the very widely available literature on the subject mandating 80/85 degree C temperature for LJ or even lower for Silver Needle, but why not, I’m happy to try, since I wouldn’t have to go through all these convoluted steps to cool down my boiling water prior to brewing… But surely you don’t suggest drinking it this hot? What about the Japanese greens, like Gyokuro, where they advocate even lower (60 deg C) temperature? Btw, I really do not ask this to start a controversy, but just curious as to how you came to this conclusion – Unless I misread your post, entirely possible in these days of speed reading and scanning through most everything…
The first question is what I want to discuss in the next part of my writing, but I haven’t finished writing yet. It’s a great question worth a lot of discussion yet there very little answer available. Actually I’ve never seen a person (highly experienced professional included) who claims he or she can accurately tell a Long Jing’s cultivation area by tasting (or someone claimed so but we wouldn’t know whether to trust the judgment). I believe if we take many samples from various regions, we will find Hangzhou region yields more top quality tea products. But there is always possibility that a very high quality Long Jing from another region is almost as good as Hangzhou Long Jing.
A Mei Jia Wu farmer once did mention to me that he thought Long Jing from a Weng Jia Shan farmer was better than his (although both villages are in Hangzhou region) and he believed it was largely due to the soil of various sites – I think he was very truthful to say that because many farmers won’t have the self-critiquing, out of pride. But he also mentioned that the other farmer’s processing work was better than his, so it was not just the difference of cultivaiton location.
When we compare Hangzhou Long Jing and other Zhejiang Long Jing (“Long Jing” out of Zhejiang province would be totally different), Hangzhou Long Jing usually has the best geographic conditions, the best processing workers, and the most careful work dedicated to it. Geographic factro surely contributes to the differences between Hangzhou and non-Hangzhou Long Jing, but how much the geographic factor contributes to the final result, is hard to say.
Generally in Hangzhou region, the Jiukeng group cultivar is grown more than other areas. So I currently mainly collect Jiukeng group cultivar products from Hangzhou region (which comes out later than the first flush of #43 cultivar) and #43 cultivar products from other regions. But it’s only my choice, and both of the two cultivars are found in various growing regions in and out of Hangzhou.
As for brewing temperature, I think it’s entirely personal preference, and it’s also related to what kind of vessel one may use. I advocate for higher temperature mainly because I would like to push people to try it at least for a few times. I’ve seen many people who are reluctant to use higher temperature because they think lower temperature “should” be used.
For Long Jing, I would use 85 C/185F too. But I think Long Jing, Bi Luo Chun and a few other teas are at the low-temperature end of Chinese green teas. Besides using lower water temperature, the brewing temperature can also be further lowered in different ways such as transferring water through another porcelain container, pouring water on a gaiwan lid first, or putting tea into the cup after pouring the water.
For silver needle white tea, I lean toward boiling temperature, and that’s what I thought most people believed too. But then I did notice there were very different suggestions on the brewing temperature. If someone tells me he thinks white tea lacks flavor, my first response would be “use higher temperature”. But lower temperature may work well for some other people. Still I don’t think there is a strict rule. Whatever temperature works is good.