Longjing green tea is widely regarded as China’s finest tea. Made from pan-roasted leaves picked in the southeastern city of Hangzhou, the tea has been prized for centuries, even receiving an emperor’s endorsement.
And every April, when the first flush of longjing leaves sprout, there is a mad frenzy in Hangzhou to pluck the best ones, sending longjing prices as high as $100 per ounce.
“It’s special because it had a celebrity endorsement,” says Tracy Lesh, a certified tea specialist who leads tours of fields in Hangzhou. “Emperor Qianlong declared it a tribute tea because he recognized its unique nutty aroma and flavor.” (Being a tribute tea meant longjing was the emperor’s preferred gift from provincial emissaries.)
If longjing is the best tea, then Mingqian longjing is the best of the best.
Mingqian describes the period before the Qingming festival, which falls on April 5 this year. This time is said to produce the best leaves because it comes before the spring rains and Hangzhou’s hot, humid weather take their toll on the plants.
Seasoned pickers pluck the leaves just as they sprout. They start at midnight and work through the dark, before the morning sun draws the leaves further out of their buds. With such an early start, the leaves can be roasted and dried by noon, before the sun gets too harsh.
Unlike other green teas, “the leaves are pressed flat when roasting, which essentially sears the leaf and brings out that unique flavor,” Lesh says. The whole process is a balancing act, dedicated toward safeguarding the subtle aromas of these baby buds.
Allure of the West
Like wine, tea is ultimately influenced by its terroir, and no terroir is more prestigious than the hills around Hangzhou’s West Lake, whose glistening surface is memorialized on every one-yuan note.
Just as West Lake, or Xihu in Chinese, is considered the most beautiful lake in China, Xihu longjing leaves are considered the most elegant variety—slender, light-green shards that twist and curl when steeped. Teahouses surrounding Hangzhou’s plantations serve them in clear glasses to fully display their beauty.
During the Mingqian period, the hills surrounding the lake swarm with tea tourists. Groups of students and retirees can be seen traipsing through the verdant hills around the lake.
(Read more: Where you can pick longjing leaves)
“The traffic police often change the directional flow, create detours, or block roads around West Lake to prevent complete gridlock,” Lesh says, adding that travel to Hangzhou is “difficult” this time of year.
The most diehard enthusiasts will shell out thousands for newly processed leaves. In 2012, 1 kilogram sold for a record 360,000 yuan—that’s $1,500 per ounce—but prices haven’t reached that high since President Xi Jinping launched a crackdown on government officials spending on luxury items later that year. (The buyers of the pricey tea were later revealed to be government officials.)
Now, Mingqian Xihu longjing typically retails between $50 to $70 per ounce.
Longjing tea is not always that expensive. Varieties produced further from West Lake—some as far as the southern end of Zhejiang province—can be bought for cheaper.
And cultivation of leaves will continue long after Qingming. The period between Qingming and the next phase of the traditional solar calendar—Guyu—is generally considered the second-best time for leaves.
The tea picked then, called Yuqian longjing, has a richer, more mature taste and can be cultivated until April 20.
Lesh says these cheaper leaves aren’t necessarily worse; they’re just less physically beautiful.
Part of the prestige of Xihu longjing comes from Xihu itself, a place that has inspired Chinese poets and artists for centuries.
During the Song Dynasty, at the height of Chinese tea culture, Hangzhou became the country’s political, cultural, and intellectual capital.
To this day, Hangzhou’s tea fields are filled with statues of that era’s thinkers and writers, such as the poet Su Dongpo, who worked to further beautify Xihu as the region’s governor.
The mystique surrounding the famed hills continues to this day. In recent years, the Chinese state media has announced the arrival of leaves like the return of a prodigal son, with over-the-top slideshows of glamorous models smiling as they pick tea in the fields.
The fame of longjing, once reserved for the emperor, has adapted to the modern age.