As far as green tea goes, China's Longjing (Dragon Well) tea is one of its most famous. Qing dynasty emperor Qianlong was apparently a big fan of Longjing tea, and granted imperial status to 18 tea bushes in the Longjing Village, in eastern China's Hangzhou city.
Today, many of the terraced tea plantations by the West Lake will let tourists relive some of the emperor's leisurely pursuits.
And only the leaves harvested from the West Lake region can be graded as Xihu Longjing, widely regarded as one of China’s best teas.
Xihu Longjing is only harvested in spring, and its premium crops are produced during two specific periods in April—before the Ching Ming festival in April 5 (known as Ming Qian picking), and before April 20 (known as Yu Qian picking). Finding and picking the Ming Qian Longjing is the most labour-intensive, as there are fewer of these leaves but they grow quickly on warm days.
Prices can reach $1,270 for 17 ounces for some of the best.
As temperatures rise, more buds emerge on the bushes, and tea harvesting enters its busiest period for one harried month from April 21 until the end of May. Also known as “new tea,” the delicate, hand-pressed tea buds with one leaf can be in such high demand that prices can reach 8,000 yuan (US$1,270) per 500 grams (17 ounces).
Leaves are hand-roasted immediately after picking to prevent oxidisation, which helps maintain the refreshing flavour for which the tea is known. Great care is taken to prevent the leaves breaking or bending during the roasting process. The leaves are carefully fried and manually pressed in a hot, oiled wok for 15 minutes.
Now, partially dehydrated and with a firm shape, the leaves are cooled and subjected to a stringent selection process before being roasted for a final time, then packed.
Treating the precious leaves is no easy task. After several demonstrations from a seasoned tea roaster, I found many were either burnt or broken by my inexperienced hands. This is probably why, unlike tea picking, this part of the experience is usually left up to the experts.
Go pluck tea in Hangzhou
From the ancient West Lake tea villages to events run at luxury hotels, there are plenty of options for those looking to experience the art of tea making, if you visit Hangzhou. Here are some of the best on offer:
Longjing Village: Widely considered the birthplace of Longjing tea, the tea terraces of Longjing Village form a lush spectacle well worth a visit, despite the crowds. The 18 tea bushes granted imperial status by Emperor Qianlong are said to be still alive at the Hu Gong Temple in the village.
Meijiawu Village: A traditional tea village where you can opt to pick tea leaves with the locals and experience the entire process from harvesting to roasting, all within the span of a morning.
Hu Yin Tea House: Part of The New Hotel Hangzhou, right before the West Lake, Hu Yin is a cluster of cosy suites featuring antique furniture and tea ware. There is a resident tea consultant to guide you through dozens of premium brews sourced from diverse regions, including Xihu Longjing.
Yongfu Temple: At this 1,600-year-old temple, monks and locals tend tea fields among the cultured gardens. Visitors can sample the Longjing produced here with simple vegetarian food served at the Fuquan Tea House, where hosts give talks on drinking tea and cultivating one’s heart.
Fuchun Resort: Guests can sign up for morning tea picking sessions followed by tea roasting demonstrations, all within the comfort of the five-star resort. The resort is built next to hectares of tea plantations on the surrounding hillsides.
Adapted from an original article published by the South China Morning Post.