Hangzhou and its Tea

     Hangzhou is well-known within China, for several reasons. Historically, it is well-known for being one of China's seven ancient capitals. (It was the capital of the Wuyue Kingdom from 904 to 978 and again in 1123 to 1276 when the Song dynasty court officials fled to Hangzhou.) It is also the setting for two Chinese love stories. It was once one of the biggest cities in the world, and a major port. That all changed when the port silted up and Hangzhou became famous for it's lake, not it's trading port. This famous lake (the site where two of the lovers meet in one of the love stories) is called West Lake, or Xihu, and it is truly a beautiful place. We have some pictures from the lake here.

     Chinese teas are often named in two parts: the first part refers to the place where it is grown and the second part often describes the leaf style or color. Hangzhou is famous for growing one kind of green tea, called Xihu Longjing tea. Xihu is "west lake" in Chinese and using the name serves to invoke the beauty of West Lake. But where exactly is this tea grown? In reality, Hangzhou is split up into several districts, one being Xihu District. This district is just over 300 km2, and has a registered population of over 540,000. Land near the lake is developed, expensive, and highly regulated. The sought-after tea is actually grown in villages far from the lake (growing area shown in green on the map), but that are still located inside the Xihu district (outlined in bold orange), for example, Longwu (龙坞), Zhoupu (周浦), and Zhuantang (转塘). According to one government report , the area contains 95,500 mu (or 63 sq. km) of land with crops grown on it, a portion of that being tea.

     The Longjing portion of the name means "Dragon Well" and refers to an actual well to the east of West Lake in a small town called... Longjing. This picturesque town runs on an economy consisting of tourism and tea. In the spring, you can walk the streets in Longjing and smell the aroma of freshly-picked tea leaves being pan-fired, sometimes right on the sidewalk. There are public paths through the tea fields and a National Tea Museum.

Longjing Growing area

     Xihu Longjing tea is solidly considered one of China's most famous teas, with it almost always being listed at the top of lists of "China's 10 Famous Teas." It is a green tea and is described as having a "green color, strong fragrance, rich flavor, and beautiful appearance." The leaves tend to be yellowish-green in color, flat, and slick, sometimes with patches of downy hair or down interspersed with the leaves. The flavor is often described as reminiscent of orchids (lanxiang) or beans (douxiang). It is usually steeped using water 85ºC (185º F) up to three times about one minute each time, the second steeping being the most pronounced and sweetest. If the tea can only be steeped one or two times, it is considered of inferior quality.

Classification

Longjing tea is put into different classes or types based on 2 factors: plucking time and place of origin. There are also several varietals discussed below.

Classification by plucking time
Mingqian 明前
     As with most green teas, the tea plucked in the spring is the most prized. Plucking starts as soon as the bushes shoot out buds, usually in early March, but sometimes in late February. The very first batch of tea plucked is called "toucha" 头茶 in Chinese. Tea plucked before the Qingming festival that usually takes place on April 5th is called Mingqian 明前 (pre-Qingming Festival) Longjing tea. This tea is generally sweeter and lighter in flavor than teas plucked later, therefore fetches higher prices in the marketplace. Some vendors may falsely label tea as "Mingqian" to get a higher price.

Early buds were hurt by frost in early March in 2010.

     After the Qingming holiday, is a period known as Guyu (谷雨). The Chinese calendar is actually split up into 15-day time periods with names relating to the weather. For example, guyu means "grain rain." Tea plucked during mingqian is known for it's sweet, light flavor while tea from guyu is fuller and sometimes slightly bitter.

     The bushes are usually trimmed in May. Plucking starts again at large companies in the summer. Tea plucked in the summer is not as sweet or smooth as from the spring and can easily become bitter.

Classification by growing area
Xihu Longjing
      Produced in the Xihu district on the east side of Hangzhou's West Lake, (see mapabove) Xihu Longjing is regarded in China as definitive "Longjing tea" with all other Longjing teas being inferior to Xihu Longjing. Within the Xihu district are several towns that have produce distincitve Longjing tea. Among them are Meijiawu (梅家坞)and Shifeng (or Lion's Peak, 狮峰).

Zhejiang Longjing
     Zhejiang Longjing is Longjing tea that comes from any area outside of Hangzhou, but still located in Zhejiang province. Some areas that grow Longjing tea in this area are: Jinhua, Yiwu, Shengzhou, Xiaoshan, Shaoxing, and Fuyang.
Many vendors may misleadingly sell Zhejiang Longjing as "Xihu Longjing" to get a higher price for the tea. Tea from other provinces, for example Sichuan and Hubei has been sold as Longjing.

Types of Varietals
Longjing 43
     The China Tea Research Institute recommended this varietal for wide-spread use in 1972 after about 10 years of research. Now, a large portion of Longjing on the market today is made from this varietal. It was selected for wide-spread use because it buds early and buds a lot. I have heard two accounts of how it got the name "longjing 43." One account, from a retired researcher from the Tea Research Institute, says they named it like this:
They started with many different varietals and when one varietal was the first to put out buds in spring, it became "Longjing 1" and the second was "Longjing 2" and so on. From these varietals, they picked number 43 as being the best suited for wide-spread use.
     Another account, from a tea-obsessed tea house owner:
At the Tea Research Institute, they start mixing hybrids. The first hybrid they came up with was named "Longjing 1" and then they would make another hybrid from there, which would be "Longjing 2" and so on, until they were satisfied with the 43rd result, i.e. "Longjing 43."

Heirloom Varietal
     This is not one varietal, but rather a field of many different varietals that grow naturally in that area. It is called qunti 群体,or laozhong 老种 in Chinese. They usually bud later than other types, around the Qingming festival. China tea connoisseurs generally prefer this type of Longjing. It is said that the tea at Shifeng (Lion's Peak) is this kind.

Yingshuang (Welcoming the frost)
     The Tea Research Institute developed this hybrid that buds in early March and is known for tea rich in aroma. However, it is not as hardy as other varietals.

There are many more varietals and we will post more as we learn more.


To schedule a tour contact me at:

Phone (in China): 13819171044
(in United States): (704) 951-7838
Email: danielle.hochstetter@gmail.com