To have achieved the highest esteem in the world of Chinese teas, your tea had to become an Imperial favorite—the pick of the emperor—too good for anyone but royalty to drink. To become an emperor's tribute tea (gong cha) was somewhat like becoming a made mafioso: the name of this tea would go down in history and legend for generations to come, and be grown and processed with care and reverence, hoping to garner a high price from its legacy. The Imperial Tribute teas, as they were formerly known, are, now that they are permitted for plebian consumption, today referred to as the "Famous Teas". Among their finest is the green tea called Longjing, or "Dragon Well".
Hailing from the fertile, misty-mountain-shielded Hangzhou region of Zhejiang Province, China, fragrant Longjing received its imperial status during the Qing Dynasty under the emperor Kangxi. The name Dragon Well was applied many years later, on the winds of a legend about a dragon that inhabited a spring-fed well in the region, to whom farmers prayed for rainwater. (Why they did not pray simply for a magical well, I'm not sure.) The well, which still stands, is reputed to display a "dragon swirling effect" in its water after agitation or rainfall. Your mileage may vary.
The flat, long, amino-acid rich leaves of Longjing are given their characteristic appearance due to careful pan-firing after an early spring harvest, generally a very short window between March and May. To achieve the particularly pleasant nutty, toasty, gentle flavor of Longjing, its leaves are fired in woks over an open flame, a process which stops any oxidation and completes the chemical changes within the tea leaf to dry the leaves completely and fix flavor in—think of how old-fashioned photographic images are fixed in their final stages of development. The leaves are fired in the slightest amount of oil derived from plant and tree materials, sometimes from tea seeds themselves, which are formed into solid sticks or blocks and lightly applied to the woks during the process. Longjing leaves are expertly hand-pressed against the pan during firing, resulting in the uniquely folded-flat appearance common to this mode of processing. Longjing-style firing is practiced on other green teas, but none ever taste quite the same.
Longjing tea should reveal a soft mouthfeel in the cup, with the oft-cited notes of chestnut and toasty, mild earthiness. At best preparation it's an elegantly mellow tea with a light pear-colored liquor, a long finish, and little to no bitterness or astringency. (Mind your brew temperatures on this one—a little heat goes a long long way.)
And though the name Longjing may be found on many tea packages, there can be many many differences between Longjings. Some are from regions outside of Hangzhou, some are different cultivars (no. 43 is the most well-known, and lauded for its early sprouting), some are harvested at different times than others and possess different flavor profiles—and some are simply low-grade blends and straight-up counterfeits. As with all teas, choose your leaves wisely from those you trust!
How to Steep Dragon Well Tea
Though it's said the best water with which to steep Longjing flows from the Hupao (Running Tiger) Spring in China, that may be a bit of a trek for you. Instead, bring your best quality filtered (but not distilled) water to a temperature around 180°F.
Longjing is reasonably versatile and is easy to brew in a porcelain gaiwan or heatproof glass, or if you're a traditionalist that doesn't mind cleaning, a Yixing clay pot. Glass is often a preference for its kinetic display as the flat, skinny leaves unfold and gently fall to the bottom as your tea becomes ready to drink.
Place approximately one tablespoon of leaves per 8 ounces of your magical Hupao spring water—or whatever commonplace water you settled on—in your steeping vessel of choice.
Steep your Longing for about four minutes, noting the changes in taste between longer and shorter extractions (an overextracted Longjing will have a distinctly un-gentle flavor profile). If you're using heat-safe glass, you can monitor the steeping progress visually, as you watch the water turn to the light gold-green color of tea, while the leaves gracefully fall to the bottom. Reinfusion of leaves is possible two or three more times, adjusting your water slightly hotter as you repeat.
Then sit back and enjoy your tea as if you were an emperor.
About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs, and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is bad at keeping up her coffee-world blog at twitchy.org