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A Sip from the Dragon’s Well

Discover one of China’s most prized teas.

In the West Lake area of Hangzhou, in China’s Zhejiang Province, women in straw hats crisscross steep, terraced hills to fill their baskets with fragrant tea leaves.

They work in small groups, chatting and plucking leaves for one of China’s most expensive green teas: Dragon Well tea. Also known as longjing in Mandarin, this tea comes from plants unique to the West Lake region. Dragon Well Tea Village is a cluster of eight plantations here that attracts tea aficionados from across the country and world.


All the tea in China

One of China’s major cash crops, tea has a special place in the nation’s culture. Legend has it that the first cup of Chinese tea was made around 2737 BC, when a camellia blossom fell into a cup of hot drinking water that the ancient Chinese Emperor Shen Nung was about to imbibe.

Initially, tea was only enjoyed by aristocrats and scholars in Ba-Shu (now Sichuan Province), in Southwest China. In the 8th century, the famous Tang Dynasty poet and “tea sage” Lu Yu from Ba-Shu wrote the first book devoted to the subject — The Classic of Tea — which discussed the merits of the beverage, the proper procedures for brewing and serving tea, and the rituals and ceremonies involved.

After the publication of Lu’s book, the tea-drinking trend spread to every hamlet in the country. Within about 400 years, teahouses were an integral part of China’s social fabric. Teahouses today range from elaborate setups in tranquil gardens to humble refreshment stops on the verandas of family homes, and they serve a similar function as cafés in Europe.


Dragon Well tea

Authentic Dragon Well tea is grown within a 168-square-kilometer (104-square-mile) area in the West Lake vicinity, and the oldest and most valuable plants are found in Dragon Well Tea Village.

According to folklore, the 17th-century Chinese Emperor Kangxi sampled a cup of tea from one of 18 tea bushes in Dragon Well Tea Village and deemed it the “Imperial tea,” fit for royalty. Today, the best-quality Dragon Well teas still come from these same 18 plants and yield more money per gram than gold — fetching as much as 36,000 RMB (US$5,800) for only 100 grams (3.5 ounces).

Handpicked and pan-roasted almost immediately, Dragon Well tea leaves are then rolled and dried. They are rich in amino acids, Vitamin C and antioxidants, producing a complex, chestnut-like flavor.

Dragon Well tea gains its clean yet robust character from this special processing method, combined with the region’s ideal geographical features: tall mountains that protect the village from chilly winter winds and harsh sunlight, and creeks that make for easy irrigation.

According to another legend, the tea was named after a local well, which got its name because of a natural curiosity: When it rained, the well’s surface would resemble the sinuous movements of a Chinese dragon.

Snacks and a pot of Dragon Well tea-for-one at a Hangzhou teahouse cost 80-180 RMB (US$13-29). The tea is often served in a clear glass that reveals the leaves rising and falling in the water.

Dragon Well tea is so revered that foreign dignitaries such as Queen Elizabeth II, Margaret Thatcher and Richard Nixon made it a point to try some during their visits to China.


An Imperial Garden

One of the plantations tucked away in the farthest corner of Dragon Well Tea Village is called Longjing Imperial Tea Garden. For a 10 RMB entrance fee, you can visit its landscaped garden, pavilions, ponds, bridges and teahouses. And in the spring, you can watch the harvest taking place.

Along the Tea Village’s main road, a handful of rural houses double as humble tea-processing workshops, teahouses and makeshift shops. Here, tea leaves from the plantations are sold by the gram or brewed and served to visitors by the local farmers who live and work in the village.

Outside these houses, farmers sit on wooden chairs by the roadside, roasting freshly harvested tea leaves in metal woks. Looking relaxed, focused and very much absorbed in the process, the farmers swirl the leaves gently inside the wok to make sure they are evenly roasted on all sides. Once cooked, the leaves smell a little like freshly roasted chestnuts, and visitors are often drawn to the comforting aroma.

From Longjing Imperial Tea Garden, it is a slow ascent up the terraced hills. Warm sunshine and the invigorating scent of tea imbues the cool afternoon air with a spirit of well-being. It is mid-March, the time for harvesting Ming Qian Dragon Well — a specific variation that’s considered the best (and priciest) batch. Ideal climatic conditions mean that spring shoots gathered at this time are the sweetest and most tender, and therefore more expensive than leaves produced at other times.

A sip of this imperial beverage reveals its personality: a grassy aroma that soothes the mind, and toasty, buttery overtones that linger ever-so-pleasantly on the taste buds. Halfway through the cup, it’s obvious why tea lovers will pay top dollar.

Michele Koh Morollo is a Singaporean living in Hong Kong. She was editor for WHERE Singapore magazine and has been freelancing for print and online publications across Asia, the U.K. and North America for the last 16 years.