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Do you really know your Dragon Well?  An Emperor's Tale...

Do you really know your Dragon Well? An Emperor's Tale...

The origins of Dragon Well begin in West Lake, located in modern Huangzhou City. Here, it is said that about three hundred years ago, the emperor of Qing dynasty, Qian Nong, visited this region annually when he traveled south from the Forbidden City.

Before these annual visits, Qian Nong took several trips to the West Lake region, making a point each time to visit the nearby mountains where Dragon Well grows. During one of those trips, he was busy handpicking the tea bushes when he learned his mother had fallen ill. Upon his return, she inquired, “What is it you have? Why does it smell so fragrant?”

The moment she asked the question, Qian Nong realized she was speaking about Dragon Well, and so he took some from his pouch, brewed it, and offered it to his mother. She enjoyed the tea so much, that he made several return trips to the Huangzhou tea mountains and reserved the 18 tea bushes he had previously harvested for the royal family.  In this way, his mother and the whole royal family could always enjoy the uniqueness and majesty of this particular tea.

To no surprise, Dragon Well has ascended to become of the most popular teas worldwide. Naturally, we have to wonder if it’s in such high demand, how can such a small region produce that much tea for so many people?

The unfortunate answer is this region cannot accommodate the demand, and so many people must resort to sourcing clones and copycats grown in other regions. Some of these teas are still quite good, but they’re not the real deal Dragon Well — lacking in the characteristic taste that Qian Nong and the royal family found so inspiring.

The core, authentic, traditionally-produced Dragon Well is only crafted in five villages around West Lake. These villages are:

  • Shi Feng (meaning lion’s peak)
  • Mei Jia Wu (meaning family foothills)
  • Long Jing (meaning dragon well)
  • Hu Pao (meaning tiger spring)
  • Yun Xi (meaning hovering clouds).

Among these five villages, Shi Feng is regarded as the best, adored for its excellent terroir which allows it to truly distinguish itself from the rest. While you might say the whole region produces champagne (Dragon Well), there’s just one batch that is superior (Shi Feng).

West Lake dragon well green tea

To help accommodate the growing demand for Dragon Well, the local government in the 1990s concluded that varietal Long Jing #43 was the most appropriate for larger-scale production, its higher yield and faster growing giving the masses a chance to have Dragon Well. This varietal was introduced in the 1970s by the Tea Research Institute, part of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

In contrast, the local varietal in the West Lake region is of higher quality, yielding a better taste and cleaner cup, but it grows slower compared to Long Jing #43, making it less suitable for mass production. Given such low yield and superior quality, it’s of vital importance to have the right relationships with tea farmers and artisans if one is to source such a rare, authentic Dragon Well. This is why the authentic Shi Feng sells for high prices.  

Authentic West Lake Dragon Well has four main attributes:

  1. Color – A pale green-yellow, almost like a chartreuse color, because of the way it’s crafted and pan-friend in a wok; if it’s very green, it’s not true Dragon Well.
  2. Shape – A flat, spear shape, making it very distinct from other types of green teas, which are not flat. To attain this shape, the tea masters use their hands and press the leaves.
  3. Fragrance – An unforgettable aroma reminiscent of toasted sunflower seeds and baked chestnuts, again marking a strong departure from other green teas whose aromatic profiles tend to lean towards floral or vegetal scents.
  4. Aftertaste – A very sweet taste with a nice huigan that gently lingers long afterwards and leaves you wanting more.

As mentioned above, Dragon Well is so popular worldwide that other provinces and regions try to produce their own to capitalize on the growing demand, and in the marketplace, you might notice that every country has numerous vendors that seem to sell it – so many tea stores. West Lake Dragon Well could never meet this kind of demand, and so of course, the tea is coming from other places. While a telltale sign is usually the price, these other four attributes are also key things to start noticing.

Brew West Lake dragon well green tea Long Jing

At MeiMei Fine Teas, it’s the relationships that we have with the tea farmers, artisans, and craftsmen that make sourcing these teas possible, and this year, we’re proud to introduce 4 Dragon Wells, each from the authentic, core-producing regions.

In addition to the inimitable Shi Feng, we have also sourced:

Mei Jia Wu Dragon Well – A very similar Dragon Well in terms of craftsmanship to Shi Feng, but slightly less expensive with a subtly different flavor profile. Shi Feng and Mei Jia are different villages with small mountains, each a little higher and little lower, with different farmers that use more or less the same care. Both are from the local varietals.

Floral Pre-ming Dragon Well – A unique offering, this Dragon Well features an uncharacteristic floral fragrance that others lack. The tea farmer responsible for this output has some land up in the mountains, and due to the higher elevation and location, some flowering trees grow in the nearby vicinity, lending the pleasant floral fragrance to this tea. As a pre-ming, this is the first harvest of the season, and so has a higher price point. The result is a very tender tea with a pleasant but sweet taste.

High Mountain Long Jing – This Dragon Well is also from the core-producing region, and though it is a high-quality tea, we sought the best we could find for those who want an economical, everyday Dragon Well. As this was harvested a little later in the growing season, the leaves are a little bigger.

There are so many Dragon Wells because West Lake is so famous — the whole Huangzhou Province is its own Dragon Well industry because it makes for such an ideal place to grow this tea. With our four authentic but distinct offerings, we’re confident you’ll find a Dragon Well that’s right for you, one that you can share with your whole family just like emperor Qian Nong.

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