If you’ve ever shopped for West Lake Dragonwell green tea, you may have wondered why the pricing can vary so much from vendor to vendor.
There are some outlets that advertise Dragonwell for as low as $10 for 50g, while others offer it for as much as $60 or more.
How can there be such variability? What’s determining these prices?
Setting aside the usual overhead expenses that influence prices, there are other factors that are less well-known, factors that ultimately trade off cost at the expense of quality.
For example, when it comes to Long Jing (the Chinese name for “Dragonwell”), people may not realize that there are actually two different varietals (and even differing qualities among those varietals): The generic, modified Longjing #43 and the indigenous varietal Qun Ti Zhong. Longjing #43 has been widely grown over the past 30 years. Qun Ti Zhong, or the locals call it Tu Cha, in contrast, is an inherited varietal, dating back more than 1000 years ago. Qun Ti Zhong produces very tastier tea than Longjing #43, but unfortunately it was widely cut down in the 1980-1990s for growing Longjing #43. Accordingly, it sells for a higher price.
Besides that, another thing to consider is that West Lake Dragonwell is traditionally grown in the surrounding mountainous area outside of Huangzhou, Zhejiang Province, an area that goes by the same name. This includes tea production from the five subdivision areas — Shi Feng Mounain, Long Jing Village, Mei Jia Wu, Yun Xi, and Hu Pao. Among these, Shi Feng Dragonwell, (Shi Feng Mountain translates to Lion's Peak in English), is regarded as the cream of the top. Per Chinese government authority regulation, only Dragonwell that is produced in the West Lake area and that is hand-crafted can be labeled “West Lake Dragonwell.” Any Dragonwell farmed and sourced away from West Lake (for example, in areas such as the rest of Zhejiang Province) cannot be labeled as such. Of these two growing regions, the Dragonwell sourced outside of Zhejiang province is geared towards mass market production and is significantly less expensive.
The following two pictures contain the Chinese characters for "Shi Feng". The engraved script on the second picture explains the history of Shi Feng Mountain, most notably associated with the emperor Qian Long of Qing dynasty.
Naturally, sourcing real West Lake Dragonwell will prove more expensive, more so if it is a Qun Ti Zhong varietal, but even then, there are additional considerations: Do you want a Shi Feng, the highest quality Dragonwells in the world, grown on Lion’s Peak? Furthermore, do you want to purchase a Ming qian ( pre-ming) or a Yu qian (pre-yu), a superior tea harvested before the Qing Ming festival or a less expensive tea harvested after?
Each of these choices will affect not only the price but also the flavor and the quality.
And unfortunately, the reality of the market is that because a Mingqian Shi Feng Long Jing commands one of the highest prices, it also regrettably invites false or misleading advertising, resulting in a wide arrange of pricing. While Dragonwell from Sichuan or other provinces can be sold at a much lower price (mostly produced for mass market with inferior quality), we can assure you that authentic West Lake Dragonwell (and of the best, Shi Feng Dragonwell) is never sold at such prices, instead commanding a premium due to its high demand and quality.
This is one reason why we insist on personally traveling to these sources, tasting through the many teas from the many producers. We’re determined to find, select, and source the best. We’re not going to rely on a distributor or supplier just saying that their green tea is Shi Feng or West Lake; we want to see it for ourselves. Where did it actually come from? What does it look like compared to the rest? What does it taste like? For this reason, we each year source different Dragonwell for you to experience and compare, one is Shi Feng Dragonwell, another one is Zhejiang Dragonwell, (for simplicity, we just labeled Dragonwell).
Finally, the other hidden factor in pricing is the experience of the tea master. This can be easily overlooked in an effort to save money, but a tea master’s experience cannot be underestimated. Next to the sourcing area, it might be the most important influencer of quality.
There are many tea drinkers who have become accustomed to associating Dragonwell with little more than a nutty taste and aroma, but other than varietal, the tea master also affects these characteristics. It takes a great deal of experience and usually a lengthy family tradition to bring out the nuance that these teas have to offer, to highlight their complexity and aromas. These are aspects of the tea that are difficult to manipulate in the hands of one who is unexperienced.
Because we’re committed to sourcing the highest quality tea available, it doesn’t make sense for us to source such tea and hand it off to an unexperienced tea master. If we’re determined to share with you some of the best teas in the world, why would we want to risk getting less than 100% out of them?
For these reasons, just as we carefully evaluate our tea sources, we also take care to seek out the best tea masters we can find. This is a large part of what it means to find the best within the best.