Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Tale of Two Dragon Wells

Dragon Well, or Long Jing is one of China's "Ten Famous Teas" and rightly so. A high-quality Long Jing is a delicious experience for any tea drinker. Trying to find quality, authentic Long Jing at a price that makes sense for the current market is a task, but still possible. I ordered two different Dragon Wells from two different vendors recently, both of similar grades. One was "superior" and the other was "special" - top quality other than they were not pre-qingming. The price-point difference per pound was only $12, but the subtleties in flavor and aroma stood out.

Dragon Well comes from Xihu (West Lake) area of Hangzhou in the Zhejiang Province of China. Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejian, and has a population of over 8 million people. The Xihu area is on the outskirts of Hangzhou, like Boulder is to Denver, or Sonoma to San Francisco. As you can see from the map below, a small set of mountains are located just to the west of Hangzhou, which is where Long Jing should come from.

This set of mountains has been designated and set aside as a scenic preserve and authentic Dragon Well should come from within this designated area. As you can see from the image below, this area is relatively small, and is just outside of the sprawling Hangzhou area.

As a result of Dragon Well being one of China's Ten Famous Teas, production cannot keep up with demand, just like many other well known teas. However, it is fairly easy to tell true Long Jing after tasting them for awhile.

A close up of one of the samples.

The other sample.
 The two Dragon Wells that I was tasting on this day - a Special grade and a Superior grade - had obvious and marked differences. One smelled fresh, with the aroma of summer still prevalent when opening the bag. The other was more subdued, with less fresh aroma. One also had more uniform and standard green coloring of the dry leaves, which is one of the hallmarks of a top quality Long Jing. The other had less uniformity and more varied colors, edging toward blue/dark green leaves.

The two compared after one steeping.

A close up after two steepings.

The other one after two steepings.
 After tasting them both for two steepings each, I set aside the one that I felt was not as high of quality, and enjoyed three more steepings of my favorite one. The difference between the two was subtle, and whether a customer could tell the difference I don't know. For me, the subtle sweetness and nutty flavor of the one was obvious, while the other one's lack of fresh aroma and lasting flavor made it stand apart. The measurements also reinforced my tasting profiles:

TDS - 74ppm
PH -7.42
Temp - 165

Brewed Tea (One I liked)
TDS - 241ppm
PH - 6.55
Temp - 155

Brewed Tea (One I set aside)
TDS - 235ppm
PH - 6.74
Temp - 155

My guess is that the one I set aside was picked slightly later and not treated to as high of standards, resulting in a slightly rougher tea, a bit more dry, and thus harder to extract from. The one I liked, on the other hand, was held to a higher standard during processing, resulting in fresher leaves that extracted a bit better. For me, paying the $12 more per pound to get the higher quality tea, despite being of the same "grade" is worth the price. It is also a lesson in knowing your vendors and what they specialize in.

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