Making Dragonwell tea is a complex process: it requires many hours of manual labor, skilled workers, and just the right cultivation methods to produce one of the finest teas in China. The style of Dragonwell tea preparation perfected on Lion Peak Mountain (a mountain in the western part of Zehjiang province) has been emulated by numerous plantations around China, but subtle variations in growing and manufacture result in products of various qualities.
Location, Location, Location
All the processing in the world won’t make a bit of difference if the starting product is no good, and to grow the best tea leaves, you need optimal conditions for the tea plant. The best Dragonwell tea comes from plantations at high altitudes in moderate climates with high humidity and lots of rainfall. Lion Peak Mountain, the source of the first Dragonwell teas, has a topography that maximizes rainfall and moisture retention and soil that is high in phosphorus and mildly acidic. Factors such as these, combined with a legion of highly trained tea workers, result in the ideal Dragonwell tea leaf, but there are still many steps between the tea tree and your teacup.
The Art of the Harvest
The artistry involved in merely picking the Dragonwell tea leaves is exceptional. Workers must only collect terminal buds and another leaf or two (often referred to as a “bud set”), and they must be cautious not to tear or otherwise damage the leaves; all bud sets in Dragonwell tea must be pristine.
Even the harvesting season is meticulously managed; traditional harvest begins on March 20th and ends April 20th, leaving workers a meager four weeks in the fields! This is all the more astounding when one considers that skillful tea harvesters may only gather two kilograms of tea in the span of ten hours, which will amount to roughly a quarter of that weight in processed tea product.
Preparing Dragonwell Tea Leaves
None of this effort goes to waste, however, because the leaves are processed on the day of harvest to prevent any unwanted oxidation. The first step involves laying all the leaves out to dry, or “wither,” for eight to ten hours. This allows certain enzymatic reactions to take place that will remove the bitterness and grassy taste that is associated with other green teas. Next, the tea leaves are hand-roasted to prevent any further oxidation from occurring.
That wasn’t a typo. High quality Dragonwell tea leaves are roasted by hand. This is done so that the tea worker can feel the temperature of the heating wok, because there are two temperature ranges necessary for proper roasting. The tea is roasted at a higher temperature range (80-100 degrees C.) for twelve to fifteen minutes to broaden and flatten out the leaves. At the lower temperature range (60-70 degrees C.) the tiny white hairs that naturally cover the shoots are burned off, and most of the water in the leaves is evaporated, preventing further oxidation. Master tea workers may spend up to 3 years learning their craft and earning their title, but even the best can produce no more than about a kilogram of tea per day.
Lower grades of Dragonwell tea are produced through a similar process, but with a lack of expertise, the leaves may be cooked for too long, at too high a temperature, or with too much hand pressure—any and all of which will ruin the flavor. So why not treat yourself to some of the best tea in China? Knowing how much effort went in to preparing your tea may just make that next pot of our Dragonwell tea taste a little better.