On Dragon Well Green Tea

longjingtea
source: seriouseats

FROM THE DESK OF: Deo

For the better part of the last three years, I’ve had with me the world’s best green tea: Authentic Longjing (Dragon Well) tea handpicked and pan-roasted from the Meijiawu Village in Hangzhou, China—and I didn’t even know it. It had been sitting on top of my fridge all that time, unopened, literally collecting dust, until two months ago when I ran out of ground coffee to brew and I couldn’t go outside because of a snowstorm.

I decided that I needed something, anything, for my caffeine fix. I reluctantly reached for the tea sitting on top of the fridge and wiped the dust away from the container. When I opened it and saw nothing but thin dried up leaves, I was disappointed. Where were the tea bags? Why do they have to make this hard for me? How do I prepare this? Do I chew on the leaves? Do I put it on the coffee machine and brew it? I was a total amateur. I’ve always been a coffee guy. I understand coffee. I don’t know anything about this kind of tea.

I boiled water because I figured that’s what you’re supposed to do for tea, but since the leaves were loose, I didn’t know if I should put them directly in the cup or if they should be strained. I decided to strain it with a paper towel (yes, a paper towel!), then lift it up and throw the leaves away. Ceremonies be damned, at that point, I just wanted caffeine. Then, I took my first sip. It felt really crisp and breezy, and mellow, and… a little bit sweet. I remember feeling invigorated and feeling my head clear.

I wish I could say more than that. I wish I could say that was the moment I became a tea guy, but the truth is I was just glad I had caffeine in my system to prevent a coffee headache. As surprisingly good as that was, it wasn’t coffee. When the snowstorm ended the next day, I went out and got coffee and left the tea alone. I still didn’t know it was Longjing and didn’t care to find out.

Three weeks ago I was walking around at Whole Foods and saw a beautiful tea infuser (Uni Brew-In-Mug by FORLIFE) and thought, oh that’s what I should have used when I drank tea back then. As a spur of the moment, I bought product and took it back to work with me.

Uni-Brew-in-mug

The next day, I brought the Longjing to work and asked coworker to tell me what kind of tea this is. She looked at it with real surprise and said it was Longjing. She couldn’t believe I had it with me. It was the most famous tea in China. I immediately Googled it to confirm and indeed it was a famous tea, with the actual distinction as ranked number one in the Ten Great Chinese Teas (中国十大名茶).

Roasting Dragon Well Tea
source: seriouseats

It is meticulously prepared during harvest. Only the most skilled laborers pick the tea–looking for the youngest and sweetest tea shoots. It is harvested at night when there is no sun which can accelerate the tea’s growth and a seasoned picker can only pick about one pound on a night’s worth of picking. Once it is picked, the leaves are pan roasted before the oxidation can kick in, preserving its green color and the condition it was harvested in.

This is still the best way to harvest tea. No modern technology can replicate this method and the quality it brings. With such time consuming, quality heavy process, it is no wonder this tea is in high demand. Stories of Chinese bureaucrats exchanging ridiculously expensive gift packages in exchange for political favors are normal. And all this time it was sitting on top of my fridge next to tupperware.

I tried to Google where to buy it, but the results yielded only a bunch of counterfeits (which were still expensive), which confirmed how hard it is to actually get. So how then did I end up with this tea? As I was sipping it that day, excited about my new found treasure, I thought to myself, of course this is what Triston got me. Getting this gift from an old co-worker from my time living in Beijing was an adventure in and of itself.

Triston was my co-worker when I worked in Beijing helping plan a World Environmental Conference. He befriended me for the sole purpose of wanting to learn English. Later, after many hotpots, drinks, and dinners, I learned that he was actually filthy rich and from a very powerful political family. Before leaving China, I ended up with a lot of expensive gifts. I still don’t know how to return the favor, but I hope to one day try.

So back in New York, three years ago, early on a crisp summer morning, I get a call from an unknown number. I usually don’t answer unknown numbers but Triston had emailed me earlier that week saying someone would be calling me and that I must pick it up. When my phone rang, a hear a little boy’s voice, telling me to head up to an address in Flushing to pick up a gift and that it could only be picked up that day. This was during a workday, and I was in Downtown Brooklyn at the time.  The trek was at the very least an hour away. I thought, this is completely ridiculous, but I had to do it. I couldn’t resist the mystery.

My boss at the time was in his 80’s and didn’t come in to work until as late as 3pm so I figured, I could go to Flushing and nobody would notice. When I arrived, an old lady came down from a huge apartment complex to greet me. She presented me with a box and I bowed and thanked her. There was no conversation as she didn’t speak English. She was Triston’s aunt, visiting New York for only a couple weeks. She brought this tea with her from China, contained in a fancy black box, all so she could give it to me. I went back to work and my boss still wasn’t there.

When I got home that night, I opened it and saw that it was tea. I figured it was a great gift to get, but I’m not a tea drinker, so I set it on top of the fridge and threw away the packaging. Years passed and I had forgotten I had it.

Now, on weekday mornings, I have given up coffee. This tea feels so much more rewarding, and I appreciate the lengths I took to receive it. Triston probably had to pull some strings to get it, then had his aunt carry it over to America, then had a little boy call (because he could speak English) to tell me to go to a far off location in Queens. And I didn’t care because I didn’t drink tea at the time. I’m not claiming to be some kind of tea expert now after drinking Longjing for only three weeks, not even close. But I am glad that I now have something to obsess about and learn and appreciate. Even if it’s three years late. Xie xie, Triston.

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