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The China Tea Party

When I first got to China, I hated drinking tea. Back then I did not know anything about it, just that the tea served at Chinese restaurants tasted like hot water from a tap with too much rust in the pipes. But with tea served at every restaurant and slurping hot water as the only thing to do on a long Chinese train ride, I slowly acquired a taste for tea. I can’t compete with a taxi driver on a cold, rainy day, but by now I am probably knocking back 5 or 6 large glasses of tea per day.

Anyone who visits China is going to come across tea, and most people who visit China will end up buying some tea. I divide tea into categories: green tea, black (red) tea, flower tea and pu’er. I don’t drink flower tea (I’m told it’s mostly for girls), and there is a whole science behind Pu’er tea that I do not want to get into, so let’s stick with the green and red teas.

It would be nice if, unlike me, visitors to China had some basic information about Chinese tea before they arrive in China. The best place to find this information would be the internet, of course, but unfortunately while there are tons of websites about Chinese tea, none of the information is very practical. For example, most of the information on Longjing tea mentions “Xihu Longjing Tea is well-known around the world due to four wonders, namely, ‘green color, sweet smell, mellow taste and beautiful shape.” Websites go on to mention its long history and how the best Longjing is made with the spring water from Tiger Jumping Spring. All of this information is pretty useless to the consumer.

There is some information on these sites that I now know as important but once would scoff at. For example, preparation is an issue. If you sample tea at a tea shop, they will usually serve it on a special table, splashing hot water around between various cups and teapots. While the procedures I use to steep tea at home are nowhere near as meticulous, I do have certain rituals to get a more flavorful and clean cup of tea. Other factors, such as the season the tea was picked, are also important and mentioned below. Most of the tea I drink comes from near Hangzhou, because I live there— buying local tea is often an important factor in the quality and taste.

Therefore, below I have decided to rate my favorite types of tea based on flavor, strength, appearance, nostalgia, and value, each on a scale from 1 (worst) to 5 (best). I do not give interesting facts about the Qianlong Emperor’s opinion of the tea, nor mention famous quotes from Li Bai and others about the tea, nor do I order them based on years of history, but simply rate them based on how enjoyable they have been to savor.

1) Longjing (Dragon Well) Tea (Hangzhou)

Flavor: 5 Strength: 4 Appearance: 4 Nostalgia: 5 Value: 1 Total score: 19 There is no doubt that Longjing is the most famous tea in China, but does that make it the best? Sometimes I think the reason so many people buy Longjing is simply because it’s Longjing. When giving gifts of tea anywhere in China, of course Longjing is the preferred choice. I give Longjing a 5 for nostalgia because if you want to bring something home to remember Hangzhou by, Longjing tea is a perfect choice.

Longjing is perfectly good tea. I have probably drunk more Longjing in my life than any other type of tea. Longjing tea— both the leaves and the liquid tea after it is steeped— has a beautiful and clean appearance. But there are a few problems with Longjing. The first issue is the “spectrum” of the tea: quality and flavor vary widely based on when it was picked (early March is “the best”) and where it was picked (Lion’s Peak in Hangzhou is “the best”). Actually, I think the early Longjing harvest, while most pure in flavor, is also the blandest. Why pay more for the early harvest if it tastes more like water? Also, in terms of location, there is a lot of Longjing that is called Lion’s Peak Longjing but is in fact grown elsewhere around Hangzhou.

This is why I give Longjing a 1 for value. It costs at least 5 times more than almost any other type of green tea in China. Longjing is my favorite tea in China, but does the tea taste 5 times better than these other types of tea? Also, I would rather some April or May tea than the March tea, as the tea from slightly after the spring rains start is often more flavorful than the early March tea, giving me that extra kick that I need over my morning cup of tea.

If you like Longjing tea, I would suggest also trying the deceptively-named Longding tea, which is grown at the source of the Qiantang River west of Hangzhou. It is slightly more flavorful, and while still somewhat expensive, it does not have the “buy it because it’s #1” appeal that has driven up Longjing prices.

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