These days, Dragonwell green tea is a classic in the tea industry. It's crisp and nutty flavor makes it popular across the board of tea drinkers. Not only is it popular in Western markets, it's actually listed as number one of "Chinese 10 Great Teas". With such prestige, we wanted to find out more about the area that Dragonwell is from and the people who were producing it. During our 2016 sourcing trip we went to Hangzhou, a city in eastern China, where all authentic Dragonwell comes from.
Dragonwell is sold almost everywhere in Hangzhou. Streets are lined with tea shops exclusively selling various kinds of it. Yet, strangely enough, you won't find a single teapot among the locals. Hangzhou residents have their own way of drinking; residents just drop tea leaves in a cup and pour in hot water. They called it drinking tea "farmer style". They then gradually refill the cup with hot water as they drink the tea.
After seeing how Dragonwell fit into the city life of Hangzhou, we were eager to see the areas where they grow the tea. On the way to the fields, our host Mr. Qiu explained to us how there are many kinds of Dragonwell produced in Hangzhou. The two we were going to try were Mei Jia Wu Dragonwell and Lions Peak Dragonwell.
We began our journey in the rural town named "Dragonwell Village," which is responsible for producing the Lions Peak Dragonwell tea.
Up until this point, we were still unclear about the where we were going to be drinking tea. Luckily, our host Mr. Qiu was a local and knew plenty of authentic farmers in the area. Mr. Qiu had arranged for us to meet with one of his friends, Mr. Yuan, who was waiting for us in the center of town in his pajamas.
We followed Mr. Yuan through the back alleys of the village, constantly trying to keep up with his local fast pace. Finally, we arrived at Mr. Yuan's home. Expecting the standard tasting room we had experienced at so many other tea shops, we were quite surprised when we walked into Mr. Yuans living room to find the dinning table full of food and ready to go for a big meal.
Upon sitting, we were prompted to, "Eat up!" as Mr. Yuans wife brought us what seemed to be an endless stream of dishes. We were also served some of Mr. Yuans tea along with the meal. Of course there was no teapot involved, just the authentic farmer's style, leaves and water in a cup. The meal was fabulous and conversation even better. Halfway through the meal, we realized that we had barely even talked about Mr. Yuans growing techniques or his processing methods. It was clear that Mr. Yuan wanted to host us, give us a good meal, and enjoy our company. What we expected to be a business transaction, quickly turned into a fun and relaxing lunch with what felt like old friends. In the end, we did end up getting Mr. Yuan's Lions Peak Dragonwell tea and are happy to have brought it back for everyone to enjoy.
Our next destination was another tea producing village called Mei Jiu Wu, so with full stomachs, we set out to hike across the mountains the two Dragonwell areas. Mei Jia Wu is the area responsible for producing Mei Jia Wu Dragonwell tea. What we thought would be a quick hike, turned into a long but wonderful journey through misty tea fields and steep stair sets. The path mingled through the labyrinth of tea fields that filled the mountain sides.
We hiked up so high that the tea fields stopped and turned to thick bamboo forests. On our way up the mountain we were surrounded with tea plants that grew Lions Peak Dragonwell, but on our descent, the plants were all used for Mei Jia Wu Dragonwell. Mr Qiu explained to us that the difference was mostly due to each side of the mountain trying to brand themselves as unique, but he could't comment on the environmental differences of each side of the mountain.
We arrived in Mei Jia Wu to find a far more bustling town. There were more people and plenty of activity. Mr. Qiu had arranged for us to meet with another tea farmer friend of his named Mr. Zhou. After getting slightly lost in the alleys, we finally arrived at Mr. Zhou's home. This time, we just found Mr. Zhou and his wife sitting and drinking tea at their table. We spent some time talking to Mr. Zhou about his experience as tea farmer.
He explained to us that he had been making tea for over 20 years and he would only drink the broken leaves of his harvests (what we might call "tea shwag"). He said that the visual appearance wasn't important to him. He didn't start growing tea to build a big company or sell his product to many customers, but rather he just wanted to make tea for his friends and so the more visually appealing tea was reserved for them. He told us his friends from as far back as elementary school come to his home once a year to catch up and buy tea. He never advertised to sell tea, but every year he would sell out. Mr. Zhou's Dragonwell tea wasn't just a product he could sell, but rather a catalyst to maintain the friendships he had built throughout his life.
We left with plenty of tea and so much to contemplate. Our expectations had been shattered from the moment we saw Mr. Yuan standing in the middle of town with pajamas on. We pushed past the superficial tea shops along the main strip and dug our way into the heart of these villages. We found caring, hospitable, and humble people who were real and authentic about what they did. Their tea was so much more than just a high-end product to them. In fact, they didn't see it as a product at all. To these tea farmers, tea is a way to socialize and bring others into their home. To these tea farmers, tea is a gift and token of appreciation for the friendships built over a lifetime. Tea is their personality, their ritual. Tea is their passion.