In Long Jing (just as in many other teas), there are a lot of confusions, ambiguity, misunderstandings, odd terms, conflicting views... yet it is one of the favorite tea beverages, adored by many people, from emperors to ordinary citizens, across China and world wide. I hope, through discussions, we can have clearer view of Long Jing. If that can't be achieved, then just for the fun of talking about it :-D
I started this discussion on Steepster a few weeks ago, and found myself writing long and dry information on and on :-p But I will try to write more. Here is what I've already posted on Steepster:
I have been pondering on this for a while, and would like to start a discussion about it. Not sure if it should be in the general discussion, I will put it under "companies and promotions" (since inevitably I will have to mention a few of my favorite products, which are sold in our store). However, the purpose of this thread is not promotion. Nor do I mean to give people one-directional advice. I will talk about my understanding of Long Jing tastes, and would love to hear what people think. Long Jing (like many other teas), is like an unfathomable pond. It may take forever to thoroughly understand it, but it's always fun to explore it.
I will focus my discussion on factors affecting Long Jing flavor, and how can one choose a Long Jing product based on these factors. I will go over these factors in this sequence: climate (brief), cultivar, harvest date, geographic site of plantation and processing.
Factors affecting tea flavors:
The flavor of most tea products are determined by several key factors, including cultivar from where the tea is harvested, geographic region where the tea is grown, climate of the production year, harvest time and how well the tea is processed. For Long Jing, all these factors are important, but some contributes more to the final quality of the tea.
1. Climate factor
For Long Jing (and many other green teas), the drinkers’ focus is almost entirely on the early spring tea of the current year. Therefore climate of the production year is entirely out of control of tea drinkers.
2. Harvest date
Compared with other tea genres such as black (red) tea and oolong, harvest date of Long Jing is extremely important, because during the harvest season (late March to early May), the new leaves and buds change every day. Each year, prices of Long Jing products are directly related to their harvest dates, and generally the earlier the harvest, the more expensive the tea is (if other cultivation conditions are same). In the harvest season, the day of Qing Ming (which is April 4th or April 5th on international calendar) is a landmark. The pre-Qingming tea is made with the youngest and freshest leaves. Gu Yu (also called Grain Rain, around April 20th on international calendar) is another landmark. Tea before Gu Yu is also very fresh, but not as precious as pre-Qingming tea. Therefore, early spring harvest of Long Jing can be divided in three sections.
1. Pre-Qingming, which is from late March to the day of Qing Ming.
2. Pre-Guyu, which is from the day of Qing Ming to the day of Gu Yu.
3. After Rain (post-Guyu), which is after April 20.
Pre-Qingming Long Jing is the most precious. However, tea tasting is always subjective, and some people do prefer pre-Guyu tea to pre-Qingming tea. Pre-Qingming Long Jing has more subtle, sweet flavor (often described by Chinese tea professionals as “chestnut-y”, while pre-Guyu tea has stronger toasty flavor which may be favored by people who have heavier taste on tea.
Pre-Qingming Long Jing also has the best leaf shape, each piece of tea has one bud and one or two small leaves. In Chinese green tea drinking, watching the leaves dancing in water is an important part. This also contributes to people’s enthusiasm at pre-Qingming Long Jing.
Long Jing, sometimes is taken as a tea processing method, sometimes as a place (Long Jing Village), and sometimes as the name of tea cultivars named Long Jing (including a few similar cultivars). Traditionally it was simple – Ling Jing was just understood as tea from Long Jing cultivar cultivated in Long Jing village and surrounding areas. In modern agriculture, the Long Jing cultivar is propagated into different regions of the province, even to other provinces. And traditional Long Jing production region (such as Long Jing Village) started to grow non-Long Jing cultivars (most of which are early ripe cultivars, because the tea can be sold for a very high price in late February to Mid-March, before the real Long Jing is harvested).
(I once discussed in my blog about Wu Niu Zao, a non-Long Jing cultivar that is commonly used to make Long Jing style tea, even in the hometown of Long Jing.
The names of Chinese tea are very confusing. Some teas are named after their cultivars (such as Da Hong Pao and Tie Guan Yin), but many are named in other ways. I personally wish the name Long Jing restrictively used on tea made from Long Jing cultivars only. But there is no strict official definition yet for the term Long Jing. Therefore, I believe it’s always important to know what tea cultivar your Long Jing is from. After all, the genetics of a tea determines many of its most important inner characters. Cultivar is a more important determining factor of the tea quality than all the other factors discussed here. For example, if you like Gala apple, you may find Gala apples shipped from different states share much more similarity to each other than the similarity between Gala apple and Macintosh apple from the same ranch.
When I buy Long Jing, I stick to Long Jing #43 and Long Jing Jiu Keng Group cultivar, two popular Long Jing cultivars of relatively large annual production. Between the two cultivars, many people believe Jiu Keng Group cultivar tastes much better, but some people believe both are great and each has its own characters. In terms of leaf shape, Long Jing #43’s leaves look slightly prettier, and this partially contributes to its popularity. Besides, Long Jing #43 grow buds and leaves about one to two weeks earlier than Jiu Keng Group cultivar, and the latter one sometimes does not have pre-Qingming harvest.
It’s up to each tea drinker to find out which Long Jing cultivar she likes the best. But I would definitely find out the cultivar of a Long Jing product before purchase, and I believe cultivar overrules harvest date and production region.