Dragon Well tea is a great example of the craft tea producer’s dilemma. The traditional home of Dragon Well tea, the area around West Lake in Zhejiang Province, is now almost entirely owned by large commercial operators. Machine harvesting, chemical fertilizers and oven roasting have all become the norm.
Furthermore, West Lake is quite close to what is now a major Chinese industrial city. Greater metropolitan Hangzhou is China’s 20th largest city and home to over 20 million people. Consequently the West Lake area is now badly polluted in the lower elevations with frequent acid rain and skyrocketing levels of lead.
When I drive up to West Lake from the center of Hangzhou I can actually judge the elevation based on the color of the leaves. Close to the city the leaves are coated a depressing grey. This slowly changes to the proper deep green as you drive above the pollution line.
The proximity to a booming industrial center comes with another problem for the craft tea producer. The traditional production of Longjing tea is incredibly labor intensive. The best harvests are in early Spring and the season lasts just 2-4 weeks. A good producer will harvest just the buds and one or two new leaves. This must be done by hand and only yields a handful of leaves per bush.
The work is hard. The pickers start in the middle of the night and finish just after sunrise. An experienced picker will harvest just about 500 grams of tea in a night. Experience is key. In the half-light before dawn the picker must discern the freshest newest buds and avoid partial or insect damaged leaves.
Once picked, the leaves are dried and traditionally, hand roasted. A skilled roaster will use as many as 14 distinct hand movements to give the finished tea it distinctive shape. It will require about one hour for the roaster to hand roast each picker’s harvest. If a producer has 10 pickers, the master roaster (usually the owner of the farm) will be roasting their daily harvest for about 10 hours.
With the industrial Hangzhou nearby, luring pickers away from better paying, easier jobs in the city’s many factories for difficult and extremely seasonal labor on the tea farm is difficult and drives up labor cost.
Finally, Dragon Well tea suffers from it’s own fame. Everyone in the industry agrees that the amount of “Dragon Well” tea available in the world today exceeds the actual total production capability of Zheijang province by a factor of ten. So where does it all come from? All over China, tea producers are capitalizing on the fame of Dragon Well by producing look alike, distinctly inferior, teas and marketing them as Dragon Well.
That means over 90% of the Longjing tea sold in North America is not actually Longjing. Tea masters will recognize the difference instantly, but many erstwhile fans of “Longjing” have, sadly, never even tasted the real thing. They are paying top dollar, typically $15 - $20 an ounce, for low-grade tea marketed as premium or Imperial grade Longjing.
In summary, here is the craft tea producer’s problem; enroaching pollution, increasingly difficult to find skilled labor, stiff competition from corporate giants and unscrupulous look-a-likes and an ill-informed Western market that does not understand nor appreciate the distinction between craft produced teas and the stuff at the mall.
It’s no wonder that when the land broker for the commercial tea giant show up on the doorstep, the farmer is sorely tempted to sell!
I've got a plan to save the craft of artisan produced teas. We're getting it started by crowdfunding a community farming cooperative in Zheijang province. They've got permission to harvest a government owned tea field that's been abandoned for the last 30 years. And they are producing some amazing Dragon Well tea.
I'll be back next time with more details about this rare tea. In the meantime, if you want to grab some world-class authentic Dragon Well tea for less than half what you'd pay for "Dragon-Well-Style" teas from the top retailers, here's the link:
Pre-Order Imperial Dragon Well Tea
I'm taking pre-orders until July 6. When I have all your pre-orders, I have agreement with the cooperative to buy up to 44 lbs. The tea will arrive here and ship to you in 4- 6 weeks depending on time to clear US customs.
Customers who preorder will able to buy this rare tea at wholesale price now and until we sell out. Everyone else will pay the retail price (assuming there is any left to sell at retail!). Please don't miss this opportunity. You'll get a great deal on exceptional tea and you'll feel good knowing you're helping save the craft of artisan tea.