Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dragon Well: Style or Region of Tea?

Again I am inspired by one of the posts from Gingko at Life in Teacup: Discussion on Long Jing (2).

Is Dragon well (Lung Ching / Long Jing) just a style of tea or is it wedded to a particular region, like Pu-erh? (Pu-erh is named after a county; technically, the style of Pu-erh could be called hei cha--"black" tea, or post-fermented tea). I think it is ultimately good for tea producers and for the interest of sustainability and promoting and preserving local tea cultures to distinguish the notion of style and region in order to allow the non-controversial marketing, distribution, sampling, and purchase of teas of one style produced in many different regions.

Dragon Well originated in Zhejiang province, whose location is shown on the map below: (public domain image from Wikipedia, thanks to Joowwww).

But, as Gingko and many others have pointed out, you can find tea labeled as Dragon well from other provinces as well. Also, within Zhejiang, dragon well is produced in many different areas. According to Gingko's post, the tea produced in Hangzhou has been considered more desirable over the years.

What is "authentic"?

I think it can be problematic to say that a tea of one style produced in a different region is not "authentic". If the name of a tea refers to the style and not the region, such a label is incorrect. Is Vietnamese Sencha not sencha? What about Tie Guan Yin from Nantou? Or Ceylon Young Hyson? These are all examples I've tried...and I picked them because I all think they are outstanding teas...and they are all radically different from their counterparts from the original regions that produced these styles.

I love tasting how the aroma and flavor varies across different regions, even for tea produced according to the same or similar processes. I think that being able to make these comparisons is good both for preserving local tea traditions and for encouraging the creation of new ones. I also think that it improves people's sophistication...fitting in with the whole premise of the slow food movement, something I have been becoming more a fan of lately.

I think the ideal way to handle these things is to draw attention to where each style originated, but, except in the cases where the name refers directly to a region (such as Pu-erh) to refrain from judgments or value-statements like "authentic" or "fake". A term like "original" is a lot more descriptive. The naming scheme for some Chinese teas already incorporates both style and region. For example, mao feng green tea is grown in different regions; Huang shan mao feng is mao feng from yellow mountain in Anhui, whereas Wuyi mao feng is tea produced in the same style from the Wuyi mountains, and Ilam mao feng is produced in Ilam, Nepal.

How do Shoppers React to Accusations of "Fake" Teas?

Everyone is different, so I can't predict others' responses, but I can at least share how I react. When I read writing on a tea company website that makes disparaging comments about teas from other provinces, my first reaction is skepticism. One question immediately pops into my head: "Why do these people have a bone to pick?"

It is obvious that the vendors of tea from the original region feel threatened by similar products from other regions. But why respond with negativity? Negativity shows weakness and a lack of confidence. If they want to make their product stand out, though, they can do so by one simple method: push for accurate labelling of place of production. If a certain region is superior, and labelling is accurate, people will soon realize this and the producers in this region will be secure. Throwing around disparaging comments about teas being "fake" just because they originated in a different region communicates that the seller feels threatened--which communicates that, deep down, they are worried that their product might not be superior as they claim. Why send this message? All it will do is make fewer people want to buy the product.

I think a more positive response is that which Gingko has taken--put more information out there about the tea. I also think that, by questioning the notion that Hangzhou Dragon Well is necessarily superior, and pointing out that many tasters cannot correctly identify the region of production, Gingko demonstrates a critical mind--which immediately cuts through the B.S. and talking up of their product that some tea companies are guilty of. At least as far as I'm concerned, this makes me feel more comfortable buying a product.

So why talk up your product? Just put accurate info out there and it'll speak for itself!


  1. I like your quote= "Negativity shows weakness and a lack of confidence."

    I agree that as long as the tea's origin is properly noted then there really isn't a question of "real or fake." If you can drink it, then it's real, trust me on that ;-)

    Another example is "Assam Silver Needles white tea" which we sell at Teacup... or the "white peony" style tea that I made in my backyard and called "Seattle White Peony."

  2. Another thing to think about is strictly about that tea. Is the tea good? If yes, then why complain that it is not from a certain region? Now if the vendor does put false information on a product, that is a different story.

  3. Thanks! I know that I personally fall into negativity most easily when my self-confidence is at its lowest. The two seem to go hand-in-hand.


    And I totally agree, Sir William, about it being a different story when there's false information (i.e. "Darjeeling" tea not actually produced in Darjeeling)

    And yeah...some tea from regions other than the region of origin isn't as good...but some of it is great. And ultimately that's what matters!

  4. Another good post, Alex. I really enjoy reading your blog. I think regionality is importent. Tea can be labeled "such and such style from here" while leaving the original town or area to say "Long Jing". I am Swiss and it irritates me when some cheese maker in PA calls his cheese "Swiss". It isn't. Swiss cheese comes from Switzerland and all others are in the style of. Some are quite good, but they aren't Emmenthaler or Gruyere or any of the others. Really. What the wine makers call "terroir" is what identifies a certain wine, grown on a certain land with a certain mineral content and weather makes that wine, that wine, good or bad. American Burgundy, no matter how good and some is superb just isn't French.So even if the next town's Long Jing is better, I think it should be labeled as style. Picky, picky, I know.
    You asked what was my favorite Upton's Yunnan - don't know yet, as I have only tried one and it was quite good - I am waiting for some of the ones I want to try to be in again. Just had an excellent Keemun- Dao Ming Organic.

  5. The region of origin is a complicated issue. The geographic patent protection on the one hand is a good guideline for buyer, and other the other hand is criticized to be narrow-minded protection by some tea producers.

    Can another region be as good as original production region for tea? That can be a tea science question, yet not many people study on it.

  6. Naming is so complex. I do think names have the potential to offend or be misleading. For example, "American" cheese is bland and highly processed, and as an American, I sometimes think it sends the wrong message to the world about what America is and what America values. This summer I was in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and I was surprised by the array of artisan cheeses made here in the U.S.

    Another one is "German" chocolate cake--chocolate cake with coconut icing. The story I've heard is that it's not German at all; the name originates from a company named "German's Chocolate", named after an Englishman named , who put a recipe for the name on their box, and the name stuck even though people forgot about the brand of chocolate. Does that mean it's mislabeling it?

    Or "French" fries? How about the "French" horn?

  7. Actually, Longjing does have certain amount of meaning, even though it sometimes can seem awfully random. Zhejiang longjing is the low grade stuff that's made outside of Hangzhou. Hangzhou longjing is low grade, but Hangzhou, tea. Then when you get into places like Shifeng longjing, only then are you really talking about longjing proper. Zhejiang longjing may as well be called "generic green tea from Zhejiang that is proceed sort of like a longjing", but that, alas, is what it is.

    Then you have Taiwanese longjing, which is of course not longjing at all, but named such because the Taiwanese name teas not so much on the location/type, but rather on the process. A tieguanyin from Taiwan has specific meaning that involves how the tea is made. It was also called longjing because when the KMT fled, they couldn't take their longjing with them and instead had to find a way to make longjing in Taiwan -- thus Taiwanese longjing was born.

    I talked a little bit about the AOC problem here


  8. Is all longjing produced outside of Hangzhou in Zhejiang really low quality? Have you, personally, tried each and every one? And as you say in the post--if they all get blended together...isn't it possible that there are some amazing teas in there that just get blended into the mix and lost?

    This is what I'm getting at. I think people make generalizations when they're unwarranted.

    And sometimes I think it is subjective too when it's a matter of personal taste. Shou mei is considered "lower quality" than silver needle, but I have yet to try a single silver needle tea that I enjoy as much as the cheapest shou mei I've ever tried.

    That said, some people put more care into the production of their tea. And it may be that there's a strong, consistent pattern that the stuff outside of Hangzhou is cheaply or sloppily produced--but I'm not willing to make this assumption because I know that producers in special regions always have a financial incentive to "talk up" their products--and thus I don't think this information can be trusted.

    If someone wants to come out and say--I've tried X dragon wells from Y region and Z dragon wells from W region, then I will listen to and respect their opinion. They're speaking of what they know--which is what we should do.

    In fact, I've consistently found that I prefer less well-hyped types of teas. For example, I prefer the Se Chung oolongs to Tie Guan Yin--which I think can be outstanding, but is over-priced and over-hyped.

    But I think accurately labelling the region of origin would solve the problem you have in terms of locating the dragon well that has the qualities you want. And I think it would be great if they would keep batches from individual farmers together...why couldn't they do that, in today's information age? Then people could start knowing what they were getting. There's no reason to blend it all together!

  9. Well, if you want to be technical, no, not ALL Longjing made outside of Hangzhou are terrible, I suppose, although personally, I have yet to meet a "Zhejiang Longjing" that I'd consider drinking on any regular basis. I've tried at least dozens, if not hundreds. My family gets longjing up the neck every year in gifts or purchases, at various level of the payscale. If you find a cheapo longjing that can beat out a great mingqian Shifeng longjing, let me know.

    Shou mei and yinzhen are different beasts. The same is true for sezhong and tieguanyin.

    It sounds like you're talking about price/quality ratio here, rather than strictly quality. That's a whole different calculation that has nothing to do with where a tea's from, but rather at what price point you can buy it at and whether it's worth it at that price. I love a great longjing, but I never buy them personally -- too expensive.

  10. I just discovered this Lung Ching from Arbor Teas, from Anhui Province. Looks interesting...

    I don't know if this tea is any good, but this is the sort of thing I was getting at...not mass-produced tea, but rather, tea carefully produced in small batches, in the same style, but in different regions. I'm eager to try this particular one now, after this discussion!