In the introductory Dragonwell post, I neglected to mention anything about its processing. In reality, it's the processing that makes it possible for a non-Xi Hu tea to call itself "Dragonwell." Like most green teas, the best Dragonwell is plucked pre-Qing Ming, and the leaf selection is one bud and two leaves. After a very brief withering, Dragonwell leaves are transported to extremely skilled tea masters who will fire them in woks. This firing includes a brief "kill green" step that kills the leaves' enzymes, preventing them from oxidizing. Further firing is designed to reduce the leaves' moisture content and freeze them into their trademark, flat, needle-like shapes. This is all done by hand--the tea master presses the leaves with his hands (tea masters are usually male), and it takes a lot of experience to know by touch that the temperature of the leaves is hot enough to accomplish the needed process. The masters also practice specific hand movements, gently moving the leaves around to prevent them from overheating at any time (a few seconds' failure to do this can result in the types of flawed Dragonwell that are often commonplace in the West).
The High Mountain Dragonwell we've started carrying is a great, representative example. In the above picture, you can see the leaves' trademark flat, needle shape. You can also see just how narrow they are (look at the ones in the scoop). A whiff of the dry leaves reveals a perfume of nutty, spring-like freshness. As usual, I tried this tea gong fu style and also using longer, hotter competition brewing parameters.
Gong fu brewing yielded tasty results--the first infusion produced a cup that was very light in color, but immediately coated my mouth after sipping. This experience definitely reminded me of our new organic Yellow Mt. Mao Feng--fresh, juicy, and active development through the aftertaste. This tea has a fuller body, however, and lingering beneath that sweetness is an enticing hint of the trademark nutty Dragonwell flavor. This body and nutty aroma/flavor increased in the second and third steepings. As you can see in the picture, as soon as the water hits the leaves, they spring to life--bright emerald and jade green, like they're straight off the bushes. This freshness is key. Astringency didn't become apparent until the third steeping, and only in gentle, non-distracting amounts. By the fourth steeping, the sweetness began to ease out, though longer steeping times could definitely push this Dragonwell to 5 or 6 juicy infusions. More patience than I was expecting! How does this High Mt. Dragonwell differ from the usual Xi Hu variety? With a Xi Hu Dragonwell, I would expect more complexity, probably a stronger exhibition of the chestnut flavor, and more interesting development between infusions. Nonetheless, this High Mt. Dragonwell is a good all-around representation of what Dragonwell is all about, with more than enough complexity to make it an excellent value that can be enjoyed every day.
Competition brewing was an interesting experience--a moderate amount of bitterness came through, and only a little bit of astringency was present. What surprised me is that the hotter temperature and longer steep time brought out a flavor that was almost completely absent in the gong fu session. It could be that this flavor tastes different when brought out bit by bit (in gong fu), or perhaps that it can only be reached by using hotter water. Either way, this is why brewing a tea a few different ways can occasionally be a surprising and illuminating experience. Check out the wet leaves in this final picture--it's almost hard to believe that the complete, obvious bud-and-two-leaf combination is the same from the dry leaves at the top.