Each day the lush green mountains of the Meijiawu tea plantations bring visitors the promise of a great cup of tea. Located in Hangzhou, in China’s province of Zhejiang, the plantations spread for several miles on either side of the road, giving the illusion of two giant jade dragons rolling and twisting along the path. Small tea cafés and vendors, young and old, occupy one side of the road, while the mountains, undisrupted by civilisation, roll on the other side. The village is tranquil and few people are visible during the evenings.
The small cafes are picture-perfect, with cane furniture covering the front porch and large umbrellas providing visitors some relief from the sun. As you look around you will realise the upper floors of all cafés in the area are not only workshops but also homes of vendors.
As you get acquainted with the lifestyle of these vendors you will find yourself being ushered by one beckoning you to sit at a table in his front porch. What will follow are tall crystal glasses with freshly brewed tea. But it’s not time to relax yet, the enthusiastic, eager-to-please vendors live for the drama that follows. They ask you to shut one eye and hold the glass under it to let the steam wash over it. This soothes the eyes, they claim. As the aroma of the tea hits you, you can instantly pick up the calming scent of freshly plucked leaves mixed with the warm smell of roasted pine nuts.
Next, a plate of sunflower seeds, or sometimes other similar kernels, is placed before you to balance the slight bitterness of the tea. And while you are at it, trying to decode the bitter notes of the tea, a worker starts explaining its properties and health benefits that range from healing joint pains to soothing arthritis, and relieving stress and tension.
Walking through the process
Your journey at the plantation doesn’t end there. If you’re lucky you’ll be invited to visit a café where the tea pickers will merrily take you through the process of creating tea. From the pre-dawn leaf picking to the firing of the leaves, a lot of care goes into the creation of the world’s best Dragon Well tea. The final stage firing, carried out in a big wok-like utensil, is a process where the leaves are heated to stop their oxidation and preserve taste.
A sample of the tea you’re drinking is also presented and you are advised to crumble a few leaves to check for freshness which is indicated by the smoothness and flatness of the dry leaves. The point of this simple test may be lost to an amateur tea-drinker but seasoned lovers of Dragon Well tea understand how vital it is.
Commonly, there are three different grades of tea available with varying prices. The best quality Grade A leaves are an even shade of yellow and are smooth. They crumble to the slightest touch and have a delicate fragrance. Grade B or Premium Grade Dragon Well tea is a slightly deeper shade of green and has a more intense flavour and fragrance. This is the most commonly offered tea at the plantations. Grade C, on the other hand, is much darker and the leaves are tighter and heavier. Their smell is mild and the leaves can’t be stored for long.
Brewing to perfection
For ardent tea drinkers, another hot topic of debate is the brewing method and the temperature of tea. The method most tasting cafes at the plantation will willingly show you are quite simple. A pinch of green tea leaves is added to a cup after which it is topped with warm water. You are advised to steep the leaves between 30 seconds to a few minutes and then drink from it without straining. The vendor gradually pours water in the cup again to extract the remaining flavour. So each pinch of tea gives you two strong cups of Dragon Well tea, and while a third cup could be made, it would lack the robust flavour the first two had.
Once the tasting is over and purchases made, one can stroll in the plantations. Situated on the side of a mountain the landscape is picturesque. Walking through the tea bushes, a strong whiff of the freshly cut grass engulfs you. There is a serene quality to the whole experience, especially if you visit at a time when leaves are not being picked as you will get to hear stories about the pains plantation workers have to take, from waking up hours before sunrise to picking the best leaves before sunrays hit the plants, ridding them of dew.
By the end of the experience you will realise creating tea is as much a science as it is an art. The sheer number of people involved in the process will make you feel grateful for the hot, convenient cups of brew you get sitting in the comforts of your homes. The sense of respect towards the product will make you want to drink it in the manner perfected centuries ago, letting you relish every sip.