When I first got to China, I hated drinking tea. Back then I did not know anything about it, just that the tea served at Chinese restaurants tasted like hot water from a tap with too much rust in the pipes. But with tea served at every restaurant and slurping hot water as the only thing to do on a long Chinese train ride, I slowly acquired a taste for tea. I can’t compete with a taxi driver on a cold, rainy day, but by now I am probably knocking back 5 or 6 large glasses of tea per day.
Anyone who visits China is going to come across tea, and most people who visit China will end up buying some tea. I divide tea into categories: green tea, black (red) tea, flower tea and pu’er. I don’t drink flower tea (I’m told it’s mostly for girls), and there is a whole science behind Pu’er tea that I do not want to get into, so let’s stick with the green and red teas.
It would be nice if, unlike me, visitors to China had some basic information about Chinese tea before they arrive in China. The best place to find this information would be the internet, of course, but unfortunately while there are tons of websites about Chinese tea, none of the information is very practical. For example, most of the information on Longjing tea mentions “Xihu Longjing Tea is well-known around the world due to four wonders, namely, ‘green color, sweet smell, mellow taste and beautiful shape.” Websites go on to mention its long history and how the best Longjing is made with the spring water from Tiger Jumping Spring. All of this information is pretty useless to the consumer.
There is some information on these sites that I now know as important but once would scoff at. For example, preparation is an issue. If you sample tea at a tea shop, they will usually serve it on a special table, splashing hot water around between various cups and teapots. While the procedures I use to steep tea at home are nowhere near as meticulous, I do have certain rituals to get a more flavorful and clean cup of tea. Other factors, such as the season the tea was picked, are also important and mentioned below. Most of the tea I drink comes from near Hangzhou, because I live there— buying local tea is often an important factor in the quality and taste.
Therefore, below I have decided to rate my favorite types of tea based on flavor, strength, appearance, nostalgia, and value, each on a scale from 1 (worst) to 5 (best). I do not give interesting facts about the Qianlong Emperor’s opinion of the tea, nor mention famous quotes from Li Bai and others about the tea, nor do I order them based on years of history, but simply rate them based on how enjoyable they have been to savor.
1) Longjing (Dragon Well) Tea (Hangzhou)
Flavor: 5 Strength: 4 Appearance: 4 Nostalgia: 5 Value: 1 Total score: 19 There is no doubt that Longjing is the most famous tea in China, but does that make it the best? Sometimes I think the reason so many people buy Longjing is simply because it’s Longjing. When giving gifts of tea anywhere in China, of course Longjing is the preferred choice. I give Longjing a 5 for nostalgia because if you want to bring something home to remember Hangzhou by, Longjing tea is a perfect choice.
Longjing is perfectly good tea. I have probably drunk more Longjing in my life than any other type of tea. Longjing tea— both the leaves and the liquid tea after it is steeped— has a beautiful and clean appearance. But there are a few problems with Longjing. The first issue is the “spectrum” of the tea: quality and flavor vary widely based on when it was picked (early March is “the best”) and where it was picked (Lion’s Peak in Hangzhou is “the best”). Actually, I think the early Longjing harvest, while most pure in flavor, is also the blandest. Why pay more for the early harvest if it tastes more like water? Also, in terms of location, there is a lot of Longjing that is called Lion’s Peak Longjing but is in fact grown elsewhere around Hangzhou.
This is why I give Longjing a 1 for value. It costs at least 5 times more than almost any other type of green tea in China. Longjing is my favorite tea in China, but does the tea taste 5 times better than these other types of tea? Also, I would rather some April or May tea than the March tea, as the tea from slightly after the spring rains start is often more flavorful than the early March tea, giving me that extra kick that I need over my morning cup of tea.
If you like Longjing tea, I would suggest also trying the deceptively-named Longding tea, which is grown at the source of the Qiantang River west of Hangzhou. It is slightly more flavorful, and while still somewhat expensive, it does not have the “buy it because it’s #1” appeal that has driven up Longjing prices.
2) Huangshan Maofeng (Yellow Mountain) Flavor: 3 Strength: 4 Appearance: 1 Nostalgia: 4 Value: 4 Total score: 16
Huangshan Maofeng is one of my favorite teas to buy because you can get a giant tub of it for the same price as a small box of Longjing. This is partly because it’s cheaper than Longjing, and partly because its twisted webbed leaves weigh less and take up a lot more space in the bag.
Huangshan Maofeng is ugly and sometimes a bit dirty in the tea glass, but tastes all right and is one of my favorite morning teas for the quick boost it can give me in the morning— almost like coffee. Plus, like Hangzhou, Huangshan is bound to be a memorable part of a trip to China, and it is nice to have some to bring home with you and drink while remembering that Huangshan sunrise. If you can, try to get some before you get to the top of the mountain and then bring some out with you in a thermos to watch the sunrise for a real Huangshan moment. The best place to buy any Huangshan tea, especially in terms of value, is at the Tea Market in Huangshan City.
3) Huangshan Houkui (Yellow Mountain) Flavor: 4 Strength: 4 Appearance: 4 Nostalgia: 3 Value: 3 Total score: 18 If you want to spend a little bit more money on tea in Huangshan, seek the Huangshan Houkui, grown on the back side of Huangshan in the Taiping area. This tea fascinated me from the moment I saw its huge leaves and I asked to see pictures of them gathering it in the fields.
I consider Houkui, aka Monkey Head tea to be one of the best undiscovered teas in China. It’s not really “undiscovered”, as I see it in teahouses all the time, but it is still underrated. This is my favorite of the Huangshan teas.
4) Huangshan Red Tea (Yellow Mountain) Flavor: 4 Strength: 4 Appearance: 2 Nostalgia: 3 Value: 3 Total score: 16 I recently learned that red tea (called black tea in English) is really just green tea that has been fermented. For those who can’t get into the green tea but enjoy standard English breakfast tea, this is worth trying. It is very similar in flavor to English tea, but has a certain freshness to it that you can’t get from tea in a bag. In fact, I am surprised this tea is not more popular in the West.
5) Wulong (Oolong) Tea (Fujian & Taiwan) Flavor: 3 Strength: 4 Appearance: 3 Nostalgia: 3 Value: 4 Total score: 17 There are all types of Wulong, and Wulong is often mixed with other tea too— my favorite Wulong was a type of Wulong cooked together with Ginseng that I bought in Xiamen a few years ago. I’m just going to group them all together here though. Wulong is probably the easiest type of Chinese tea to find in the West, logically because of Fujian and Taiwan’s history of immigration.
Wulong tea is great to order when you are at a teahouse because of the complex preparation involved — the server should be splashing tea and hot water all over the place instead of just handing you a glass of tea. One of Wulong’s positives is that the flavor is not too strong, but you can usually steep several cups of tea before it starts to lose its flavor. This is partly because it requires several doses of hot water to fully expand from its original ball shape. Watching Wulong expand is fascinating, like one of those growing sponge toys that you put in water. Still, if you put too much Wulong in at once, you end up getting too strong of a taste that I can only describe as soapy.
6) Anji White Tea (Anji County, Zhejiang) Flavor: 4 Strength: 4 Appearance: 5 Nostalgia: 1 Value: 4 Total score: 18 Anji White Tea is not always easy to find outside of Anji, and especially hard to find outside of Zhejiang Province. It reminds me a lot of Longjing Tea but with a greener (whiter?) and finer appearance. In my observation, this type of tea is becoming more and more popular nationwide, but maybe I just notice it more because I am a fan. The best Anji White Tea harvest comes a few months later than the Longjing harvest, so if you can get both, you can have a summer full of the best teas in China.
7) Final Rankings: 1) Longjing: 19 2) Anji White: 18 3) Houkui: 18 4) Wulong: 17 5) Huangshan Red: 16 6) Huangshan Maofeng: 16
By Arthur J from England
Editor: Guo Changdong