Our April visit to Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou at West Lake was one of those vacations where everything just happened to fall into place. In addition to near-perfect weather and gorgeous blooms along the lake and hillsides, out stay coincided with prime tea picking season. The Rolls Royce of green tea, longjing (otherwise known as dragon well) grows on the steep Hangzhou hillsides.
Our longtime friend in the hotel’s guest services department (she took care of us during our residence at Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong, too) arranged one of the highlights of our entire China trip—a private longjing tea picking tour followed by a Chinese medicine consultation and shopping on the famous Hefang Street. I highly recommend this tour if ever visiting Hangzhou with kids.
What Is Longjing Tea?
Longjing tea isn’t your average green tea—it’s top-of-the-line and loved by emperors and the elite. The flavor is mild with a slight roasted rice flavor with delicate leaves to nosh on (they aren’t strained out) while you drink. Authentic longjing is only grown in the West Lake area of Hangzhou and the difference between top grade and low grade is easy to spot once you know how (now, we do).
Prime picking season starts in late March and continues until Qing Ming festival, which usually happens during the first weekend of April. Therefore, longjing tea is classified as pre-Qing Ming and post-Qing Ming, with the former being the most preferred because the leaves are youngest.
Longjing Tea Picking in Hangzhou
Our tour guide and hotel driver met us in the lobby as we set off for Mei Jia Wu, one of Hangzhou’s quaint tea villages. During the 15-minute ride, our guide illustrated facts about the area that I certainly was unaware of, despite my enthusiasm for Chinese culture.
Farmers recruit help from surrounding provinces during tea picking season because the process is so incredibly labor intensive. The tea leaves are picked and dried meticulously by hand. Throughout various stops, we were able to witness the journey of a tea leaf from start to finish.
First, we pulled over to the side of the road to join ladies working in the fields. Our guide explained that women, who welcomed us warmly into their work space, pick the tiny leaves while men sort and hand-roast the leaves. It’s all in the hands. Men can tolerate the heat of the roasters while women’s smaller fingers are more apt for picking.
We looked for a trio of young, bright green leaves with a bud in the center.
My daughter and I picked leaves and tossed them into the collection baskets. It takes an entire day to fill one, which compacts even further after the leaves are dried. The sheer amount of effort involved is part of the reason why longjing tea commands the price it does.
Watch Longjing Tea Leaves as They Are Processed
We pulled over again after spotting a group of men and women processing tea leaves by hand on a porch. Longjing tea is processed by:
1. Air drying
During this air drying, undesirable leaves (usually ones that are considered too large or old) are removed by hand while air circulates around the basket.
Low to medium grade longjing is roasted by machine while high grade is roasted by hand in large woks. Roasting stops the natural oxidation process that black teas go through, while retaining more nutrients.
By tossing the bamboo basket by hand in a certain manner, dust and broken leaves flip out into a rubbish container.
4. Second roasting
The second roasting is brief at about 20 minutes, but reduces the amount of water in the leaves to just 5% or so which makes them ready for brewing.
Buying Longjing Tea
We then stopped at a fairly large teahouse to sample longjing and learn a bit more about it. Can you see the spot the difference in quality?
The young tea leaves are brightest in color while medium quality is slightly darker. The darkest leaves were promptly whisked away. I was told that if this is what I wanted, I might as well buy longjing somewhere in the US.
On sale were also longjing tea supplements—thought to cure all that ails you—as well as jasmine and other teas. We received an overview of the long list reasons why one should drink longjing tea, though I’ve been sold on the health benefits of green tea for a long time.
How to Drink Longjing Tea
Brewing a cup of longjing tea properly takes three pours of water at the perfect temperature to avoid scorching the leaves—between 70-80°F. With practice, we’re told it’s easy to eyeball when the water is ready. The three stages of boiling water include crab eyes (small bubbles), fish eyes (larger bubbles) and rolling waves (a full boil). The goal is to catch the water between crab eyes and fish eyes.
Note that longjing is served in a clear glass, probably to admire the pretty leaves, which aren’t strained out.
I drop a hefty pinch of leaves in a clear glass and cover them with hot water from our kitchen’s hot water dispenser. It’s not an ideal method but it works just fine and we drink it almost everyday.
Visit Hefang Street After Mei Jia Wu
Shopping the over-100-year-old stores on Hefang Street is another must-do Hangzhou attraction. Of course, there are plenty of teahouses to stop at but souvenir shops full of famous Hangzhou silk, Chinese paper cuts and more are for sale here. Live entertainment via music and artists sketching caricatures livenn the street’s atmosphere.
Just off Hefang Street is Hu Qing Yu Tang, a state drugstore founded in 1847 that is both a museum and an opportunity to consult a Chinese doctor for an evaluation. Our guide could have translated the consultation for us, something I was incredibly interested in as Chinese medicine has helped everything from swelling my during pregnancy to sinus trouble, but my daughter had grown extremely tired by that point and I decided I’d better not push my luck. Next time.
I had never seen so many Chinese herbs in one place at one time. Impressive is an understatement.
Private Tours Have Major Benefits
We could wing it because the only schedule we needed to adhere to was ours. When my daughter became tired from all of the walking, we simply returned to the hotel without impacting anyone else’s sightseeing. I didn’t have to carry my purse or other random belongings into tea fields, because the hotel car was locked and easily accessible. It’s a very relaxed experience.
I also pre-ordered lunch from in-room dining to keep in the car. And, in usual Four Seasons style, they packed it in an insulated cooler complete with kid-friendly juice, cutlery and pretty much everything we needed. It came in handy, as I suspected, though there are plenty of places to grab snacks on Hefang Street. I have become a huge fan of in-room dining to go in situations where I’m unsure of where or when a meal stop is in order.
Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou at West Lake is one of the most beautiful hotels I’ve ever been to and we spent the rest of the afternoon there. I blissed-out at the stunning spa while she took a lantern making class in the kids’ club.
A Truly Extraordinary Travel Experience
Our half-day tour (yours may vary based on requirements) cost me CNY1800 or about $300 USD and it was worth every penny. Picking tea on a Hangzhou hillside is something that neither of us will ever forget and one that I can only hope to repeat in my lifetime.
Hangzhou is an hour on a high speed train from Shanghai. Go, if you ever get the opportunity.