Keqi Meng in front of his tea bar in Chicago. Courtesy of Keqi Meng.
One afternoon in early April, I found myself curled up on a floor cushion in an authentic Chinese tea bar in Chicago. I was there to do something most Americans never do—sip dragon well tea.
In America, April means milder temperatures, opening day for baseball, and trees filled with spring buds. In China, April means an entire city perfumed with the toasted scent of these pan-roasted green tea leaves.
Every spring, Chinese tea farmers begin to hand-pick their prized dragon well tea, longjing tea in Chinese. The tea, which hails from villages outside the city of Hangzhou, is if not China's most famous tea, then China's most famous green tea. And I'm lucky enough to be able to share a gaiwan full of dragon well with a Hangzhou native, Keqi Meng, the co-founder of Tea Bar by Easthill Tea Co. in Chicago.
A gaiwan full of dragon well tea leaves at Tea Bar by East Hill Tea Co. in Chicago. Colleen Loggins Loster
Keqi has been drinking dragon well since he was a child growing up in Hangzhou, where he returns each year to visit with small farmers and pick up the spring tea for his Chicago tea bar.
He tells me that despite its popularity back in China, most Americans have never heard of dragon well. In fact, of all of his customers, only about 1% have come in to his shop asking for the tea.
Dragon well is a green Chinese tea with flat long leaves that are dried in a hot wok. It has a very toasted scent and flavor because of that pan-roasting process.
It is a little bit grassy though not as grassy as Japanese green tea. And it's sweet. Green tea is a little bit astringent, but this is sweet. Dragon well also has a soybean flavor.
Oh really? In Chinese culture, soybeans are really tasty! Maybe we should say it has a mild bean taste.
Yes, traditionally when we drink dragon well, we use a glass cup and put the loose leaves straight in the water. But when we do a tea tasting here, we use a gaiwan [a lidded bowl that filters the tea leaves]. The leaves can also be eaten, though they're a bit bitter.
Do you know about slurping tea?
Slurping tea will give you airflow so you not only taste it but smell it. It makes sure your whole palate is covered with the tea so all of your taste buds are involved.
It's definitely a skill.
Brewing dragon well tea at Tea Bar by Easthill Tea Co. in Chicago. Colleen Loggins Loster
The water is the most important thing. Not just the temperature, but also the quality of the water. It's best to use spring water because it has minerals in it and those flavor the tea. It's really best to use water that's close to where you pick the tea, but if you can't do that, use filtered water. We use filtered water here at the shop.
Then use a bottle of water. Don't use tap water.
We use 176 degrees F [a variable temperature electric kettle can help with this]. You don't want it to be too hot because it will burn the tea and make it bitter.
Though when we go to a tea farmer's house in China, we usually use boiling water and it tastes good. It may have something to do with the fact that we're using spring water from Hupao Spring—Tiger Spring in English. That's the spring that waters growing longjing tea. But here, boiling the water makes the tea bitter.
You only have a short period of time to pick the tea, the best has to be picked in March and early April. We will have this year's harvest when I get back from China in June.
[We're sipping a freshly opened bag of last year's dragon well. It is still very delicious.] .
It's $8 to do a tea service here, which gets you multiple steepings. People can also buy bags to take home at about $14–$18 for one ounce. [This is about a 10-day supply of dragon well; you can steep it multiple times throughout the day.]
Green tea is usually more expensive because it's not going to be fresh after a year and a half. We don't even carry the most expensive dragon well.
Yes, and even though I grew up drinking dragon well, even now when I drink it, I can still taste some new things about it.
Basics: Authentic Chinese tea bar serving premium loose-leaf tea in traditional Chinese teaware
Location: Bucktown, Chicago
Where is the tea from?: Small farms in China, Taiwan, and Japan that the owner has personally visited
Best-selling tea: Moonlight White, a pu'er, and Orient Beauty, an oolong
Personal fave tea: "It's really hard to pick, but if I have to, I usually say dragon well." – Owner Keqi Meng
Don't miss: The tea ceremony with Keqi, a combination tea tasting and history lesson ($15/person; up to 5 people; call to reserve)