People often refer to China’s ten most famous teas as if there were some ancient and revered list, gone unchanged since the days when they made those expensive Ming vases or something. In reality, there are a lot of lists of China’s top ten teas, and they vary a fair amount. Two teas are always on them, though: Long Jing (Dragonwell), and Bi Lo Chun.

Bi Lo Chun is an old and valued style of tea, with attestations as early as the Sui Dynasty, in the fifth century! It didn’t get the name “Bi Lo Chun” (also spelled Pi Lo Chun and Bi Luo Chun) until 1699, though. The original name was Xia Sha Ren Xiang, which means Scary or Deadly Fragrance. The story goes that a young woman picking the tea ran out of space in her basket, and started putting the leaves down the front of her shirt. Warmed by her body heat, the leaves gave off such a striking aroma that they were named for it. Then, in the seventeenth century the Emperor Kangxi, visiting the area where it was grown, decided it needed a more civilized name and called it Bi Lo Chun, which means Green Snail Spring, because the leaves are curled into little spirals that resemble snails, and are picked in early spring.

The early picking is an important feature of this tea. The Chinese Qing Ming festival, in early April, is the traditional start of spring, and Bi Lo Chun is picked around then, and sometimes even earlier. The bud and first leaf are picked when they’re still very small (there can be 7,000 in a single pound of Bi Lo Chun!), and the tea is renowned for the delicacy of its leaves. A good Bi Lo Chun is very downy, the buds still covered in their tiny white hairs, as though it were half white tea. I always want to pour out the leaves and pet them because they look so fuzzy, an impulse I usually only get with Silver Needle (I try to suppress it. They are sort of soft, but they’re too small to pet properly, so it’s an excercise in frustration). The tea itself is remarkably sweet and floral, like you get with some oolongs. This comes through strongly in the fragrance of the dry leaves, which I suppose led to the original name. There’s also a rich, sometimes nutty support for that floral note, so you end up with a really complex well-rounded tea.

Originally Bi Lo Chun was grown only on a pair of mountains (collectively called Dong Ting Mountain) by Tai Hu lake in Jiangsu Province. They still grow it there, the tea plants mixed in with fruit trees to enhance the sweetness of the tea. Since it’s so popular, actual Dong Ting Bi Lo Chun is fabulously expensive, and the finest stuff can’t even be bought commercially. Tea in the same style is grown all up and down the Chinese coast now, though, so those of us who don’t live on the shores of Tai Hu can have some, and we have a really nice example from Fujian Province, quite rich and satisfying. It’s really worth sitting down and savoring, and maybe at the same time you can pet the pretty downy leaves, just a little.

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff