Educational Tea Club - Tie Guan Yin


 Tie Guan Yin Making Father and Son

Tightly rolled, surprisingly expansive and brightly floral with a refreshing after taste that seems to linger forever, Tie Guan Yin 鐵觀音was undisputedly the most popular tea from China for nearly two decades in the 90s and 2000s. Though today the tea market is experiencing rapid changes never seen before in China with historic teas being revived and novelty teas come and go by the dozen, for many Western tea lovers, Tie Guan Yin remains the introduction to Chinese Wu Long tea and its variation the most widely seen form of Wu Long worldwide.


Tie Guan Yin is a category of Wu Long academically referred to as Min Nan Wu Long閩南烏龍, referencing to its origin in the southern Fu Jian Province.  Tie Guan Yin is actually the name of the varietal that made this style of Wu Long famous, but nowadays Min Nan Wu Longs are usually just called Tie Guan Yin, regardless if the tea is made with the actual Tie Guan Yin varietal or not.

 

ORIGIN

Tie Guan Yin style of Wu Long is believed to have originated in the early 1700s.  Like all Chinas top teas, endorsements from influential historical figures are essential to a teas rise to fame.  In the case of Tie Guan Yin, its top patron is rumored to be Emperor Qian Long.  According to legend, Emperor Qian Long (1711 1799) was impressed with the teas weight of iron and appearance of Guan Yin, hence the name Tie Guan Yin, Iron Guan Yin.  The farmers, however, have long been describing the shape of Tie Guan Yin asdragonfly head and toad tail.  What a difference!  The academic name for Tie Guan Yins shape is half-ball, or ban qiuxing 半球形.


Tie Guan Yin is often mistranslated to Iron Goddess of Mercy.  This is probably due to the feminine depiction of Guan Yin in a lot of Chinese folk arts and Guan Yins promised work of compassion for all.  However, Guan Yin or Gua Shi Yin is the Chinese word for Avalokitasvara Bodhisattva, who in enlightened form is genderless.Even when Guan Yin reincarnated to mortal form, in Buddhism legends he was a man.  This mistranslation has caused difficulty in recognizing the same tea between Chinese and western consumers.

 

GEOGRAPHY

Because Tie Guan Yin has been a renowned tea for quite long, there is a sizable tea region dedicated to producing Tie Guan Yin.  The historic origin of Tie Guan Yin is An Xi County 安溪縣–and like all Chinas true origin teas, the name of the tea is commonly referred to as An Xi Tie Guan Yin.  Within An Xi, the producing region is divided into the inner mountains 內山and outer mountains外山.  While Tie Guan Yin style was first developed in the township of Xi Ping西坪, it is actually now classified as one of the outer mountain townships.  The most renowned location for Tie Guan Yin is the village of HuaiZhi槐植of Gan De Township感德鎮.  But ever since a highway was constructed through the town, the quality of the tea had raised many questions though it still commands the highest price in the market. 

Inner Mountain Towns:

Gan De感德, Chang Keng長坑, Xiang Hua祥華, Jian Dou劍斗

Outer Moutain Towns:

Xi Ping西坪, Long Juan龍涓, Da Ping大坪, Jin Gu金谷, Hu Tou
 
Note that as expansive as the county of An Xi is, a majority of Tie Guan Yin on the market are not even from An Xi but mass produced from nearby regions like Zhang Zhou漳州 where there is miles and miles of tea plantations.

 

VARIETALS

Tie Guan Yin 鐵觀音

Though this whole style of the tea takes the name Tie Guan Yin, this is also the name of the actual varietal.  Tie Guan Yin has been long viewed as a preferred varietal with its bright fragrance and versatility (also makes excellent red tea).  As Tie Guan Yin became increasingly popular in the 90s, many other varietals were replaced with Tie Guan Yin, resulted in the largest scale of monoculture in Chinese tea history.
As a praised varietal, Tie Guan Yin is traditionally described as resembling the shape of peach leaves with tilted neck (tip of the leaf) and a pink heart (referring to when the bud is young.  Pink or purple mature leaves are bad.)

Huang Dan 黃旦

Called Huang Jin Gui黃金桂when made into Wu Long but the varietal name is Huang Dan.
This varietal is known for budding early, having a deep profile with fragrance of osmanthus flowers. When cross breed with Tie Guan Yin, we have the now popular varietal Huang Guan Yin黃觀音.

Ben Shan 本山

A varietal that both look and taste similar to Tie Guan Yin.  This varietal once dominated a lot the Tie Guan Yin regions but was mostly replaced within inner mountains when Tie Guan Yin raise to fame and Ben Shan was deemed inferior.  Now due to its history and rarity (only in certain prized terroirs), Ben Shan ironically became more sought after.  Ben Shan remains a very common Wu Long varietal outside of inner mountains of An Xi.

Mao Xie毛蟹 (hairy crab) / Mian Hua 棉花 (cotton)

Like the name suggests, this varietal is known for visibly hairier than others with skinnier leaves.  Yes, all domesticated teas have hair on the buds and back of the leaves.

Mei Zhan梅占 / Mei Jian梅劍

Another prized varietal and very versatile.  Mei Zhan has a large leaf and a signature fragrance many described as yolky or umami.  This fragrance is actually called Mei Zhan Fragrance梅占香. While Tie Guan Yin took the crown for the style of Wu Long named after it, Mei Zhan is a highly sought after varietal both in Wu Yi Shan for Yan Cha 岩茶(Cliff Tea) and Zheng He政和 and Bai Lin白琳 for red teas. 

 

PROCESSING AND VARIATIONS

There are two subcategories of Tie Guan Yin, Chuan Tong傳統 (traditional) and Qing Xiang 清香(light, or aromatic, refreshing fragrance is the literal translation, but it is commonly just called light).  The classification can be confusing, so heres an overview.


Though many associate roasting with Traditional Tie Guan Yin, it is actually the fermentation method/level that determines a Traditional Tie Guan Yin.  Traditionally, Tie Guan Yin is fermented at room temperature, which is still common practice in other Wu Long regions.  However, in the late nineties, aninnovative method of making Wu Long with less shaking and at controlled temperature was introduced from Taiwan to An Xi, results in a tea with tall aroma, though compromised texture and clarity.  Whether a tea is fermented at natural temperature with more shaking, results in heavier fermentation; or controlled temperature with less shaking, results in lighter fermentation, is the distinction between traditional and light Tie Guan Yin. 

The trend to make tea with a focus on aroma also expanded to other tea regions though with more resistance.  The now very famous Ya Shi Xiang, or Duck Shit of Feng Huang Wu Long (Dan Cong) is considered as a Qing Xiang version of Dan Cong.

Traditional Tie Guan Yin傳統鐵觀音

Like all Wu Longs, Tie Guan Yin uses only leaves, not buds.  The picking standard for Tie Guan Yin is Zhongto Da Kai Mian中到大開面, medium to large “opening, which are the more mature leaves. Usually three or four leaves are picked together with the stems.  The leaves are then sun wilted until soft, and moved inside to continue wilting.
The wilted leaves are shaken for 3-5 times with 1.5-2 hours in between.  Shaking tea is the most essential and skilled part to making Wu Long. This is a highly intuition based knowledge that is gained through experience.  Though mass produced teas are usually timed, handmade Wu Long requires a maker to stay up all night to continuously monitor the water travel status - referring to the degree of water feed from stems then evaporate out of the leaves - to determine the next hand” –the next technique to be used.  Ideally, a well fermented leaf should look yellowish green in the center and dark red around the edge.


Once the final shaking is done this usually takes place throughout the night - the leaves are left to continue to ferment to desired level, and then wok (or tumble) fried in the morning to destroy the enzymes which stop the fermentation and seize the tea at an optimal level of aroma and texture.  The hot-out-of-the-wok tea is then rolled rigorously into the signature half-ball shape.  The modern day making of Tie Guan Yin also sometimes involves a step before the rolling where a maker beat the tea to get rid of the red edges, resulting in less bitter tea with clearer liquid.  The rolled tea is then baked dry, giving us Tie Guan Yin mao cha 傳統鐵觀音毛茶, or rough tea.


Rough tea is referring to tea that has the character-defining steps completed, but still with refining steps undone.  It can mean different things for different teas.  In the case of Wu Long, it usually is referring to unroasted tea with stems still unpicked.
When Traditional Tie Guan Yin rough tea is unroasted, it has a green color with bright flowery profile, but it should not be mistaken for a Light Tie Guan Yin.  Once a rough tea is medium roasted and with stems all taken out, it is a finished Traditional Tie Guan Yin. Tie Guan Yin usually is roasted twice, not including the initial bake-to-dry step.  Roasted Tie Guan Yin has a metallic toasted rice profile and golden liquor.

Refining process is very tedious and time consuming.  But it is also a shared characteristic of all the historically famous teas where each painstaking step is aimed to push the tea just a fractionally better.  Wu Long stem picking usually takes months to finish in tea region.  For Tie Guan Yin, we actually finish this step at the tea house by our apprentices.  We have included in this months shipment a small pouch of unpicked Tie Guan Yin so you can give stem picking a try.  


Not all teas are this meticulously done.  In fact there are plenty of Wu Long still sold with stems in the market.  Stems dont taste bad, they are actually mildly sweet. But they dilute the complexity of a tea because it occupies volume (and weight) and is overall not a sign of fine tea.

Light Tie Guan Yin清香型鐵觀音

A Light Tie Guan Yin has a lower fermentation level and with slightly different processing it is usually fermented at controlled temperature with less shaking of the tea.  Depends on when the teas enzymes are destroyed to stop the metabolism, there are actually five types of Light Tie Guan Yin.  It is important to note that a Light Tie Guan Yin can also be roasted and the finished tea is called Nong Xiang Xing Tie Guan Yin濃香型, or heavy Tie Guan Yin.  This is not to be mistaken with the actual Traditional Tie Guan Yin.


Zheng Chao 正炒Tie Guan Yin is the oldest and the most similar to traditional Tie Guan Yin with the main difference being fermentation temperature.  Other new styles all involve not shaking the tea as frequently or even not shaking the tea at all.  In the table below, the later the kill green step, the less shaken the tea. As the tea holds its water for longer (no shaking and delayed kill green), it results in a sour taste in the tea that some drinkers prefer.  The most delayed style, TuoSuan拖酸literarily means delay-to-sour. The new styles are very controversial with strong opinioned fans and critics.  Theres also a general correlation of style and location.  For example, Gan De and Xiang Hua are more known for the new styles while Chang Keng and Xi Ping are more known for the traditional and Zheng Chao. 

 

Name/Type

Kill Green

Zheng Chao正炒/Zheng Wei正味

Next Morning (2nd Day)

Xiao Zheng 消正

Next Noon

Xiao Qing消青

Next Afternoon

Xiao Suan消酸

Next Evening

TuoSuan拖酸

Third Morning (3rd Day)

 

2012 SCANDEL

In 2012, Greenpeace China sampled a selection of name brand teas (including Ten Ren and Lipton) and reported that a majority of them has pesticide residues,with Tie Guan Yin stood out as an example.  This report and many incomplete versions of it reported by varies media made Tie Guan Yin the poison teaovernight, and pushed topics such as pesticide and fertilizer usage, monoculture and cloning to heated discussions.  The year marked the decline of Tie Guan Yin.  While most farmers of historic teas never bothered to go through organic certification because it usually is not favored by long-time connoisseurs of traditional teas, Tie Guan Yin farmers were the exception.  Since 2012, many Tie Guan Yin farmers could not sell their tea without at least a locally issued organic certification.  By 2015, the general tea price dropped to 1/10 of what it was before the scandal, leave large amount of tea fields unattended and tea workers displaced.  Last year in 2016 when tea safety became topical again, many scholars came out to criticize the unscientific method used during the 2012 test and questioned its conclusion. Many also argued that the mass produced teas sampled were not even from An Xi. Because of this event and the manifestation of Tie Guan Yin industrialization, traditional terroir division became less and less important. Experienced tea buyers now rather seek out uncontaminated lots in the An Xi and work with farmers who make less manufactured version of the tea.
 

BREWING AND APPRECIATION

Like all Chinas famous teas, Tie Guan Yin has pre-set appreciation criteria.  Among qualities a connoisseur looks for, Guan Yin Yun, or Guan Yin Chime is a mystified one that confuses consumers.  When drinking a Tie Guan Yin that is brewed heavily, theres a tightening sensation at the ends of ones tongue along the cheeks where the umami receptors are, gives one a sour feeling, BUT not sour taste.  Many refer this to the Guan Yin Yun.  Another reference is to a high quality Tie Guan Yins exquisite clarity in the both the aroma and taste that is airy, bright (cant be heavy or dull) but lingers forever (chime).  Also similar to other high quality teas, lingering throat sensation (sweetness) called Hou Yun is also highly sought after. 
 
Color is another telltale of a Tie Guan Yins quality.  When everything else is equal, a whiter, or less colored liquor of rough tea is better.  Lower quality Tie Guan Yin usually have a deeper green color with perfume aroma and a powdered taste; or with heavy roast and dampness in the taste.
 
Another notable thing in Tie Guan Yin is that it is the only tea with autumn harvest sells as much as the springs, in occasional cases even more (all other teas fall harvest sells 1/3 of springs with core regions not even harvesting in fall/winter). This is due to the very rainy weather during the spring season (early May) and Tie Guan Yins emphasis on clear aroma.  Theres a saying in Tie Guan Yin called spring water, autumn aroma 春水秋香– means that the spring tea wins in taste and mouth feel (water) and autumn tea wins in aroma.  Theres also a custom among connoisseurs to drink spring tea in fall, and falls tea in the next spring.
 
Tie Guan Yin, like all Wu Long, demands a full vessel of tea leaves (8 grams for standard gai wan) and boiling water.  A well made Tie Guan Yin either has sizable red edges or broken edges around a whole leaf.

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For more educational material, watch our tea trip videos to see how traditional tea grow and is made.