About Tie Guan Yin Tea
Learn about Tie Guan Yin tea, its varietals, where it's grown, how to properly brew it, and discover tasting notes.
WHAT IS TIE GUAN YIN?
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 loose leaf tea from China in the 1990s and 2000s. The tea market is currently experiencing rapid changes never seen before in China; historic teas are being revived and novelty teas are coming and going by the dozen. But still, for many Western tea lovers, Tie Guan Yin remains the introduction to Chinese Wu Long tea (Oolong tea) and its variation is the most widely seen form of Wu Long (Oolong) worldwide.
Tie Guan Yin is a category of Wu Long (Oolong) academically referred to as Min Nan Wu Long 閩南烏龍, referencing 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 (Oolong) 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.
Tie Guan Yin style of Wu Long (Oolong) is believed to have originated in the early 1700s. Like all China’s top teas, endorsements from influential historical figures are essential to a tea’s 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 tea’s “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 as “dragonfly head and toad tail.” What a difference! The academic name for Tie Guan Yin’s 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 Yin’s 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.
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 China’s true origin loose leaf 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 loose leaf tea has risen 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 Mountain Towns: Xi Ping西坪, Long Juan龍涓, Da Ping大坪, Jin Gu金谷, Hu Tou湖頭
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 are miles and miles of tea plantations.
• Tie Guan Yin 鐵觀音
Though this whole style of 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 (it also makes excellent red tea). As Tie Guan Yin became increasingly popular in the 1990s, many other varietals were replaced with Tie Guan Yin, resulting 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 a 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 (Oolong) 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 looks and tastes similar to Tie Guan Yin. This varietal once dominated many of the Tie Guan Yin regions, but was mostly replaced within inner mountains when Tie Guan Yin rose 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 (Oolong) 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 being visibly hairier than others with skinnier leaves. Yes, all domesticated loose leaf 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 (Oolong) 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 here’s 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 (Oolong) regions. However, in the late 1990s, an “innovative” method of making Wu Long (Oolong) with less shaking and at controlled temperatures was introduced to An Xi from Taiwan. This results in a tea with tall aroma, though compromised texture and clarity. The distinction between traditional and light Tie Guan Yin is whether a tea is fermented at natural temperature with more shaking, resulting in heavier fermentation; or controlled temperature with less shaking, resulting in lighter fermentation. The trend to making 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 Zhong to 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 3 to 5 times with 1.5 to 2 hours in between. Shaking loose leaf tea is the most essential and skilled part to making Wu Long (Oolong). 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 evaporated 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 the desired level, and then wok (or tumble) fried in the morning to destroy the enzymes. The enzymes 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 beats the tea to get rid of the red edges, resulting in a 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 (Oolong), it usually is referring to unroasted loose leaf 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 the stems are all taken out, it is a finished Traditional Tie Guan Yin. Tie Guan Yin is usually roasted twice, not including the initial bake-to-dry step. Roasted Tie Guan Yin has a metallic toasted rice profile and golden liquor.
The 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 fraction better. Wu Long (Oolong) stem picking usually takes months to finish in tea region.
Not all loose leaf teas are meticulously done like this. In fact, there are plenty of Wu Long (Oolong) still sold with stems in the market. Stems don’t 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 loose leaf 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 a controlled temperature with less shaking of the tea. Depending on when the tea’s 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 the fermentation temperature. Other new styles all involve shaking the tea less frequently or not 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 strongly opinionated fans and critics. There’s 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.
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 as the prime example. This report, and many incomplete versions of it, made Tie Guan Yin the “poison tea” overnight, 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. 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 China’s 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, one can feel a tightening sensation at the ends of one’s tongue along the cheeks where the umami receptors are, giving one a sour feeling, BUT not sour taste. Many refer this to the Guan Yin Yun. Another reference to a high quality Tie Guan Yin’s exquisite clarity in the both the aroma and taste is that it is airy, bright (can’t 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 Yin’s 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 an autumn harvest that sells as well as the spring’s, in occasional cases even more so. All other teas’ autumn harvest sell 1/3 the amount of spring's with core regions not even harvesting in fall or winter. This is due to the very rainy weather during the spring season (early May) and Tie Guan Yin’s emphasis on clear aroma. There’s 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. There’s also a custom among connoisseurs to drink spring tea in autumn, and autumn’s tea in the next spring.
Tie Guan Yin, like all Wu Long (Oolong), demands a full vessel of loose leaf 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.