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Discover Tie Guan Yin – a fascinating group of oolongs with many subtle differences

 [ IMAGE: Tieguanyin oolong tea ]

I’ve received a shipment of various organic Tie Guan Yin oolongs a couple of weeks ago, and thought this is the perfect opportunity to introduce this fascinating group of oolongs in a bit more detail here. So, if you always wanted to know more about this mysterious tea called Tie Guan Yin (also known as TGY, Ti Kwan Yin, Tieguanyin or Iron Goddess of Mercy), please read on.

Tie Guan Yin (TGY) is one of the two main original styles of oolong production (the other type is the stripe-shaped Wuyi Yancha). TGY, as well as Wuyi Yancha, are produced in Fujian Province, the home of oolong tea. When farmers from Fujian moved to close-by Taiwan, they brought oolong tea with them and today, the ball shape of Tie Guan Yin is the predominant style of Taiwanese oolong production.

Origins

The origin of Tie Guan Yin is described in the following story:

There once was a farmer in Xiping, Anxi, by the name of Wei who had his small field on the other side of town. He would pass by the temple to the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin, everyday on his way to the field and then again on his way home. The temple was in disrepair and not looked after by anyone. Being poor, Mr. Wei couldn’t afford to repair the temple, but he took it upon himself to keep it clean and fix minor damages. He stopped on his way to work and placed fresh flowers at the feet of the statue of Guanyin; he brought some incense from his home; he swept the fallen leaves in the autumn; he mended holes in the roof. He did so for many years.

Then, one night, Mr. Wei had a strange dream. In his dream, Guanyin appeared to him and thanked him for the good care he took of her temple. She told him that she wanted to show her gratitude and led him to a hidden cave behind the temple. At the entrance to the cave, she turned to him and said that there was a treasure waiting for him inside. He was supposed to take good care of it and it would bring fortune to him and his family. When she disappeared in the cave, Mr. Wei awoke from his dream.

On his way to the field the next day, Mr. Wei walked around the temple to the place that Guanyin had shown him in the dream. He found indeed a small cave there and in the cave, there grew a small tea bush. Knowing that this tea bush must be Guanyin’s treasure, he carefully transplanted the bush onto his own land and produced tea from it. The resulting tea was so delicious and unique, that it’s reputation quickly spread far and wide. The demand for Mr. Wei’s tea grew so high, that his family became one of the most wealthy families in the town. But Mr. Wei never forgot where his fortune came from – and he continued to tend to Guanyin’s temple for the rest of his days.

Different types of Tie Guan Yin

At a basic level, TGY are usually classified into two or three groups. The traditional way of producing Tie Guan Yin (Zheng Wei or Classic Flavour) results in a rich infusion with a fuller, somewhat ‘heavy’ fragrance. In recent years, the whole oolong industry has undergone a change towards low/no-roasted teas, accommodating the growing demand for highly fragrant, fresh & greenish oolongs. These are usually referred to as Xiao Qing and are fresh, light and have a strong floral fragrance. There’s a third type that has some following, but is regarded as undesirable by others – Tuo Suan or sour TGY. You might also come across the term Qing Xiang, which is sometimes used to describe the latter two. The term Chun Xiang is used to describe stronger roasted, heavier Tie Guan Yin oolongs.

Refinement through roasting

The roasting of higher quality TGY is done over charcoal and the processing is done completely by hand – as with our various Tie Guan Yin. A proper roast brings out fragrance without overpowering the tea with a roasted flavour. It’s a very fine line and extremely difficult to master.
Aged oolongs are stored in clay jars, sealed with wax. If aged intentionally and with care, these jars are opened once a year and the tea is given a very slight roast – to remove excess moisture and ‘activate’ the tea. And again, a skilled tea maker will avoid introducing too much of a roasted flavour into the tea.

Short tasting notes of our current lineup of high quality Tie Guan Yin oolongs

Tie Guan Yin ‘Xiao Qing’ ($16.80 per 100g)

This oolong is made in the modern, highly fragrant style with a very light roast. The fragrance is strong and floral, the taste is slightly metallic. It leaves a slight sweetness in your throat.
Drinking this tea, it’s easy to see why this style has become so fashionable. It’s very easy drinking, has an extremely pleasant flavour and aroma and gives an instant WOW factor. The more traditional styles require more attention to give you the same gratification.

Tie Guan Yin ‘Chun Xiang’ ($20.70 per 100g)

This is a traditionally produced Tie Guan Yin. The nose contains notes of citrus fruit and floral elements. The flavour displays some minerally structure and is very refined. Of the two traditionally produced TGY, this one is the brighter one, reminiscent of spring. It mellows in the second infusion and becomes more buttery.

Tie Guan Yin ‘Zheng Wei’ ($22.90 per 100g)

Compared to the Chung Xiang, this oolong is more oriented towards base notes (this is only relative, though, since all fresh TGY are light, greenish oolongs). If it were a season, it would be a sunny autumn / Indian Summer. Overall, its has a richer and fuller flavour and aroma. But to me, it’s real point of difference is its smoothness – this tea is SMOOTH! Again, the refinement of these blueish-green leaves is palatable.

1993 20-year old Tie Guan Yin ($25.90 per 50g)

Visually, it’s easy to recognize that this tea has been aged for quite a while. The originally emerald green leaves have turned into a mixture of brownish and olive green leaves. The nose is all chocolate and the flavour full of spices, with a hint of fruit. The thought that came to my mind immediately was the similarity to raisins soaked in rum…
The originally floral, light flavour of this tea’s youth is still hinted at in the aftertaste. It’s smooth and balanced between bright and deep/heavy, which indicates that it hasn’t transformed fully yet. It’s at a very interesting stage, sort of showing both worlds – the young, fresh tea and the aged, fully transformed oolong it will eventually become.

1983 30-year old Tie Guan Yin ($50.80 per 50g)

Now, this is a tea that might inspire me to start writing poetry!
It has an incredibly rich and thick liquor with an aroma of dried fruit. The closest resemblance I could think of was a well-aged cognac. It is fully transformed and the original fresh, floral character is completely gone. This tea is ideal to warm you on a rainy autumn or winter day!
It’s vaguely reminiscent of a good aged Wuyi Yancha, but without any hint of astringency. And the best thing? It gives you a seemingly endless amount of infusions. You can easily spend a whole day with it – the leaves are that patient. Normally, with very patient leaves, my attention wanes before the leaves are exhausted. But this tea has so many interesting layers to reveal that I’ll happily boil kettle after kettle.

This is one of the most powerful/satisfying teas I’ve ever come across. Of course, it isn’t cheap at ~$7 per session. But you’ll get an infinite amount of enjoyment out of that pot. And if you compare it to a bottle of fine aged cognac at a few hundred dollars, this ‘old tea’ is quite a bargain!

If any of these teas has sparked your interest, you can place an order through our ordering page.

[techtags: oolong, Tie Guan Yin, Tieguanyin, Iron Goddess of Mercy oolong]

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