February 21, 2023

Hail the Iron Goddess, Tieguanyin

Hail the Iron Goddess, Tieguanyin

Few traditional Chinese teas are as famous as Tieguanyin. Named in honor of the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, Guanyin, this oolong from Anxi County in Fujian has long been considered one of China's ten famous traditional teas, and is often given as a gift—in elaborate packaging—to grease the wheels of government and industry.

There's good reason for this fame. Tieguanyin-style teas (sometimes rendered as tie guan yin or ti kwan yin) made from the genuine tieguanyin cultivar exhibit a silky flavor and buttery texture with a resonating floral aroma. Traditionally, the tea benefits from a final roasting step, which adds a deep, smoldering intensity. Good tieguanyin makes your mouth water before you sip, and echoes in your throat long after you've finished drinking.

Unfortunately, these days, superlative lots of traditional tieguanyin oolong tea are few and far between. Changes in preferences have shifted tieguanyin production in China towards a lightly oxidized green style that forgoes heavy roasting. The result is bombastically fragrant, but with little staying power—a far cry from a tea with "iron" (tie) in the name. You can see the difference in color and intensity in the photo below, showing a traditional tieguanyin (the darker brew at top) and modern green tieguanyin (the lighter tea at the bottom).

Ironically, traditional tieguanyin production has found a new home in Taiwan, where centuries ago Fujianese migrants planted fields with the original tieguanyin cultivar. This is the origin of our Tieguanyin Deep Roast. Harvested on Ali Shan, in central Taiwan, these leaves were allowed to oxidize about 35% during shaping. Over the next five months, the tea was fired and rested in three cycles, overseen by a professional roaster. When infused, the tightly balled leaves open with an ambrosial aroma and sweet notes of grilled peach, followed by flavors of sandalwood, charcoal, and brown sugar. It's a powerful tea worthy of its name.

We love this classic version of tieguanyin, however we're also excited about other processing innovations that are happening in China and Taiwan. It's in this spirit that we share Phoenix Iron, a chimerical tea you're unlikely to find anywhere else.

We obtained this lot from our friend Kian, a fourth generation tea farmer from Wu Dong mountain in Guangdong, China. His family specializes in phoenix oolong tea, but they set aside a small field for experimental productions. For this tea, a traditional tieguanyin maker from Anxi processed the bai ye ("white leaf") cultivar into a twisted leaf oolong with strong tieguanyin properties.

An initial floral aroma—reminiscent of phoenix oolong—arises when the tea is brewed, leading to a balanced, brisk woodiness and sweetness in the cup. Notes of peach, melon and parsnip linger after each sip. The result is a truly unique tea: not quite tieguanyin, not traditional phoenix oolong, but an enticing mix of both.

Oolong fans, lovers of fresh flowers, tieguanyin fiends, curious drinkers in search of something new: these teas are for you. Taste them side by side to experience the old and the new. You'll want to steep the leaves of each many times. These come with long family histories—settle in to listen to the stories that they offer.