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The Iron Goddess of Compassion, Tieguanyin

Oolong ("black dragon") teas have long been considered the most complex, and the most prized tea in China and Taiwan. And among all oolongs, Tieguanyin is by far the most famous. A recent gold medal winner at a Tieguanyin oolong competition in Fujian sold for RMB 120,000/100 grams -- that's an astonishing $43,000.00 per pound! (Unfortunately, we were outbid by about $42,900.)

Technically, whenever we say Tieguanyin, we are actually referring to a specific style of tea. Many so called Tieguanyin-style teas are widely available, but few would debate that true Tieguanyin comes from the Anxi region in Fujian Province, China, where the specific varietal was brought from the Wu Yi region about 400 years ago.

The specific varietal of Camellia sinensis is called Hong-Xing-Wi-Ma-Tau, literally translated as red-heart-crooked-horse-peach, a local fruit. There is a resemblance between the tip of the tea leaf and the tip of the peach, hence the name.

 Tieguanyin Production  Tieguanyin Production

Tieguanyin is a semi-oxidized oolong. Its ideal oxidation level is approximately 30 to 40 percent. The basic steps to making Tieguanyin are relatively simple and straightforward: sha-ching (drying), tsu-rou (initial rolling/kneading), tsu-pei (initial firing), tsai-rou (repeat rolling/kneading), tsai-pei (repeat firing), and ding-shing (shaping). But it's in the individual steps and especially during the five to eight repeated kneadings and firings that the farmer exercises their traditional skill. They must carefully monitor leaf temperature, humidity, and leaf shape.

When evaulating a Tieguanyin, we look for certain characteristics:

  • Infused Leaf: The dark green of a toad (wa-ching) -- not just any green, a toad's green!
  • Liquor: The rich shine of a golden nugget.
  • Number of Steeps Possible: Seven steeps (chi-pao), with the second and third being the best.
  • Taste: Sweet and smooth with notes of autumn fruit and an ever-so-slight "sour" aftertaste.
  • Aroma: Rich and deep. Absolutely cannot smell "burnt."
  • Cup: Scent of freshly cut sugarcane, intensifying as it cools to cotton candy.

Tieguanyins come in an array of grades. Competition grade teas are purchased at the Fuzhou City oolong contests and are generally a light-fired, less-oxidized (approximately 30 percent) tea. The taste is sweet with a lingering autumn fruit finish. Some prefer a tieguanyin that is high-fired and more oxidized. The leaves will then be darker brown; the initial taste is that of the firing process and then the taste changes to a sweet peach which also lingers in the finish. Both types of teas are perfect for re-steeping many times.

One-Minute Tea Tip, 2002

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