According to international sales figures, Tieguanyin is the most popular Chinese Oolong worldwide. And so it should! Tie Guan Yin oolong ranks third in the Top Ten Famous Teas of China.
Tieguanyin Tea got its name from a particular tea cultivar named Ti Kwan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) which is an ideal material for making oolong tea. It belongs to a family of teas grown in the An-xi region of China’s southern Fujian Province called Ming Nan Oolong. There are several grades of Tieguanyin with varying degrees of oxidation, however, it is always characterized by light oxidation (between 10%-40%) and heavy rolling. Using the baorou technique, it is wrapped in cloths and rolled into uniform tightly knitted balls. These balls are so dense that they are often described as iron-like. It has a glossy appearance, with a sage green color, red spots and what appears to be a light glazing of frost. The art of making Tieguanyin is quite complicated, particularly as the tea nears completion. It is re-fired one final time at a very low temperature; at this point the most distinguishing feature of the tea (the light glazing of frost) appears. It has a unique taste called Guanyin Rhyme (Yin Yun), which can be described as outstanding orchid fragrance and nectar sweet taste. For those who have difficulty grasping the subtleties of high grade greens, this oolong tea may seem to be a god-send. Its orchid aroma is strong, long-lasting and after many infusions, simply intoxicating.
Oolong tea is semi fermented which is one of the reasons it has such a unique character. Depending upon the particular kind of Oolong and the individual Tea Master who makes it, it can be fermented between 10-70%. Tieguanyin is considered a “green oolong,” which means that it is usually fermented between 10-40%. The semi fermentation gives the tea a little bit more body than a green tea but less body than a black tea ... and interestingly it gives the flavor a very unique twist. It lacks the rosy sweet aroma of black tea, but it likewise does not have the stridently grassy vegetal notes of some green teas. You will see (particularly in the infused leaf) that the edges of the leaves are slightly bruised (brownish). The reason for this is that the leaves are lightly bruised to start the oxidation process. Because they are more full bodied than green teas, oolong teas must not be picked too early or at too tender a stage. They must be produced immediately. Unlike leaves for green tea, those destined to be oolong are wilted in the direct sun and then shaken in tubular bamboo baskets to bruise the leaf edges. The bruising is what makes the edges oxidize faster than the center. After 15-25 minutes (depending upon ambient temperature and humidity levels) the tea is fired, locking in the special flavor profile.
The name Iron Goddess of Mercy came from a farmer named Mr. Wei. He had a particular devotion to the goddess “Guan Yin” and visited her temple daily. The temple was in a terrible state of disrepair, but Mr. Wei was very poor, so the only thing he could do about it was to sweep the temple and clean up the grounds surrounding it. One night he had a dream in which Guan Yin told him to go to the temple where he would find a valuable gift that she wanted him to have, but he had to share it with his neighbors. He went the next day but all he could find was a tiny tea sapling. He took it home and planted it and cared for it for several years. When it was big enough to pluck he did so and he shared the tea with his neighbors as the goddess had instructed. Everyone was astounded by the superior quality and fragrance of the tea. Mr. Wei became very wealthy and gave all of his neighbors cuttings from the tea tree and they also became very wealthy. When asked for the name of his special tea he replied that it must be called Tie Guan Yin in honor of the iron statue to Guan Yin. As the name was a good one, it has never been changed.
As good as Tieguanyin was, and still is, for increasing sales figures, Eastern research indicates that it is equally as good for reducing another type of figure. We like to believe that it is due to the benevolence of the Goddess of Mercy that this tea is sometimes referred to as "slimming" oolong. (In her mercy she's made it easier for people to shed a few pounds!) Although Western research is still inconclusive, in China, Tieguanyin is drunk with meals to help foster a feeling of satisfaction without the need to gorge oneself on the pleasures of the table. The cup is full bodied with deep almost winy notes that help fill the belly. Whatever you choose to believe about this tea two things are certain: one, it's a delicately profound cup and two, it's great with meals, particularly spicy ones. Pour a cup and give thanks to the Goddess of Mercy.