Somewhere in the vocabulary of relatively fresh tea drinkers, nestled between oxidation and Wuyi, sits the word, Tieguanyin. When a new tea drinker thirsts for knowledge and finds me in the tea room, I ask the same question, “What do you like to drink?” I’m always thrilled when I hear a softly spoken “tieguanyin” floating across the table.
Tieguanyin is both a varietal and cultivar of tea. As a varietal, it describes a certain type of tea much like saying cabernet sauvignon describes a type of wine. Tieguanyin also describes the cultivar, specific tieguanyin leaves, that originally dotted the other side of the Min Nan River in Anxi county, Fujian province. You cannot make tieguanyin tea without tieguanyin leaves. The original cultivar, Hong Xin Tie, features a distinctive red stalk. Tieguanyin from Anxi were made a certain way in the traditional style but with the popularity of this tea, the cultivar was transplanted to far reaching corners of the continent. Can you still call these teas tieguanyin? Probably not as most of these became crossbred hybrid cultivars.
A cultivar did implant itself across the Taiwan Strait into the bluffs of Muzha mountain. Can tea from this be called tieguanyin? Most older traditional tieguanyin drinkers will sigh a creaky “no” since it isn’t Fujianese. It is tieguanyin as it uses the tieguanyin cultivar leaves, but it is more aptly named Muzha tieguanyin. Today, we look at an original Anxi Traditional Tieguanyin.
A good tieguanyin will always display a strong red-bordered leaf like a proud peacock. With the introduction towards greener style ball oolongs in the 90’s, many farmers began tearing off the red borders. The chinese market considered the red borders to be ugly and indicative of bad tea. In response, many leaves from this era have shameful, mangled leaves.
Anxi tieguanyin leaves are usually plucked from smaller bushes. Smaller bushes provide more of the floral orchid character than tall trees. The leaves that are plucked, however, are single, larger older leaves where there is a greater degree of polyphenols. These kinds of leaves can stand up to the high roast in traditional style production.
Before the nuclear green movement in the 1990’s, tieguanyin enjoyed a treatment very similar to Wuyi rock teas. Tieguanyin maintained a 40-60% oxidation and a very high, brassy roast. Tieguanyin leaves are naturally floral in character. It is a potent freshness that benefits from medium oxidation. A strong charcoal roast coats the mouth in sooted fire. As this melts, the orchid freshness of tieguanyin lingers in the aftertaste, what drinkers prize as guan yun (an aftertaste you can only get from roasted tieguanyin). Tieguanyin is a love affair melding a strong sooty roast with the freshness of orchids. It’s a stage performance of newness born from fire, a play of forest stems reclaiming ashen lands.
The defining feature of a good cup of tieguanyin is the uncontrollable salivation at the sides of the tongue. It is thoroughly addicting reason old timers cannot let go of their cups. I suppose I may be an old timer at heart; I, too, cannot let go of a good cup of traditional tieguanyin.