Exploring the Sources of Tie Guan Yin

By Tea Lover

Meizhan Cultivar
Meizhan Cultivar. Courtesy: Wan Ling Tea House

Tie guan yin wulong may be one of the most misunderstood teas. It can be grown in different places, grown from different cultivars, and processed in different ways. The resulting teas may all be called tie guan yin, but have very different character.

I asked James Grayland of Wan Ling Tea House and Dan Robertson of the International Tea Cuppers Club to share information about how cultivars, locations, and processing styles combine to create the range of tie guan yin available.

Before plunging into the dialog, a little more background on James and Dan’s knowledge of tie guan yin.

James is partner of Wan Ling Tea House. He has lived in China for over 8 years. During that time, he has developed personal and business connections with tea farmers in Fujian Province. He is fluent in Chinese and can communicate directly with tie guan yin growers and processors. He and his partner Wan Ling travel to Fujian Province seasonally to source multiple grades and styles of tie guan yin for their store. Their tie guan yins have won prestigious U.K. Great Taste Awards for 3 consecutive years.

Dan started the International Tea Cuppers Club in 2011. Additionally, Dan has been the owner/operator of World Tea Tours since 1996. He has sourced tea and led tea tours to China’s Fujian Province. World Tea Tours will offer an intense, skill-building Immersion: Oolong program in October 2014. The International Tea Cuppers Club also conducted a tasting of a series of spring tie guan yins.

One fundamental assumption is that tie guan yin oolong is properly made with actual tie guan yin leaf. However, it is possible to find teas labelled as tie guan yin that are actually made from other tea varieties. Perhaps the image of the meizhan variety is a reminder to ask whether your tie guan yin is actually made from tie guan yin.

Now on with the discussion. Note that perspectives vary on a few points.

1. How would you describe the major differences in tie guan yin from Gande, Xiping, and Xianghua?

JG: The fermentation/oxidization time done in Gande is typically shorter than the traditional processing common in Xiping and Xianghua. Gande typically employs newer methods of processing including heavy use of air conditioning to bring the moisture content down in the leaf more quickly and in a controlled fashion. This results in the processed Gande tea being of a vivid green appearance compared to more classic teas. Tea liquor is green-yellow and bright. Aromas are bold and floral, the taste is a bit sour. Typically, Gande cannot be infused as many times as those from other districts.

Xiping is the birthplace of tie guan yin and mainly employs traditional processing (no use of air conditioning to control the temperature). Tea liquor is golden yellow and bright. Typically, Xiping tie guan yin allows multiple infusions which produce even taste results, though the teas can lack some of the distinct and complex fragrance found in other tie guan yin teas.

Most Xianghua tie guan yin follows traditional processing methods. Tea liquor is golden yellow and bright, having very pure, rich aromas and the taste is more full bodied with a longer finish.

DR: First of all it can be said that Xiping is considered the origin of Tie Guan Yin. The mother bushes are there and are quite unique. The tea from this area has very unique attributes (yun in Chinese) from the terroir. They have a clear, clean and fresh quality that is smooth in the mouth and soothing to the throat, resulting in a comfortable feeling. Teas from Xianghua are known more for their strong flavor. The aroma is mild but lasting. On the other hand, generally speaking, Gande teas are known for stronger aromas both emanating from the liquor and the leaf. Liquor color tends to be a bit brighter green. There are also the differences between spring and fall harvests. Spring teas are usually a bit stronger flavored with milder aroma. Fall is the opposite with stronger floral notes.

2. What are the main cultivars used to make tie guan yin?

JG: Tie guan yin is one of the main cultivars grown in Anxi. Other wulong cultivars include Mao Xie, Da Ye, Mei Zhan, Huang Dan (a.k.a. Huang Jin Gui), Ben Shan and Se Zhong.

DR: Though of course there can be some experimenting and small scale exceptions, all of the areas use the tie guan yin bush. The differences are in the terroir and the processing. Xiping uses a traditional process with a bit heavier oxidation. Xianghua has an overall higher elevation with more pervasive mist, with higher ambient moisture and more diffused sunlight. Gande is the newest area and is less restricted by tradition. They started using air conditioning units during processing before the other places. Keeping the leaf cooler (controlling the oxidation and evaporation rate) results in different leaf attributes.

3. Do you find Gande, Xiping, or Xianghua tend to grow more of one of these cultivars over the others?

JG: It is important to note that tie guan yin is produced over a huge area. Although the majority of production occurs in Anxi, there are impostors! Furthermore, AnXi county covers an area of approximately 2933 square kilometers with a population of around 1 million people and an estimated tea cultivation area of around 6,700 hectares. The best teas are grown in mountainous regions of inner AnXi (nei AnXi) whereas AnXi town, the location of China Tea City, is classed as outer AnXi (wai AnXi) and is low-lying with a temperate climate. The low-lying areas are able to produce tea for almost 12 months of the year. Unfortunately this puts a high stress on the plants, which therefore need additional fertilizers and other inputs. As with all tea, it is important you buy from a reputable source.

DR: Again, the tie guan yin bush is the dominant cultivar used in all areas. Xiping has the Red Bud sub-cultivar but it is not really used much as it is more temperamental and harder to take care of. Interestingly, these are the same bushes as the mother bushes.

4. What are the different styles of processing (e.g. qing xiang,) and how do they relate to cultivar used and location? E.g. does one of these towns produce more qing xiang because it grows more of a cultivar suited to qing xiang?

JG: Classifications associated with tie guan yin include production processes such as:

1. zheng chao 正炒: Characterised by a more yellow green finished leaf
2. xiao qing 消青: between dark green and yellow green
3. tuo suan 拖酸: usually very deep green

1. zheng chao 正炒: The tea receives the final heating, which kills the leaves enzymes thereby ceasing the oxidization process on moring of the 2nd day after picking the leaves. The processing leaves the leaf around 50% fermented/oxidised, so the taste is softer. This type of processing is more of a traditional style.

2. xiao qing 消青: Final heating occurs the afternoon-evening of the 2nd day after picking tea leaves. As a further classification, if the final heating occurs nearer noon time it is called: xiao zheng 消正; later on in the afternoon it is called: xiao suan 消酸.

3. tuo suan 拖酸: Tea fired on the morning of the 3rd day. Although the process time is long, the leaves are rolled less and the temperature controlled to slow the oxidization thereby producing (yao qing 摇青) a very light green finished leaf.

Typically each region will produce different styles based on demand and fashion. For example, Qingxiang dominated the early 2000s, whereas Nongxiang has become increasingly popular in the past 2-3 years . Each region has picked up on this trend and has increased output. It is surprising how quickly production is adapted. This is an excellent example of how dynamic the Anxi tea production base is.

DR: Nowadays there are basically 3 styles; Suan (sour), Xiaoqing and Zhengwei. The term Qingxiang (light fragrance, also green color) means the opposite of Nongxiang (strong fragrance or strong color) which is roasted. All three of the styles (Suan, Xiaoqing, and Zhengwei) are within the Qingxiang type. Xiping has mostly older bushes and uses traditional techniques so they make more heavily oxidized teas. They are usually sun withered for longer times and shaking (on a flat basket) is more vigorous and prolonged. Xianghua is again more about environment than unique processing to suit a cultivar. Lots of high mountains with fog all around means slower growth creating more intense flavor. Gande has younger bushes and is at a much lower altitude than Xiping, so temps are not as warm. Gande oxidation is lighter, which brings out the exceptional green, fresh aromas and green color. The taste of Gande tie guan yin is more complex with complementary, light sour elements also detectable in the aroma. Though for the most part, the roasted kind of tie guan yin does not belong to the 3 basic styles. Zhengwei is most suitable if you want to make roasted tie guan yin. Not much quality roasted tie guan yins are made since the green styles are most preferred these days.

5. What approach do you suggest to a tea drinker wanting to explore these differences in tieguanyin?

JG: As with peoples’ tea journeys in general, we recommend trying as many teas as possible. Tea is such a personal taste that it is important that people develop an understanding of what they like and which teas suit their moods.

A good starting point is to compare some of the main tie guan yin styles. For example traditional heavy roasts versus more modern Qingxiang light and fragrant teas. For those who enjoy Qingxiang tie guan yin, for example you could then compare some different grades. As tea lovers will note, there can be a huge variations in price. Typically a good supplier will offer a selection of grades to suit different budgets and occasions.

Another way to experiment with tie guan yin is to try different seasons and vintages (years). It may be surprising to note the number of customers who actually prefer Qingxiang tie guan yin that is 2-3 years old. Some find the new, fresh tie guan yin too ‘bright’ and floral and prefer the tea when it has mellowed. Others love that fresh, spring-like orchid aroma and light, crisp taste that is characterized by a great new season tie guan yin.

Experiment and enjoy your tea journey.

DR: The best way to understand these differences is to cup the different styles side by side. Try the same season and same type to minimize some of the variables. Then delve deeper into different types from the same area. Then try different seasons from the same origin. One can take a long time to learn to distinguish the differences easily. The best way to really understand and also appreciate the factors that give each tea their special qualities is to go there yourself and see, do and taste for one’s self.

Walker Tea Review- a tea blog with tea reviews and tea tastings.

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