Tieguanyin: The Story of Iron Goddess of Mercy Oolong Tea
Like many of the best teas on the planet, Tieguanyin traces its roots to ancient China. With a history that involves royalty, luck, and hard work, it’s no surprise that the tea is a beloved favorite today. The tea is one of the most popular varieties in modern times thanks to its bright floral fragrance and its sweet aftertaste that lingers. Discover the story of Tieguanyin tea from its roots and cultivation to the different types and how to brew it right here.
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What is Tieguanyin?
Tieguanyin tea is an oolong tea from China. This oolong is tightly rolled and features a brightly floral aroma and sweet aftertaste that lingers for minutes. The tea is made from a special varietal of the tea plant. This varietal is characterized by a peach leaf shape that features a tilted tip and a pink center.
History of Tieguanyin
Tieguanyin is a Chinese oolong tea that is cultivated mainly in the Anxi county of the Fujian Province. The tea is named after the Chinese goddess Guanyin, which lends another popular name to this tea: Iron Goddess of Mercy tea. The name is also known as Ti Kuan Yin tea and TGY.
The cultivation of Tieguanyin dates back to the early 19th century. While the exact origins are unknown, there are two main legends explaining the emergence of this unique oolong tea. The first is the story of a poor farmer named Wei. Each day he would sweep out the local temple, feeling it was his only way of contributing honor to the gods.
One day, he had a vision in the temple that there was a treasure to be found in a nearby cave. After the vision, he went to the cave where he found a single tea shoot. He took the tea shoot, planted it in his garden and cared for it until it grew into an extraordinary tea bush. From this plant, he made the first Tieguanyin tea and then expanded cultivation to bring prosperous conditions to all of the villagers.
The second legend focuses on a scholar named Wang. While on a walk, Wang stumbled upon a tea shoot underneath the Guanyin rock. He took the plant home, cultivated it and discovered the splendors of this type of oolong tea. Wang presented a cup of tea from these tea leaves to the Qianlong Emperor. The emperor was impressed and so began the long reign of Tieguanyin as a beloved oolong tea.
While these may only be legends, the fact of the matter is Tieguanyin tea is an exceptional oolong tea with unique characteristics. Read on to find out how the tea is cultivated and brewed.
Traditional Tieguanyin is made using only the leaves, not the buds of the tea plant. The tea is typically made using the medium to large leaves and tea masters pluck three to four leaves along with the stems from each tea shoot. The harvest usually occurs in the fall, rather than in the spring when most other teas are picked.
Once the tea leaves are plucked, they are withered in the sun to begin the drying process. The leaves are shaken or stirred every 2 hours to ensure even drying and the entire withering process takes anywhere from 6 to 10 hours. The leaves are considered done wilting when the edges turn a reddish-brown and the center has a yellowish tinge.
After withering, comes the oxidizing process. The leaves are typically left overnight to oxidize — a process where enzymes react with oxygen — creating new flavors and turning the leaves a darker brown or black hue. The leaves are then placed in a large wok and fired over a fire to stop the oxidation process.
Tieguanyin leaves are rolled while they're still warm, into tight, half-ball shapes. The leaves are then baked and roasted before being packaged for sale as loose leaf tea.
Types of Tieguanyin
There are two main categories of Tieguanyin known as Anxi or Muzha teas. Anxi Tieguanyin is a tea that comes from the Anxi region of China. This type of oolong tea is similar in flavor to a green tea with a floral aroma and golden yellow liquid. Muzha Tieguanyin offers a more robust flavor with nutty notes and a roasted body. The type brews into a reddish-brown hue.
This type of tea can also vary depending on the roasting level and harvest time. Autumn-harvested Tieguanyin has strong flavor notes while summer Tieguanyin is considered lower quality, but more affordable. There are also different Tieguanyin teas that vary due to longer or shorter roasting periods. Among the most famous is Jade Tieguanyin which is green in color, boasts a flowery flavor, and is only lightly roasted. Taiwan also cultivates an Iron Goddess tea though the specific varietal of the tea plant used in China is not always used to produce Taiwanese teas.
How to Brew Tieguanyin Oolong Tea
- Start with a teapot, teacup (traditionally a gaiwan), and a temperature-controlled tea kettle or pot you can heat on the stove.
- Rinse the teapot and teacup with hot water to warm up the vessels. Discard the water when done.
- Heat water in a temperature-controlled kettle or a pot on the stove to between 190 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit (88°C-93°C)
- Place two tablespoons of Iron Goddess of Mercy into a tea strainer or Ingenuitea.
- Pour the hot water into the teapot and cover the vessel with a lid. Let the tea steep for 2 to 3 minutes.
- Pour the tea into your cup and enjoy!
Tiguanyin tea can be re-steeped 3 to 6 times. For each additional infusion, add about 30 seconds of steeping time to maintain great flavor. While this tea can be made using tea bags, loose leaf tea tends to offer better flavor characteristics.
Bright and Floral, Tieguanyin Wins the Flavor Contest
Tieguanyin is a popular Chinese tea that offers a bright floral fragrance and sweet flavor. The tea can be served to friends and family or used as part of a traditional Gongfu tea ceremony. Tea drinkers will love the bright flowery aroma from the first steep to the last.