As spring unfolds here in Minnesota, I think of my friends in Anxi, preparing for the busiest time of the year: the spring picking of Tieguanyin. This exquisite oolong tea, sometimes seen as Tikuanyin, or Iron Goddess of Mercy, is picked during a short window in the spring and then again during a short window in the autumn. In China, the excitement over a new crop can grow to a fever-pitch these weeks of early spring. This is because, while Tieguanyin is one of the most popular and well-liked teas of China, it also has one of the shortest shelf-lives, fading in flavor after only a few months. This means that by late winter, the best Tieguanyin has already lost much of its distinctive flavor.
In celebration of the new picking, I want to tell the myth of Tieguanyin’s beginning. Every tea farmer has a slightly different version, but the basic story goes something like this: In the countryside near Anxi, there was a ruined old temple. every day a poor man would go to the temple, clean the altar of Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, and pray for hours. One day, in recognition of the man’s kindness, Guanyin appeared to him in a dream, saying, “There is a cave not far from here. You must go to that cave where I have left a gift for all of mankind. Plant and cultivate my gift, and it will bring great joy to the world and great prosperity to you.” The man awoke and went to the cave to find a little seedling. Though he was dubious, he planted the seedling in his yard and tended it every day. He was soon disappointed that nothing had come of the growing plant but leaves.
One day, a friend came to visit. The old man brought up the story of the seedling, and the friend asked to try the leaves. They boiled the leaves in water and drank, finding a heavenly taste and a rich aroma. At the advice of the friend, the old man roasted and dried the leaves. The taste became even better, full of orchid, honey and cream. This is the tea that is known today as Tieguanyin. The Tie or iron part of the this tea’s name comes from the fact that the leaves are rolled into tight balls, making this one of the heaviest teas.
Try a cup of Tieguanyin for yourself, imagine being the old farmer and tasting something so different for the first time, realizing the value of Guanyin’s gift. Look for a tea with few to no twigs attached, and tightly rolled balls that still have a bright but deep green color to them. If the tea is brownish, it is too old and will have no flavor. You should be able to smell orchid or lilac in the dry tea. If not, the tea has been improperly stored and is no longer worth drinking.
If you do not have the equipment needed, don’t worry. The important thing is to steep in a small container for not too much time. Take two small glasses, make sure the glass is tempered so that it does not crack when hot. Put about two tablespoons of tea into one glass. Fill up the glass with boiling spring water, (no more than a cup) and then pour the tea almost immediately into the second cup. if you have a strainer, you can use it to catch extra leaves. If the water is too hot, than use two mugs with handles. The first steeping is usually poured away because it is too light, and it serves the purpose of washing the leaves. Drink the second steeping, and steep five to six times. Usually the third steeping is most flavorful. Try to see how the flavors change.
This is an important point: Keep your Tieguanyin, and green tea in the freezer, sealed airtight. They do not do this at most American tea stores, but this has to do with cost, or ignorance. In China, ALL tea stores keep Tieguanyin and green tea in the freezer. This keeps the flavor fresh much longer, and stops the teas from absorbing other smells in the air. If you are skeptical, do an experiment. Put one bag in the freezer, sealed for eight months and keep one bag out in your pantry. Try them at the end and see what tastes better.