Buyer’s Guide to Tieguanyin and Anxi Oolong

navigating the wide world of Iron Goddess of Mercy and beyond

November 8, 2018

Tieguanyin is one of the most popular and beloved teas in China and across the world. Its production process makes it one of the most difficult teas to make, with more steps and processing than just about anything else out there, but the result is a rich aromatic experience like nothing else.

There are so many styles of Oolong in Anxi that they are often just lumped together under the collective name “Tieguanyin.” The problem is, if you find a Tieguanyin that you like, you may not know why. Was it dark roasted, finished traditionally or with the greener more modern style? Was it even Tieguanyin or was it another culitvar all together or a blend? So many retailers don’t even bother labelling because their suppliers aren’t telling them the story behind the leaf.

Luckily, Master Zhang is our farmer-partner in Daping, Anxi. He is committed to transparency and insists on telling the full story behind every offering. His goal is for tea lovers to be able to appreciate the finer points of what makes a Huang Jin Gui light roast different from a modern Tieguanyin, or a traditional finish Mao Xie.

Sound confusing? Don’t worry!

This guide is here to help you understand all the most popular varietals and processing styles in Anxi so that you can dive into the region’s oolong teas like a pro.

 

So, what is the most important thing to look out for when buying Anxi Oolong? Find out who made it.

Anxi enjoyed huge fame early on in China opening up its economy. The result was that huge swaths of land got bought up by big plantations so that they could cash in on the Tieguanyin trend. Then, the fortunes of Tieguanyin started to turn. There were so many fakes and low elevation imitations from all over Fujian that the reputation of Tieguanyin suffered. Plantations and joint ventures had to turn to cost-cutting and “export-quality” to survive.

The good news is that hand-picked, hand-finished Tieguanyin from high mountain peaks, organically cultivated in a biodiverse environment and finished using slow meticulous tradition processing can still be enjoyed for an incredibly reasonable price compared to – for example – Wuyishan. The bad news is that without local government oversight controlling how Tieguanyin is labeled and sold, the market is flooded with a huge range of quality.

If you insist on Tieguanyin from actual small family farms with a clearly disclosed provenance, you are more likely to be getting higher elevation, cleaner tea, made with more care. When the provenance is obscured, it is almost always hiding that fact that it came from a big export catalog.

Tieguanyin still has a very high perceived value in the West, and Chinese exporters as well as many American tea companies take advantage of this. They usually sell a blend of cultivar, usually heavy on Benshan and Huang Jin Gui from clay-heavy flatland soil and plants sprayed with pesticides. These varietals seem really sweet and aromatic for the first steeping or two, but generally lack texture and aftertaste compared to Tieguanyin.

If you want to be sure, you’ll get a telltale drying sensation in the back of the throat and a certain lemony quality after several steepings. This is a sign that you are drinking an imitation blend being passed off as real Tieguanyin.

Master Zhang brews Tieguanyin in his home in Daping
Master Zhang brews Tieguanyin in his home in Daping
 

So – you’ve found Anxi Oolongs with a clear and compelling provenance. What should you look for in disclosures on a tea from Anxi?

Elevation and Growing Region

Tieguanyin can be cultivated all over Fujian Province, and a general “Anxi” label is not enough to guarantee a suitable terroir in terms of soil type and weather, or in terms of access to clean air and water. Anxi is a county, containing many smaller growing areas and towns. Anxi is not that far from the major metropolitan area of Xiamen, and outside of Xiamen there are manufacturing hubs like Tongan, built up for easy access to the port when Xiamen was declared a prototype free trade zone. The sad side effect is that pollution sits in the lowlands, especially along the coast, and contaminates any teas growing too close to urban areas. This is more of a growing challenge all over China, which is why it is more and more important to know that your tea is coming from areas sheltered from pollution.

For Anxi, this shelter comes in the form of distance and of mountain barriers. The actual county seat of Anxi is in a flat valley. It benefits from easy road access to bigger cities and proximity to the tea auction houses, so much plantation tea is coming from “Anxi” instead of a more specific micro-region like Daping. Our partner Master Zhang grows tea on the highest slopes above Daping village. For reference, Anxi sits about 100 meters above sea level, while the mountains above Daping Village tower over 1000 meters. There are a lot more mountains between Master Zhang’s tea and Xiamen City than Anxi lowlands tea and Xiamen city. This, plus the very high elevation, means pristinely clean air and water, critical ingredients to making fine tea.

 

Why else do you want tea actually coming from a high mountain village instead of the Anxi lowlands?

The geology of the region lends rocky soil to the high mountain peaks, essentially just party broken down mountain stone. The lowland are washed out with clay and silt deposits. Rocky soil encourages deep strong roots because it allows water to drain through relatively quickly, while clay-rich soil tends to yield shallow weak roots that draw in less minerality because they are usually sitting in moist clay just below the surface.

Finally, the cool air and mist in the high mountains means slower growth, and therefore sweeter tea compared to leaves exposed to more sun and heat growing too quickly down further in the valleys. To recap, higher elevation and smaller villages away from the cities means you are more likely to be getting clean tea from a climate that encourages complexity and sweetness in the leaf.

Picking Date

Perhaps because of green tea’s early popularity, there is a firm popular belief in both China and the west that an earlier picking date is always better. The truth is that very little oolong in the high mountains of Daping Village can be picked before Qingming Festival. It is simply too cold compared to green tea growing regions like Zhejiang to yield the big leaves needed for oolong so early in the season.

A lot of the best spring harvest in Daping is actually in May, while the autumn harvest is late October and early November. If you see Tieguanyin that was supposed to have been picked in March, generally it is growing in such a hot lowland region that it isn’t going to be that flavorful or (because of the need to combat bugs and weeds) healthy to consume. The specific day is less important for oolong than the general season and the way that the craftsperson responds to the weather of the day in their finishing work.

Look out for oolong that doesn’t list a season- that means it is probably summer tea, picked when it is really too hot to yield excellent tea. The plant is fighting off more insects in the summer, so it puts out more polyphenols, which does yield complexity, but the heat means the tea is growing too fast and producing too much chlorophyll, and this generally leads to an overall bitter brew.

What about spring versus autumn? Both harvests are really interesting in different ways. Spring tea is more floral and generally a little sweeter. It has a tighter more aromatic focus. Autumn tea is usually more flavorful, but also more nuanced in texture and mouthfeel.

 

Shelf Life

Green modern finish oolongs have about six to eight months or really good sweet aromatics to them if they have been stored sealed away from light and heat. Traditional finish or dark roast oolongs can last for a year, and oolongs roasted to be aged specifically can last for decades.

In general, more floral oolongs become a bit more muted over time, so it is best to drink the most recent picking season. Darker finishes give you more flexibility letting you drink spring harvest or autumn harvest all year round depending on your favorite profiles.

 

Agricultural techniques

Tea farming is a craft in and of itself, even before the processing and finishing.

Like all agricultural endeavors, growing tea requires a ton of decision making, improvisation for the weather and decades of accumulated experience to produce good tea leaves. Look for information on field management. How is the tea fertilized and how is pest control managed? Organic certification only says for sure that the tea comes from a plantation big enough to pay for certification, not that the tea is actually organic as certifying bodies in China are notorious for looking the other way.

A better indicator is actual information on how clean farming is being done. Master Zhang, for example, uses canola that he grows between rows of tea which acts to keep insects away and at the end of the season, can be mulched into fertilizer. He is currently working to convert his farm to the first Original Ecological Preserve tea garden in Daping. This means letting forest and native flora reclaim sections of terraced field and working to restore the ecosystem to the balance it would be at if no farming were taking place at all.

This interesting goal of zero footprint  decreases yield, but increases biodiversity and therefore the complexity and quality of the tea. Look for info on growers and you’ll learn a lot about your tea and whether the suppliers even know enough to say.

Native flowers and plants grow among Master Zhang's tieguanyin fields    

 

Finishing techniques

This is the big one – finishing styles will dramatically alter the flavor of your tea.

There are three main styles in Anxi:

Modern, green oolong – this is a newer style, aiming to limit oxidation to a minimum during finishing, and keep temperatures low enough to avoid any roast or caramelization of sugars to occur. The result is a very green oolong that shows off the floral and fruity flavors that Anxi is famous for. The modern style has become the most popular finish for Tieguanyin in China over the last several decades.

 

Traditional oolong – the traditional finish allows partial oxidation and a light roast during finishing. This light roast brings out sweeter, more savory nutty undertones in Anxi oolongs yielding notes of pastry, oatmeal, barley, caramel, and hazelnuts. These darker sweet undertones provide a beautiful foundation for juicy sweet florals and create a balanced tea that closer captures the style of oolong in Anxi before the 1990’s.

Dark roast oolong – Dark roasts use very high heat during finishing to deeply caramlize sugars in the tea, creating a rich, nutty and dessert-like flavor that is closer to Wuyi oolong in balance. The dark undertones provide contrast for floral notes and sweet aromatics. This style is often used to get caramel flavors in cheaper lower quality tea, but the finest dark roasts should have all the complexity and nuance of their greener counterparts.

 

 

Shaping

Almost all Anxi oolong is rolled into iconic little “pearls,” tight balls that unfurl in the gaiwan over several steepings. This labor-intensive process really defines the whole region, and adds nuance and complexity to the tea that would be hard to capture in the simpler strip-style finish.

Our partner Master Zhang has actually been researching older techniques used before the revolution that involve a partial roll and curl with a twisted strip-style tail on each leaf. This older technique requires even more hand-finishing time than tight balls, but yields an incredibly nuanced full bodied complexity. Master Zhang is calling this Original Oolong Revival, so look out for the new-old style as it becomes more popular.

 

 

Age

Aged Tieguanyin can be an incredibly rich and complex taste experience as it tends to develop cooling camphor-like notes over time, along with deep sweetness.

True aged Anxin oolong needs to be re-fired every year for between five and nine years before it is ready to go up for sale. This is to control moisture and prevent the tea from developing sour off notes that come from too much moisture content, or even worse, mold. That is why there is an important difference between Tieguanyin that is aged and Tieguanyin that is simply old.

After being fired for several years and kept in an airtight environment, the tea will be able to continue aging unattended for decades. Look out for fakes, since often Tieguanyin is simply over-roasted and then sold as aged tea. The tea should have cooling notes or a bit of sparkle in the texture. Even after decades, the tea’s natural flavor shouldn’t be masked by roasted flavor.

 

Grade

Look out for grading terminology. Every producer has their own techniques for determining how to sort and grade their oolong.

Our partner Master Zhang has been recognized by his local Anxi tea community with awards for his transparency in developing a rigorous set of tasting standards to judge his own tea and sort into price points that match up with the demands of a classic grade versus a reserve or special grade. Some plots, elevations, and picking times are more likely to yield the flavor qualities of a special grade than others but at the end of the day, they only get recognized as such if they meet objective standards. These standards include looking at the degree of sweetness, length of the aftertaste, presence of yun sensations, complexity, and texture.

 

Aromatic Classification

Some oolong craftspeople have enough experience to actually work to bring out specific aromas through the yaoqing process, a labor-intensive step that requires hand turning and fluffing the tea leaves to redistribute moisture through the leaves as they wither. This process is what makes an oolong an oolong, generally yielding big florals and fruity flavors. If you see hua xiang (floral aroma), mi xiang (honey aroma), or yun xiang, these indicate a specific aromatic focus that you should be able to taste in the finished tea.

 

Cultivar or Varietal

Just as there is more than one kind of apple out there, there are many kinds of tea. They are all related, but have different characteristics that can yield diverse flavors and aromas.

The many varietals of Anxi are often lumped together and sold just as “Tieguanyin,” but the truth is that there is a huge range of tea types growing in regions like Daping. Our partner Master Zhang values them all equally, and sells them unblended so that each can be appreciated for their unique beauty. Here are some cultivars you might encounter as you discover everything Anxi oolong has to offer:

 

Tieguanyin

This is the most famous and well-known varietal in Anxi. Tieguanyin is so popular that almost every other cultivar is sold under its name.

The truth is that true Tieguanyin varietal is less common than you might think outside of Fujian. True Tieguanyin is actually lighter and more subtle than many other teas processed as oolong in Anxi, but the reward is the huge aftertaste that starts to build up, the sweetness, and the rich smooth texture. The aromatics of Tieguanyin take at least three steepings to really come out, and the leaves can resist fully unfurling for five or six steepings. In contrast, other Anxi cultivars tend to unfold very quickly.

Fine Tieguanyin can be processed in a green modern style, traditionally finished with light oxidation, or roasted and aged. Each style has its own unique qualities, but no matter what, you should see orchid-like floral notes in the aftertaste, a creamy saffron undertone and a lingering building sweetness. No matter how Tieguanyin is finished, it has the longest flavor arc and goes through the most changes over many steepings of any varietal, so if you love the thrill of seeing an oolong evolve over time, this is the one to try – just make sure it is actual Tieguanyin, not a blend. The difference is huge!

 

Mao Xie

First cultivated hundreds of years ago in our partner Master Zhang’s village of Daping, long before Tieguanyin was planted on their high mountain peaks, Mao Xie has a uniquely savory flavor and aroma, standing alone in the world of Anxi oolong for its dominant almost buttery flavor.

Mao Xie translates to “hairy crab,” a reference to the appearance of the leaves. A traditional finish on Mao Xie brings out the savory notes and makes it taste almost pastry-like. A green finish is more balanced and picks up some of the saffron notes you might see in a fine Tieguanyin. If you’ve tried Tieguanyin and prefer the creamier, more buttery examples, Mao Xie is the tea to try next. It takes those savory notes to a whole new level.

 

 

Jin Guanyin

Jin Guanyin is an intriguing and increasingly popular (relatively) new varietal made by grafting Huang Jin Gui stem to Tieguanyin rootstock or Tieguanyin stemp to Huang Jin Gui rootstock. Both styles have their own subtle differences, but they are united in being hugely fruity and tropical compared to classic Tieguanyin.

Jin Guanyin is most often seen as a greener more modern finish to really blow out those pineapple fruit flavors. The Tieguanyin side of the hybrid brings in a subtle creamy texture to support the high notes. If you like Tieguanyin for its fruity flavor, this is an incredible and unique tea to explore.

 

 

Rou Gui

Rou Gui can be translated directly as “cinnamon.” This cultivar is named after its huge cinnamon spice. Drinking fine Rou Gui really feels like the tea is blended with cinnamon sticks with its big sweet lingering aftertaste.

Rou Gui has gained more popularity in Wuyishan with a dark finish, but the lighter treatment the tea usually gets in Anxi means that the cinnamon acts as a contrasting element to sweet oat or even greener undertones. If you’ve had Wuyi Rou Gui, or you like any tea with sweet spice, this might be your next big love.

 

Dan Gui

Just as Rou Gui is named after cinnamon for its big cinnamon flavor profile, Dan Gui is named after osmanthus, since this is one of the more floral varietals out there. Fine Dan Gui truly tastes like being in an osmanthus garden. This floral intensity can be blown out all the way with a green finish, or tempered with a traditional finish for a more creamy and toasty flavor to anchor the big florals.

Either way, if you fall in love with Tieguanyin for that orchid and lilac goodness, you’ve got to try Dan Gui. Interestingly, the deeply floral oolongs can be some of the hardest to finish, as the florals are brought out during the yaoqing step, which requires at least twelve hours of labor through the night and a delicate hand finish. For truly heightened Dan Gui, look for a name credit to the craftsperson who finished the tea on the label or the website to make sure you get the best experience.

 

Qilan

Qilan translates to “Exquisite Orchid,” as this famous cultivar got its name for its extremely orchid-like aromatics. While Dan Gui takes the florals to their most heightened, Qilan florals are more luscious, grounded with honey and fruit flavors for a truly luxurious taste.

Greener finishes are more juicy, mouthwatering and fruit-forward, while dark roasts can actually bring out subtle spice and foresty incense-like undertones. If you’ve tried Qilan from Wuyishan, or just love that truly ‘luscious’ feeling that Tieguanyin can have, Anxi Qilan is the perfect tea to discover next.

 

Tao Ren

This extremely rare varietal is barely cultivated anywhere in Anxi since it has so little “name recognition” on the market. Master Zhang keeps Tao Ren bushes on his terraced slopes mainly out of interest as a researcher and to encourage more biodiverse farming in the region.

Tao Ren is juicy and full of peach notes, but the mouthwatering juicy texture gives way to a tingling cooling quality. Under the right craftsperson, this tingling sensation can be brought out into full on yun, the texture and feeling of cooling that goes all the way down the throat and lingers for hours. Tao Ren is a great cultivar with an exciting profile unlike any other, perfect for the adventurous oolong devotee.

 

Huang Jin Gui

Huang Jin Gui, or Golden Water Turtle, is probably most widely tasted when grafted onto Tieguanyin to make Jin Guanyin. It is actually a remarkable show-stopper of an oolong when cultivated for what it has to offer all on its own.

\Huang Jin Gui is hugely fruity with juicy mango notes dominating, and a luscious honey backbone to carry the fruit. When the weather, soil and finishing come together perfectly, this tea also has an intriguingly complex cooling quality and deep minerality behind all that luscious dessert-like goodness. If you’ve had Jin Guanyin, you’ve got to try Huang Jin Gui to see where that comes from. The unabashed fruity flavor might be your next big love in oolong.

 

Ruan Zhi

Ruan Zhi or “Soft Stem” is sometimes better known as “Qing Xin”, and used in Taiwan to produce Dong Ding and Baozhong and in Thailand for Doi Mai Salong.

This elegant tea has much of the creamy and savory quality of a fine Taiwanese oolong, but picks up the fruit and floral complexity in Anxi’s unique terroir. If you love Taiwanese Oolongs, this is a great cultivar to look out for from mainland China.

 

Zi Mudan

Zi Mudan, or Purple Peony, is a very new cultivar developed for its intense aromatics. Zi Mudan is an example of the growing, changing industry and an exciting look at the future of Fujianese tea.

If you love the older floral varietals like Dan Gui or Qilan, Zi Mudan is a must-try. It really blows the florals all the way out to the extreme, supported by juicy fruit.

 

Cai Cong

Cai Cong (菜聪) is an extremely rare varietal that has almost fallen out of cultivation. Our partner Master Zhang cares for a small patch of Cai Cong bushes for research and personal learning.

His Cai Cong is finished with big rich muscat grape, and osmanthus florals. The result is very tropical and luscious, but well-balanced. If you like Qilan, this is a great tea to explore for its brighter greener tropical focus.

 

Wu Zi

Wu Zi is another rarely-cultivated varietal with a big citrus focus. The huge tangerine-like notes in this unique tea make it stand alone.

This is an oolong to try if you love the fruit-forward profiles but want to move in a different direction than the typical tropical notes that fine Anxi oolongs usually go in. The tangerine fruit is bolstered by sweet florals, and can be left vibrantly green or balanced with oat-like notes from a traditional finish.

 

Bai Mao Hou

Bai Mao Hou (白毛猴) refers to the white down on the underside of this cultivar’s leaves in early spring.

This tea has an overwhelming creamy / nutty desert-like flavor, accented by roasted chestnut and white chocolate. If you like the savory creamy side of Mao Xie or certain Tieguanyin styles, Bai Mao Hou is a stunning trip all the way down the savory rich texture-focused side of what Anxi has to offer.

 

Da Ye

Da Ye Oolong (大叶乌龙) refers to the huge leaves that make this cultivar distinct. The larger leaves create new challenges and opportunities in finishing, requiring a longer withering and shaking process to evenly disperse the moisture in the stem and bring out the rich fruity aromatics unique to this tea. Think ripe strawberry and white chocolate.

 

 

Benshan

Ben Shan is actually one of the most common cultivars sold as Tieguanyin. You’ve probably had it before without even knowing it!

The reason Ben Shan is so popular is that it is powerfully aromatic with a big bold flavor, even in less than ideal soil. Ben Shan planted in high elevation rocky soil is truly a special tea on its own, and deserves to be sold as Ben Shan. Master Zhang’s Ben Shan was planted by his grandparents over eighty years ago. If you want a powerful fruit-forward tea with strong but focused aromatics, Ben Shan could be the perfect match.

 

 

Da Dan

This surprisingly balanced cultivar has subtle and complex interplay of osmanthus florals, cherry fruit flavors, a touch of spice, and creamy undertones.

If you like the balance and elegance of Tieguanyin, Da Dan is a great tea that approaches that balance, but from a more aroma-focused perspective than Tieguanyin’s texture and aftertaste focus.

 

No matter where your next oolong adventures take you, taste with confidence.

Every tea you try not only reveals something about itself, but something about your own taste.

Our partner Master Zhang gives equal care and dedication to all the cultivars of Anxi because the more perspectives he can bring to oolong, the truer a picture he can paint of the actual flavor of the region. Just as every varietal and processing style is different, they each all share the same core – the unique rocky soil, the sweet spring water, and the cool misty air of Anxi.

Within Master Zhang’s collection, just as within any single individual or family’s collection, the core of his own perspective and cumulative life’s work in oolong making inform and influence every tea. These commonalities reveal what each craftsperson has come to value most over a lifetime in the workshop and in the tea fields.

 

 

Leave a Reply