Reading the Tea Leaves

Tea Education, Consultancy, and Tastings

Buying & Reading Ti Kuan Yin

I am lucky to have a fair amount of my favorite Ti Kuan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) teas at home and consider myself fortunate not only because I needn’t pay retail for this premium Oolong but also because I don’t have to make guesses about quality, albeit educated ones, if I had to shop for this category of tea.

The men – and the workers who do the all important shaking and bruising step in making Oolongs usually are men – who craft Oolongs have told us that with Oolong teas, the leaf is only part of the story, that finished leaf appearance can only tell you 20% or 30% about the tea’s quality.  The rest is to be found “inside” the leaf.

With that adage in mind, when shopping for this exquisite but not inexpensive tea, what guidelines should I use then? How much could I tell from merely looking at the leaves in a tea canister labeled Ti Kuan Yin in a shop? Should I go by the pricing, avoiding the highest and the lowest and trying something in the middle first?

Generalizing broadly, I have found that certain key teas give a good indication of the overall quality of teas in a tea store.  Single estate first flush Darjeelings, Keemun Black, Dragonwell Green, Jasmine Pearls, Ti Kuan Yin, and even the more prosaic Gunpowder are a few such predictors.  Not many tea shops are likely to offer more than two grades of each of these teas; more than two speaks of a nice selection.  But even focusing on just the one Keemun or Dragonwell that is on offer may give clues about the range of grades one might expect for other teas.  This is why I generally go to these teas first; this impression is usually enlightening, and appraising the approximate grades offered isn’t too hard.

And so one Saturday I made the minimum (3.5 oz) purchase of a Ti Kuan Yin in a Chelsea tea store.  The tea was $22.75 for this 100 grams, quite dear, and so I had relatively high hopes for a tasting later that weekend.  In its large container in the store the leaves looked very dark and longish, so I expected a fairly long oxidation with relatively heavy firing.  I knew it was not going to be the LIght/Fragrant style of Ti Kuan Yin that has become popular; this variety would have had greenish, nugget-like leaves.

My first tasting showed a deep amber brew with just a hint of sweetness that some Oolongs have, but displayed none of the high fragrance nor held any of the complexity that distinguish Ti Kuan Yin’s from more generic Oolongs.  I was a little disappointed but felt I owed myself a more careful tasting.

Several days later I tasted the tea again, this time comparing it with two Ti Kuan Yin’s, one being a less oxidized tea (#1), the other (#2) perhaps more comparable to my purchase (#3).  Here are my tasting notes:

Dry leaves:

#1 (Light oxidation) mix of a lighter green to deep green; scrunched up leaves, tight in appearance; where stems are visible, they are attached to the leaves.

#2 (Longer oxidation) leaves are brown in

color; shape is similar to leaves of #1.

#3 (Tea I bought) leaves range in size from an average of 2cm to some as long as 4cm; these long straight-ish leaves stood out dramatically for their sheer size.  Leaves are dark brown; thick and extended with a twist rather than curled up.  In terms of size of leaves – more unevenness.  Some stalks, unattached to leaves.

Wet leaves:

#1 dark green, the shade of watercress or chard that’s been cooked a long time.  Ragged edges on the leaves, which still show their curl or rolling.  Leaves are more open and flat than those of #2.

#2 Leaf color is darker, verging on brown.  Fewer leaves are open; more are still rolled up, more tightly than #1.  A few flattish leaves.  This is due to longer firing, so the leaves retain their rolled up shape longer.  The wet leaves hold more aroma than was the case for #1.

#3  dark brown color. Stems and stalks more visible now. Leaves have a choppy appearance due to uneven sizing.

Brew color:  #1 golden; #2 orange; #3 deep amber.

Aroma & Flavor:

I drank #3, the tea I bought, first, then tasted #2 and tasted #1 last in the sequence.  Ordinarily I would have tasted #1 first but I wanted to give #3 the benefit of first impressions without any prior flavors introduced.

#1 (Light oxidation) No whiff of any roasting; nose gets a floral character immediately.  This Ti Kuan Yin was oxidized 30-35% and seemed almost a different tea altogether if one didn’t know that this is also called Ti Kuan Yin, whereas #2 and #3 make a reasonable pairing for comparison purposes.  Very sweet, floral, found quality in the mouth.  Pleasing in its fresh bouquet.  I take note of the ragged leaf edges and think that one would certainly not want to see this feature in comparably priced Green tea leaves.  Gentle shaking initiates the oxidation process for Oolongs like this one and leaves its mark on the leaves; in a Green this would be a disaster.

#2 (Longer oxidation) I admit to being partial to the first style and I find, as always, #1 to be very winning.  In my experience people who taste this style have an immediate liking for the tea, with its fragrance emanating from the leaf’s essence, not from flowers or other scentes added to the leaves.  #2′s fragrance is derived from firing.  In lifting the cup, the aroma of roasting is inviting and intriguing for it is not smoky.  Then there that aah moment, when the complexity of Ti Kuan Yin begins to show itself.  One sip makes you want to sip again and again to capture “it” — that symphony or amalgam of aroma that follows through as taste on the palate with varying notes — to figure “it” out.  Mellow in the mouth, there is a slight astringency in the finish that I associate with the fragrance.  What the nose takes in as a high, fine fragrance, the mouth tastes immediately after.  Easy to detect the layers of flavor for which Ti Kuan Yin’s are known, especially if one holds the tea in the mouth for a bit.

Returning to #2 after more sips of #1, I find #2 more satisfying, overriding a personal partiality for the first style.  #1 is gentler in comparison.  One can easily taste the “high fire” used at certain stages in making #2 but this results not in bitterness or a burnt taste but in a pleasing aroma and deep flavor.

#3 (Tea I bought)  Again, bringing up the cup gives a sense of the fire and roasting that went into making the tea; some sweetness is discernible in the aroma as well.  The sweetness doesn’t follow through to the taste, however.  Overall this is the flavor of a northern Fujian Oolong; the long leaves and the red color in the cup are easy clues.  There was just the slightest hint of metal, followed by a note that verges on sour or tangy.

When I first tasted this tea, it seemed acceptable, that is, if it were presented as an Oolong, say, under $30/lb, but I would not have identified it as a Ti Kuan Yin.  But with this second more careful sampling, its price at $104/lb was unwarranted.   By comparison, retail prices for #1 and #2 would range between $60-80/lb, and I have seen them lower.

If one were to taste #2 (longer oxidation) and follow it with #3 (the tea I bought), #3 would taste even flatter, without much in way of a finish and certainly without the complexity that is the hallmark of well made Ti Kuan Yin’s.  Not for nothing do the makers of this tea go through those 18 steps.  (See post on these steps.)

The lack of uniformity in the leaves of the tea I bought bothers me, as it shows that hand sorting was done carelessly and not thoroughly, bad marks for a tea price at $104/lb.  The other Ti Kuan Yin’s show the hand-sorting that is done before the tea is semi-finished as primary tea and then again before it is finally finished.  I recently had a northern Oolong priced at about $28/lb that was lively and sweet with a lovely round taste.  That was a much better value than my store purchase last weekend.

Oolong teas are said to show their character gradually.  The most lightly fired tea, #1, was more immediate in revealing its character; the second infusion was fine but the tea was weaker by the third pour.  With tea #3 (my purchase) the second and third infusions were noticeably duller than the first. Tea #2 was most steadfast of the three in terms of yielding flavor through the third infusion. This is an example of how some costlier teas (even though in this case it was cheaper than #3) provide good value.

So did I waste $22.75 on a tea that will gradually be shoved back into the deep recesses of my cupboard and forgotten?  What might I have done differently while I was browsing at the tea store?  I could have asked to try a small sample; the store was equipped to serve but there was a lone employee and I was not the only customer at the time.  And going back to the beginning of this post about how Oolong leaves are not very revealing, how does one go about buying a solid Ti Kuan Yin, if not by price, which isn’t a guarantee of quality anyway.  How do you buy a nice Ti Kuan Yin if you can’t taste first?

I’d suggest that you look for scrunched up leaves.  Ti Kuan Yin is made in southern Fujian and there the Oolongs are rolled and bagged up.  The bag is made knotted as tightly as possible to shape the leaves, and so the leaves will show the effects of this and not resemble the straighter leaves of a northern Fujian Oolong.  MinPei (northern Fujian) Oolongs are rolled but not bagged.

As to the color of the leaves, try a greenish hued tea if you want to try a lightly oxidized Ti Kuan Yin; if you prefer a deeper firing after more prolonged oxidation, look for leaves that are brown.  Look at the uniformity of the dry leaves.  Then consider, are there many loose stalks or are the stems attached to the leaves?  (The former is less desirable whereas the latter is fine.)

In hindsight I could have chosen a lower grade traditional (higher firing) Ti Kuan Yin to pair with the tea I purchased; the leaves may have been more comparable.  From memory, I would guess that the tea I bought would still have come up short in flavor and interest.  instead, I selected my traditional style Ti Kuan Yin based on a price.   Had I gone with a lower grade Ti Kuan Yin of my choosing, I would have ended up comparing my purchase (@ $104/lb) with a tea that retails for around $20/lb, which hardly seems useful or fair.  I wanted to gauge the value of the tea I had bought.

I’m no coffee expert but I know that Kona coffee and Blue Mountain Jamaican coffee are expensive.  At those prices, shouldn’t the buyer, who presumably has some familiarity with the character of the brews,  be confident that s/he will be offered the authentic coffees from origin?

How disappointing to try a Ti Kuan Yin afer reading laudatory reviews about this Oolong and then to find a tea like the one I bought — or would disappointment even follow if one were trying it for the first time?

I have no quibble with paying over $100/lb for a good quality tea.  Each cup is an experience to savor.  It is a letdown when the result comes short of expectations, and expectations commensurate with a $100/lb tea ought to be set high.  My eyes are opening ever wider as I acquaint myself with retail prices, sometimes justified (I have seen very fine Ti Kuan Yin priced under $60/lb in New York), sometimes not.

Comments (1)

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  1. 1
    andy egressy said...
    July 27, 2011, 1:51 PM

    i would like to add to previous comment after studying youre site more vigorusly i thin k you have the best site of all on understandind how to obtain a good tea and what to do with it andy

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Reading the Tea Leaves
Lydia Kung