Reading the Tea Leaves

Tea Education, Consultancy, and Tastings

Autumn is Ti Kuan Yin Season

As stated in an earlier post about Pi Lo Chun, here is another of China’s Big 10 Teas.  Puerh bubbles may rise and burst, and  after White teas, we’ve been hearing about Dark teas, but for pure deliciousness and tea crafting par excellence, Ti Kuan Yins are hard to top.

This delicious yet challenging tea — to make, to understand, to differentiate – makes me think of Goldilocks…too light, too green, too heavily fired, not sweet enough…but what is more frustrating is not always understanding fully why a feature is lacking or slightly off.   It’s one thing to taste and find something wanting or find differences among closely comparable teas; it’s vexing not being able to account accurately for these subtle but discernible variations.  Still much to learn here (for me).

Light/Fragrant style Ti Kwan Yin brewed gongfu style.

What are we asking of Ti Kuan Yin (TKY) tea? Balance is key, but balance of what qualities?  If the leaves are too green, the flavor lacks heft.  The leaves will not yield the many flavorful infusions for which this tea is known. If too roasted, the note of fire lingers – - some are fine with this (SE Asia) while others identify this as bitter.

Much of this comes down to individual preference: floral over toasted grain, a lighter cup vs. a bolder cup.  Some may give more weight to a tea that not only delivers over multiple infusions but show the bloom from the first cup to the third or fourth.  That said, preference ought to be informed by some knowledge about assessing quality.

Traditionally TKY has been a medium fire (chung huo) tea, and some producers quietly bemoan the newer, ever more popular “green” style now in vogue. This whispered dismay is trumped, of course, by profits from the green type, yet what they want to safeguard is the traditional craft and processing method, one that is artisanal and authentic from generations before them.  Backward looking, yes, but they express hope that drinkers will progress from the light to the medium, from the friendly to the more authentic expression of this tea.

Hills of Ti Kuan YIn tea bushes in Anxi, Fujian.

There is perhaps no better candidate than TKY as an iconic tea that speaks of place and shows what complexity means in a tea.  There are Chunmees and Gunpowders that are produced in many parts of China, yet TKY is still very much connected with Anxi in Fujian.  All the components that terroir encompasses – - region, soil, weather – - give TKY their genuineness.  Other teas may be processed so that they taste pretty much the same whether they come from Hunan or Sichuan, but one knowledgeable sip of TKY should signal immediately that very specific expression of place.

Dragonwell is another good example of a tea closely connected with place, but its processing is simpler compared w/TKY, and this renowned Green doesn’t offer up as much through 3 or 4 infusions.  Green teas are minimalist; this is their virtue but also their challenge.  Oolongs, and TKY teas especially,  are at the opposite end of the processing spectrum.

Perhaps TKY’s very complexity is a good thing, not just because it results in such a distinctive taste but because few are likely to try and duplicate this elsewhere, as we now see Dragonwell coming from places like Sichuan and Hunan.  TKY cuttings are expensive; the processing method is time consuming, and rely on steps that are not easily be monitored or controlled by computers or timers.

Closeup look at Ti Kuan yin tea plant.

What do we look for then when the term “complex” is applied to tea, and why is TKY a good example?  The short answer is that there are layers of flavors, notes that build up, that are distinct, even in the finish.  Why TKY teas yield complexity or layers should become clear after a look at how this tea is made.

Very brief historical note: like so many other parts of culture on which he left his mark, Emperor Qianlong in the Qing dynasty commissioned more production of this tea after its discovery in the 1700s. (His reign ended in 1796.)  The almost ubiquitous stamp of Qianlong on antique porcelain is one image that comes to mind with this historical reference; another is of green vistas in Anxi, where hills extend as far as the eye can see.

The goddess Kuan YIn overlooks the tea hills.

Nestled in one spot is a stone figure of the goddess Kuan Yin  and one of the pious farmer (Wei) who was rewarded with this tea, as the story goes.

Depiction of the pious farmer who received the tea plant from Kwan Yin.

These were recently installed by a tea farmer who has prospered from this tea; how he managed to get these imposing stone figures down the hills over narrow paths is another story.

Tea plucked in the spring and autumn are considered the best, with the autumn harvest perhaps even edging out the earlier harvest by dint of its superior TKY aroma.  For special grade TKY, budsets are plucked.  Depending on conditions on the day of processing, withering may be indoors and/or outdoors.  Leaves are laid out to wither; at this stage, the leaves are spread out rather than piled high.  Then the leaves are shaken, allowed to rest, and this cycle is repeated.  A mechanized cylindrical hamper-like drum rotates the leaves so as to bruise the leaves’ edges  allowing oxidation to begin.  This shaking alternates between gentle and vigorous cycles.  During this period, moisture is given up; the leaves gradually turn from green to reddish-green to reddish-brown.  Inspect the infused leaves of roasted TKY and you’ll see this reddish edge more clearly.  At this point, 18-24 hours have passed.

The first drying stops oxidation, so this is a critical call on the part of the tea maker who has the desired end result in mind.  For higher grades, drying is over wood fires; the leaves are allowed to rest and cool, and are dried again mechanically.

The rolling of TKY is where labor becomes intensive as the steps are repeated several times: the leaves are mounded in a cloth that when knotted tightly, resembles a large ball.  A metal rod is used to tighten the ball as compactly as possible, resulting in more tightly rolled leaves.  Such “hard” rolling coaxes out fragrance from the leaves and also removes more moisture.  This white ball goes onto a machine that rotates and kneads the leaves inside.

Leaves inside the cloth are kneaded and rolled.

The cloth is unwrapped; the leaves are disentangled, and re-wrapped for the entire process, and with each rotation, the leaves inside are becoming smaller.  The leaves are also more difficult to separate by now because they have taken on a curled, twisted shape.

Leaves are separated, re-wrapped for more rolling.

The 18-20 steps involved in making TKY are dominated by this wrapping, rolling, separating and re-wrapping and explain why the leaves of good quality TKY are still fairly tight after the first infusion, giving up their flavor gradually from infusion to infusion, one of the delights of this tea.

These leaves came from a medium roast Special Grade TKY, shown after the 1st infusion: note how tightly curled the leaves are at this stage.

At the end of this stage, the tea is primary tea (mao cha).  The fragrance is heady but the tea is not stable.  Picking out stems by hand is carried out in factories and in the villages.  One can see groups of women (mostly) seated in their front porches, hands over large basket trays, and chatting as they share this important task.  The second round of drying, over charcoal, gives TKY the “iron” ( ti ) in the name; the tea becomes sturdy as more moisture is removed.  This later drying is also important in determining the character of the finished tea: how “high” the fire or roast quality will be.  Traditionally TKYs are 35-40% oxidized for a medium roast; some teas may be oxidized 45-50%.

A medium roast, Special Grade Ti Kuan Yin

For centuries TKY gave a medium dark apricot color in the cup and sometimes an almost amber color.

The medium roast TKY shown above - in the cup.

Flavor and strength were so concentrated and focused that it was said that TKY could intoxicate.  This is easy to imagine when we consider that as much as 10 grams might be used in a small gongfu pot, and little wonder that so much is made of the aroma that fills a room when this tea is brewed.  Even lifting the lid from a tiny gongfu pot can produce this effect.

A Light/Fragrant Special Grade Ti Kuan Yin (note how green the leaves are).

Around 1968-1969 the lightly oxidized style of TKY began to appear, gaining more adherents year by year.  [It is worth noting here that one Green tea #2070, Emerald Pearls, is made to resemble green TKY; the shape reflects the high regard people have for TKY. ]    To make this Light/Fragrant (qing/xiang) TKY (our #4413), the bruising of the leaves is not as extensive; oxidation is stopped sooner, and the rolling steps are curtailed earlier.

Light/Fragrant (qing xiang) or lightly oxidized TKY in the cup

The result is a tea that displays the remarkable floral quality that inheres in the TKY varietal; no flowers are added and yet the plumeria fragrance that moves ever so nicely from nose to palate is prominent.  It is easy to understand the popularity of this TKY.

Leaves from the lightly oxidized TKY after the 1st infusion

Compare the photo immediately above with the darker, more tightly wound leaves earlier — the medium roast, traditional style TKY, holds its shape and gradually unfurls, giving up more of its flavor from infusion to infusion.  This “greener” TKY, in contrast, shows leaves that have opened up almost completely after the first pour.  The ragged edges, by the way, are a good teaching image — showing the initial bruising that initiated oxidation in the earlier stages of processing.

But if we are looking for more layers – from first aroma, to first sip, to the tea on the palate, to the finish and how it lingers – and balance of several notes (honey, toasted grain, dried fruit), then we must look to the more traditionally crafted TKYs (such as our #4423).  Complex here does not mean a jumble of things in the tea; rather, it is a matter of how we sense the tea from the first whiff to the final impression.  There is something distinctive at each phase, and more importantly, these sensations alter as we move from the 1st cup to the essence or “core” of the tea in the 3rd cup, and then how these features softly subside in the 4th or 5th.  This is why gongfu sets are primarily identified with TKY: the dynamic that develops over multiple infusions is what makes this tea memorable.

This season, as each year before, we tasted about 10 Special grade TKYs, comparing how much fruity sweetness vs. toasty grain aroma, mouthfeel, leaf quality, and of course, the costs.  As much as I was tempted to purchase 2 or 3 of a similar, medium roasted TKY, this did not make good business-sense (yet!), but the vexing indecision and re-cupping sessions were good reminders of why this tea enjoys its repute.

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Reading the Tea Leaves
Lydia Kung