A Tea Addict's Journal

Traditional tieguanyin

December 3, 2015 · 14 Comments

I remember when I first started drinking tea seriously about twenty years ago, tieguanyin was really wonderful. They were tasty – really good stuff. I’m sure people still older will tell me that I know nothing of even better tea from earlier times, but I still remember that in the 90s it was entirely normal to get tieguanyin with real red borders on the leaf, with a green center, and a lovely fragrance and especially aftertaste that is only there when you try tieguanyin and nothing else. The tea has a reason to be famous, after all.

Then something happened, and all of the tea on the market became these really horrible nuclear green stuff that taste like they were glorified perfume in a leaf with no depth. This is now the main trend of tieguanyin – really green, but lacking body and having little rebrew value. The teas don’t have that deep aftertaste that made tieguanyin great. You no longer see leaves that have a red border – in fact, when you look at unrolled leaves, you rarely see any kind of evidence of oxidation at all. The leaves also look like they were mutilated by some sadistic tea-abuser. The edges are jagged – broken, really, and not in the normal way. I’ve heard stories about how they do it partly to remove the redness, because if they keep any of the edge the tea will brew a little redder and that will lower the value of the tea in the market. I don’t know if there’s any truth to that, but it’s pretty clear that any sign of oxidation, well, it’s gone. They are expensive too, even though the quality, at least in my eyes have worsened, and I know I’m not alone in holding this opinion.

In the last couple years though I’m starting to see some encouraging signs that people are once again taking seriously the idea that an oolong should at least be somewhat oxidized, and maybe even roasted too. I have begun seeing producers who try to make tieguanyin in more traditional method, with a taste that is a bit closer to (but still not quite) what I have come to like in the past. This is a move in the right direction, and I hope the taste for more traditional style tieguanyin will make a comeback, which can only be a good thing. In the meantime though, Wuyi tea is increasingly green. You win some, you lose some I guess?

Categories: Teas
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14 responses so far ↓

  • michael geiger // December 3, 2015 at 9:12 am | Reply

    certainly true! you are lucky to be close to sources which might return to the old quality. here in portland there are virtually no vendors of tieguanyin. ordering from san francisco i very expensive, though i confess i have six ounces on the way.
    thank you for your post – i look forward to the next.

  • Ken // December 3, 2015 at 9:42 am | Reply

    Pretty much the same happened with 1st flush Darjeelings. The majority got greener and greener over the years due to european demands (as the story goes) but at least you still have some choices left if you prefer them more oxidised like they were back in the day. I wouldn’t know where to get a semi-oxidised TGY these days though; all I see are some medium or heavier roasted varieties but nothing like I remember them to be; with more oxidation towards the edge of the leave. It’s sort of hard to imagine though that there should be no individual farmers/producers who process some old-school, semi-oxidised TGY, including long twisted leaves instead of the ball shape they all do these days.

    • Nissan // December 3, 2015 at 11:41 am | Reply

      It’s a shame, really. I was able to find a twist rolled traditional Tieguanyin but not a fresh tea. Not that I’m complaining about finding aged tea but it’s rather hard to find a producer still willing to make traditional teas. I think it may be due to cultural revolution that we no longer see those styles produced in Anxi. I hope the art is rediscovered more widely.

  • Nissan // December 3, 2015 at 10:02 am | Reply

    We must be looking at the same sky. I have just come back from Taiwan and found a traditional style maker who still produces traditional tieguanyin. Understandably, he produces far less than his greener styles. Perhaps you know of him, he wrote the taiwanese book entitled Oolong Tea.

    I just wrote a piece sharing the same resignation. Would it be alright for me to link said article here for your leisure?

  • rickard // December 3, 2015 at 3:57 pm | Reply

    Hear, hear! I studied in China in the late 90-ies, unfortunately I wasn’t into tea at the time, but I remember the Tieguanyin I got from a friend who was. I’ve been looking for something like that for years now.

  • Leon // December 3, 2015 at 5:36 pm | Reply

    Tieguanyin is my first love in tea, so I share your feelings about the state of TGY these days. Regarding the practice of removing the leaf edges to so the tea appear more “clear”, that’s also what I have heard from tea farmers. There also this trend in TGY where farmer intentionally left tea leaves to cool (after the sun drying step) longer than usual, resulting in this artificial sourness in the brewed tea. It’s unpleasant and out of balance, and generally a sad product compare to properly done TGY.

    I don’t know too many places that still sell semi-oxidized TGY, but I am about to find out. I have an order from Chawangshop, which has some interesting TGY from Xianghua, a village in Anxi that tea farmers in Anxi have told me are still producing TGY in traditional ways. I am hoping to finally find a trusted source for traditional TGY. The sad part is even Chawangshop doesn’t have a lot in stock, so once they run out, I don’t know where else I can go, assuming what they sell is what I am looking for in the first place.

  • Von Monstro // December 3, 2015 at 11:02 pm | Reply

    “glorified perfume in a leaf with no depth”

    Indeed. I experience this quite frequently and I’ve never had the chance to try something like what you remember. I go into a lot of teas finding this, and hoping I’ll find something different. I hope it becomes easier to source very satisfying teas in the future.

  • Kaross // December 6, 2015 at 9:43 am | Reply

    There are lot’s of complains about modern TGY. Maybe it’s a bit hard to find a traditional TGY here in Europe, but it’s easy to buy traditional made Oolong similar to TGY.

  • Zach Wolf // December 9, 2015 at 10:50 pm | Reply

    Marshaln – Do you buy from western facing vendors? I have had a couple of good to amazing roasted oolongs from places like The Mandarin’s Tea Room,Tea-Master, lifeinteacup, floating leaves and a couple more I am blanking on probably. I am simply curious because if you had have these do you feel they just aren’t good, they don’t match up to what was made before the trend of green set in?

    Thanks for a reply.

  • Ben // December 23, 2015 at 10:49 pm | Reply

    Do you know of any western facing vendors that do offer some TGY that’s a bit more like the traditional TGY you’ve described? I’ve tried TGY from a few places and while it wasn’t bad, I’ve always kind of wondered why it was considered to be oolong tea and not just green tea… It was pretty much as you described it… nuclear green with a strong “fresh” perfume and not much going for it as far as taste goes.

    • MarshalN // December 24, 2015 at 9:51 pm | Reply

      I’m afraid I’m not sure since I don’t buy from any. TGY in general these days are indeed the nuclear green stuff, which is usually not worth drinking. Vendors in Hong Kong sell the more traditional tasting ones but none of them bother to deal with online customers afaik

      • Rasseru // January 4, 2016 at 6:21 pm | Reply

        Do you at least know how it is described? is it roasted in any way or just fermented & oxidised? My interest has been well & truly piqued because I love TGY (the green one) and have tried some ‘traditional’ style but it was too heavily roasted for me..

        Any clues you can give me to go on will be appreciated.

        • MarshalN // January 22, 2016 at 10:24 am | Reply

          Well, it’s a combination, really. Should be more oxidized and more roasted than the usual green stuff.

        • Ben // January 22, 2016 at 10:56 am | Reply

          I asked the same question on a Reddit thread the other day and got a few links. Looks like you may be able to find some under the label “Traditional TGY”, which some vendors (not sure if it’s an accepted definition or something) describe as TGY that’s at least 40% oxidized. All the ones I found were also pretty heavily roasted, which I’m not a fan of at all, so I haven’t ordered any.

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