Tie Guan Yin (铁观音, literally translated as “Iron Goddess”) is an excellent variety of oolong tea. With a fermentation degree between 50-70%, it combines the fresh scent of green tea and the mellowness of black tea.
Tie Guan Yin can be divided into Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter tea. The Spring and Autumn harvests generally have better overall quality. There is a saying that goes, “Spring tea liquor, Autumn tea fragrance”, that is, the spring tea is known for its liquor – nice in color, thick in texture, mellow and sweet in taste; on the other hand Autumn tea has a elegant and long-lasting aroma.
Anxi, located in the southeast of China, is the place of origin of Tie Guan Yin. Anxi has a superior ecological environment for this famous tea: the soil is fertile and acidic without pollution, the weather and the rainfall are favorable for the Tie Guan Yin tea trees to thrive. But, quality raw material isn’t everything.
The proper Tie Guan Yin processing is very complicated which requires professional skills. The processing steps include picking, withering, tossing, fixation, rolling, drying, etc. If any of the steps went wrong, even the high-quality tea leaves that are picked at an ideal time won’t be able to show their real characteristics.
You may wonder what its processing is like. Let us go to Anxi, and explore the making of Tie Guan Yin!
The tea leaves to pick are usually one bud three leaves. It is best to pick the buds that have already been opened and are smaller than the leaves below. If the buds are bigger than the leaves below, the quality of the leaves is considered inferior. Usually, the fresh leaves picked at the same time have similar sizes and tenderness.
The most ideal picking time is from 11 am to 3 pm on sunny days. Because at this time, the leaves absorbs enough sunlight with the most suited water content.
The best sun withering time is after 4 o’clock. The leaves will be spread outdoor in a thin layer and flipped a few times, so that they will be evenly withered.
When the leaves lose their shine and turn darker, the touch of them are soft like silk, the buds are drooping, it’s time to go to the next step. The weight loss rate of the leaves after sun withering should be between 6-9%.
After sun withering, the tea leaves are placed on bamboo sieves and placed indoor to cool. During this time, the water of the stems will enter the withered leaves, which will revitalize the leaves.
Tossing is the most important part of Tie Guan Yin’s entire production process, as well as the most unique feature of it. Good tossing procedure relies on the experience of the tea-making expert to control the timing.
The purpose of this step is to make the grassy smell in the leaves fade, and make the leaves ferment evenly. The tea leaves are put in the tubular machine, and being tossed manually or by machine. During the tossing, the edges of the leaves collide with each other and are slightly damaged which cause oxidation.
Depending on the tenderness of the leaves, the tea leaves will go through 3-5 times of tossing. The duration of each tossing is longer than the last one. Between two times of tossing, leaves need to be spread out and set for a while.
When the floral scent gradually appear, the surface of the leaves turn green-yellowish, the stems are wrinkled, red rims appear at the edges of the leaves and curl back, then the tossing is well-done.
After tossing, leaves will be spread thinly on holders and placed in an air-conditioned room for controlled temperature and humidity. The tea leaves usually will be left for fermentation until the next day. When the grassy smell of the leaves fades away and the orchid aroma becomes more noticeable, which means the leaves are fermented enough, the fixation should be started right away.
The purpose of this step is to prevent enzymatic oxidation and to stimulate the formation of the unique aromatic substances using high temperatures. It will also cause the further evaporation of the water content in the leaves, to make them softer, and easier to roll.
First roll the tea leaves into strip shapes. Then put them in a piece of a cloth and shape them into a ball. Use methods such as rolling, kneading, rubbing and pressing to form the tea leaves into Tie Guan Yin’s distinctive rounded shape. As it is very tiring work by hand, sometimes people use a rolling machine for this step.
The goal is to rapidly increase the surface temperature of the leaves, so to further enhance the floral aroma and dry the water in them.
Rolling and Roasting are vital for forming the shape of Tie Guan Yin. These two procedures will rotate and repeat several times for the desirable result.
After these steps, we will have the crudely processed tea leaves (maocha). The maocha will go through the refining processing – selecting and grading. For different types of Tie Guan Yin, there might be further procedures like post-roasting and storage.