Sourcing Tea in China – Chapter I : The Plan + Tie Guan Yin
The Project: Identifying a range of fine Chinese teas, locate producers of very high qualities of these teas, and then offer the same to our small, but exquisite tea drinker community at affordable prices in Siam Tea Shop. Of course, there are wholsalers in Germany, where I could buy a certain standard of virtually every Chinese tea at prices that might be even below those I am paying for Chinese tea specialties when buying from selected producers directly in China. No news. However, it was important for me to stay in line with my policies in Siam Tea Shop so far and offer only true specialties, something really distinguished, namely handpicked and manually processed top grade teas from identifiable smaller producers and tea gardens. Obviously, however, this would take time and probably some money, too, but I was ready to face the challenge.
The Plan: the classical win-win situation… we would extend our offer and maybe even manage to reach a broader audience this way, would have even more tea at home to pleasure ourselves with on the common daily basis, and at the same time our customers would get to enjoy popular teas from China at highest quality but moderate price levels, teas as are hardly offered by any wholesaler in Germany like this and as therefore will only be available in very few exquisite tea specialty shops there. So much for the plan…
The Preparation: a list of the qualified great teas of China was soon determined: crossbread the Wikipedia list of the official Great Teas of Chan with the results of a Facebook/Google+/LinkedIn survey on the topic of Chinese favorite teas and filter the outcome through the sieve of personal preferences, and receive as a derivate a list that reads like the absolute who is who of Chinese teas. I don’t want to anticipate the story by reciting the resulting SiamTeas Chinese Top Ten, but it might be told that said Top 10 quickly became a Top 20, so I will now in principle leave it to the course of fate, which teas will finally really make it into Siam Tea Shop in the progressing of this rather long-term project.
The Theory: one thing that stands out with ranking lists of Chinese teas is that despite of other omnipresent names such as the famous Long Jing green tea, the much-praised Lapsang Souchong black tea, and the currently apparently highly popular Bai Mu Dan (a white tea), the lists in virtually all cases are topped by Tie Guan Yin Oolong Tea. Therefore, I considered it to be a welcome twist of said fate that I should soon encounter the Xiamen-based daughter of an Anxi tea farmer family that not only seemed to produce just the right Tie Guan Yin for me, but moreover was happy to impart a certain basic knowledge about this tea on me.
Ti Guan Yin is the designation of the particular sub-species of the camellia sinensis tea plant, from which this tea is harvested. The name has been derived from Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of mercy and an old legend involving an iron statue of the same, telling the story of the origin of the Tie Guan Yin tea plant. Originally, Tie Guan Yin was only growing in one single place in China, namely the highlands of Anxi county in the province of Fujian, the cradle of Tie Guan Yin Oolong tea. Today, however, Tie Guan Yin is also cultivated in parts of neighboring counties.
Other than with the Oolong teas that we know from Thailand (and many Chinese Oolong teas, for that matter), the leaves of the Tie Guan Yin plant are not harvested as a bud plus two leaves, but instead only the grown leaves below the tip are picked, as the young, still unopened shoots of the Tie Guan Yin tea plant are particularly high in bitter constituents, which is considered as undesirable with this generally rather sweet tea. On the other hand, just like with our Thai Oolong teas, also the Tie Guan Yin plant will produce its best tea with the spring harvest, while the quality gradient to the two summer harvests seems to be much more drastic as it is the case with our teas here in north Thailand. Another particularity of the Tie Guan Yin: the autumn harvest is deemed the second best and is considered to be only slightly inferior to the tea of the spring harvest.
Also, just like with most handpicked teas, there are several quality grades depending on harvesting quality. And: there are two basic processing styles for Tie Guan Yin, once the traditional, rather dark roasted and high fermended Ti Guan Yin, and then the only lightly roasted, near-green Ti Guan Yin, altogether enjoying significantly higher popularity today due to its bewitching floral and at the same time honey-sweet aroma and taste, creating a “Wow” experience even with non-teadrinkers, and for the same reason claiming its very own place in the heart of every tea lover.
The Degustation: my producer family in Anxi produces only the latter, this somewhat reducing the reducing the agony of choice. Curious, I asked for samples. They sent me 4 samples of the quality grades A+, A, B, and B+ plus two samples of the grades also-ran 1 and also-ran 2, and also-ran 2, which is where the great grading of grades had its beginning. I took on the big happy sipping, a major parallel tasting event, resulting in the big surprise that the grading indeed clearly reflected in both aroma and taste of the different quality grades. Predestined for our offer at Siam Tea Shop were the two A qualities, for which the tea farmers in Anxi (other than for the B and also-ran grades) per standard have reserved a terminology of its own: “Qingxiang” Delicate Fragrance (A) and “Chunxiang” Mellow Tea Class (A+).
The (preliminary) Result: when I finally had reached the point where I was ready to order a few kilos of each A grade for the Siam Tea Shop, the spring harvest of the current year’s Chunxiang Tie Guan Yin was already sold out, so that I contented myself with the introduction of the Qingxiang Tie Guan Yin in Siam Tea Shop first and am now looking forward to the autumn harvest of the Dongquin family in Anxi, Fujian, China.
Now, this actually quite satisfactory result should not keep me from further trials of other Chinese suppliers’ and reputed wholesalers’ Tie Guan Yin’s, but this is the story to be told in part 2 of this article, to be read soon at SIAM TEABLOID!
In the meantime, read the legend of the origin and more information about the particularites of the Tie Guan Yin tea plant, details of its special processing method and more on our dedicated page in Siam Tea Shop: