Sourcing Tea in China, Chapter 4
Tie Guan Yin – TKY Qingxiang vs. TKY Chunxiang
What bewildered us when we initially took on trying Tie Guan Yin teas from Anxi County, province Fujian, China, was the unusual broad spectrum of quality levels (“grades”) that are offered for this tea. To the confusion contributes that the tea farmers in Anxi don’t seem to adhere to just one grading system, but obviously there are rather several different ones, which appear to be all similarly common. Luckily enough, though, the system used by our producer partner still is one of the most comprehensible ones: it comprises altogether 5 quality levels: A+, A, B+, B, as well as one more nameless class that summarizes everything below these 4 grades. Actually, we did not perceived any of the qualities offered by this producer as “bad”. Much rather, even the nameless class is already a good Tie Guan Yin tea, whereas each class is once again topped by the one superior to it. Principally, the taste of the Tie Guan Yin tea is the same for all grades. The distinctive feature is the intensity of the unmistakable honey-sweet taste and aroma, reminiscent of mature summer flower meadows on the one hand, and the persistence of the same in the mouth and throat on the other. Based on our selection criteria for our offer of selected Chinese teas (in short: only that best of the best), we decided on offering only the two top categories, A (Tie Guan Yin Qingxiang) and A+ (Tie Guan Yin Chunxiang) at Siam Tea Shop.
Qingxiang (grade A, “Delicate Fragrance”) is characterized by its particularly prominent fresh scent, reflecting the tea’s actual taste to the finest nuance, while this scent is slightly less prominent in the Chunxiang (grade A+, “Mellow Tea Class”), where the same seems to be transformed to an even higher taste intensity: the taste of the Chunxiang TKY will linger on the palate and in the whole mouth and throat virtually for hours, thus allowing us to carry it with us as our companion through a good part of the day and even to places and events that usually will rather not accommodate our passion for drinking tea.
Those of you who have read chapter 1 of this article series, “Sourcing tea in China – The Plan + Tie Guan Yin”, knows that Tie Guan Yin Oolong tea shows a range of characteristics that cannot be observed like this with most other teas (if you haven’t read that article yet, it might be worth catching up now). However, my research into the question how the differences between the individual grades come about in the first place returned just another characteristic feature of Tie Guan Yin that distincts thi tea from many or most other Chinese teas: the typical life cycle o the Tie Guan Yin tea plant.
The Tie Guan Yin plant produces the typical Tie Guan Tea in a desirable quality only up to the age of about 8-10 years. Once this age is reached, the Anxi tea farmers dig out their old Tie Guan Yin plants to replace them with new, younger tea bushes. For this, the young seedlings are bred from offshoots of young tea plants in dedicated seedling schools, where the offshoots remain for a period of one to one and a half years, before they can be used to replace old tea bushes in the actual tea garden. The result is a complex, continuous cycle of seedlings, young and old tea bushes that not only requires the concerned tea master’s constant attention, but also represents an essential part of the art of cultivating Tie Guan Yin tea. If this cycle is interrupted,this can mean the end to any Tie Guan Yin operation, as such event virtually has the potential to destroy a family tradition that has been maintained for many generations and been transfered from one generation to the next for decades or centuries.
The best Tie Kuan Yin tea is produced the young plants’ leaves, with a gradual descent of quality from year to year, this making the the age of a tea plant one of the decisive factors or the grading, i.e. of the quality of the tea it produces. Then, just like with other tea varieties, a second crucial quality factor is the selection of the leaves from a tea bush: the younger the leaf, the higher the quality of the resulting tea. As already explained in the above-mentioned article, with Tea Guan Yin tea,the young buds of the tea plant are not harvested, as they contain too many bitters that are considered as undesirable for this tea. However, first choice, i.e. the best quality, are still the most upper, means the youngest leaves closest to the bud. The result is a highly complex grading system that takes both factors into consideration: once the age of a tea bush and second the age the leaves picked from it.
Consequently, the Tie Guan Yin Chunxiang (grade A+, mellow tea class) consists of the youngest leaves of the youngest tea plants, while the Qingxiang TKY (grade A, delicate fragrance) will also represent youngest leaves, but coming from 1 or 2 years older Tie Guan Yin tea plant. The harvesting of the accurate parties for the respective grades in the correct sequence and with the right timing, just like the consistent monitoring of the taking of offshoots, the breeding of the seedlings and the replacing of tea bushes that have got too old with young ones, in short: the life cycle of the Tie Guan Yin tea plant, represents a highly complex system, whose mastering is indeed a high art form, which has developed, maintained and transfered from one generation to the next in Anxi for thousands of years now.