Last month after I wrote about my love for Dancong, I felt guilty. In fact I felt a deep pang of guilt almost every other day. When I drank Tieguanyin or Yancha – more on Yancha in another post – I felt Dancong’s reprimand upon me, as though chiding me for loving it less. There are times when I feel that Dancong is my favorite tea; there are times when my love for Tieguanyin is above all others: most notably when I am drinking it.
My guilty conscience is especially notable since my love for Tieguanyin didn’t come easy.
Like many migrant Southern Chinese, my first encounter with Tieguanyin was in a restaurant. The combination of mediocre grade tea, non-dedicated storage and – worst of all – poor brewing techniques, (huge pots, infinite steeping time) led to consuming teas that were underwhelming. In all the wisdom of the eight-year old I was back then, I believed that certain teas were better, as long as they were sweeter (from the addition of sugar). Yes, I know: the folly of youth. For a long period of my life, that was what Tieguanyin meant to me: underwhelming, made palatable by the addition of sugar.
Much later, after I had discovered the rewarding world of Chinese teas and renounced milk and sugar, I came to Tieguanyin again. This time, it was completely different from the Tieguanyin I thought I knew. It was a light yellow, almost green tea like liquor; not the brownish liquor that had come to define Tieguanyin for me. It was fragrant, perfume-like even, light and refreshing. Palate cleansing, I liked to think.
But it was not endearing. Not the way Wuyi Yancha or Dancong was – the type where the memory would linger on your palate and you would literally salivate.
I might enjoy a Tieguanyin at that moment, but I wouldn’t yearn for it, and I wouldn’t search it out again and again, feeling my life incomplete without it. That was until I re-discovered the traditional Tieguanyin. It was the equivalent of a sports’ fan discovering ESPN- criticism of commentators notwithstanding. The sweet and sour aftertaste meshing to create a lingering delight- my mouth is watering just thinking about it- and how it inexplicably intoxicates and invigorates at the same time.
Or it was like spending your whole life chasing after that perfect girl and then realizing she had been living next door to you for the past ten years! The traditional Tieguanyin- either the heavier baked ones or the lighter ones- may not be as aromatic as the green version, but it was deeper: it had richer body, thicker mouth feel and a long lingering multi-dimensional aftertaste.
Unfortunately by the time I had that life-changing cup of Tieguanyin, I had endured numerous lesser versions, some of which were blatant fakes. I blame in on my hopeless romantic- read: stubborn- nature. After all, I still read every Ian McEwan believing he would return to his pre-Saturday form, even though Solar and Sweet Tooth should have convinced me otherwise.
Just last month I had a tea workshop and one of the attendees exclaimed “I never knew Tieguanyin could taste so good!” That was the equivalent of a pat on the back to me. Today there is reason for optimism that more people will know the real Tieguanyin.
The “green explosion” has sparked many new producers who depend on SOPs rather than skill; procedures rather than discretion. While there are some good ones, many more besmirch the good name of Tieguanyin. The “green” version is waning in popularity- at least in China- but makers of traditional Tieguanyin have seen popularity rise.
In a grand happy ending for all, however, many of these “green” producers have switched to producing “Hong Guan Yin”, a black tea version of Tieguanyin which is pretty intriguing. Since black tea requires lesser skills to produce than oolong tea, it was an easy transition with little drop in quality.
For us addicts of traditional oolong tea1, it’s heartening to see the old masters get their due again. Don’t let past experiences scare you off: fall in love with the traditional Tieguanyin again.
PS: My dear Wuyi Yancha, don’t fret, you will get your turn soon
Image of tieguanyin courtesy of Lavoview of freedigitalphotos.net/