Clash of the Tie Guanyins

Ok, ok, so perhaps the title is not the best thought our title in the world, but it certainly does have a ring to it, doesn’t it!

As I mentioned in a previous post, I had the pleasure of sampling two varieties of wildly different ‘Iron Buddha’ tea recently. Both of them came from the wonderful JING Tea, and both were highly commended by other reviewers. The two types were ‘Iron Buddha Oolong Tea’ and ‘Traditional Iron Buddha Oolong Tea’ (otherwise known as ‘Monkey Picked’ oolong). Both teas are sourced from China’s Fujian province.

The ‘Traditional’ variety was a variety I had never had the chance to try before, as it’s not all that common, and so I was incredibly excited. The name ‘monkey picked’ is not an indicator of animal cruelty, but instead traces back to the days when Buddhist monks would train the monkeys to pick the younest, freshest leaves from the tops of the wild tea plants, in order to make the finest teas. Ok, onto the reviews!

‘Traditional Iron Buddha’

Traditional Iron Buddha Tea
‘Monkey Picked’ tea

Colour of the leaves: 7/10 (A little darker than the picture, and a little darker than I care for, but still a nice smoky colour)
Shape of the leaves: 7/10 (Nicely rolled, but I think perhaps some of them were poorly handled in transit, and were a little broken -thought this is not the fault of JING Tea, rather the postal company)
First infusion: 7/10 (A lovely colour, similar to other ‘Iron Buddha’ teas, but with a slightly more earthy colour. The taste had a more smoky aroma than other than other ‘Iron Buddha’ teas, which, while not entirely unpleasant, lacked a little something I so wanted this special tea to have.)
Subsequent infusions: 6.5/10 (Subsequent infusions maintained much of the same aroma, taste and ‘texture’ of the first infusion – which, again, was pleasant. But other ‘Iron Buddha’ teas I have tried tend to develop with further infusion, and there is a definite progression with them. The flavours tend to become more complex after the first couple of brewings, whereas I found this tea remained much the same.)
Aroma: 8/10 (The tea most definitely had a woody fragrance to it, less reminiscent of an ‘Iron Buddha’ tea, and more in-line with stronger oolongs, which was simply delightful. It was a beautifully Autumnal aroma, which most definitely made me think about falling leaves, and rainy days – in the best possible way. A wonderfully fragrant liquor, which perfectly fits the fall season.

Total: 35.5/50

‘Iron Buddha’

'Iron Buddha' tea
(courtesy of JING Tea)

Colour of the leaves: 9.5/10 (The picture doesn’t do the leaves justice! They have a vibrant colour, a beautiful brown-green, simply glowing. A pure delight to look at, and are begging to be drunk) 
Shape of the leaves: 7/10
(Again, beautifully rolled. Just carelessness on the part of the postman means that I’ve given a slightly disappointing score.)

First infusion: 9/10 (Words cannot describe quite how wonderful this tea is. Absolutely bursting with floral fragrance, that had all the depth and complexities I have come to expect of Tie Guanyin tea. The tea felt incredibly thick in the mouth, and gave a liquor that was positively gleaming with a jade green hue. The tea was at once warming, yet refreshing, light and summery. Quite simply one of the most wonderful Tie Guanyin’s available in the UK in terms of flavour)
Subsequent infusions: 9/10
(Subsequent infusions - unlike the Traditional variety, developed in complexity up to around the third or fourth steeping, with successive steepings poviding what felt like an entirely new experience.)

Aroma: 8.5/10 (Intense floral bouquet, with almost nutty overtones. Incredibly complex, combining the fragrances of all four seasons)
Total: 43/50

Wonderful origins

My favourite supplier at the moment, JING Tea (Blog: http://jingtea.wordpress.com/ ) stock many varieties of wonderful tea, sure to suit all tastes. For those who are not sure what they are loking for, or looking for recommendations from those in the know, JING is an excellent place to buy tea.

Amongst the dozens of varieties of teas they stock, there are four varieties of ‘Iron Buddha’ tea (铁观音 tie guan yin) which literally translates as ‘Iron Guanyin’ (Guanyin being a Buddhist figure prominent in East Asia, assosciated with compassion. For his reason, she is known in English as the ‘Goddess of Mercy’. For those who are new to tea, ‘Iron Buddha’ tea, it is a wonderfully rich oolong tea. It sits quite comfortably between the ‘fresher’, vibrant green teas I often assosciate with long summer days, and the rich, mellow oolongs that I enjoy on winter nights.

The aroma of this tea is so wonderfully complex and diverse, to the point that one mouthul of it’s beautiful liquor feels like a thousand delightful flavours on the tastebuds. Each variety will have subtle differences, and even successive steepings of the same variety will noticeably change the flavour. To try and summarise it in a few sentences would not be doing justice to such a wonderful taste – but I will try anyway! There is most definitely an autumnal richness to this tea. Floral aromas, intermingled with fruity fragrances; a wonderful taste of autumn berries mixed with a woody smokiness. Whilst it may sound like this tea is only to be enjoyed on autumn days, this could not be further from the truth. The beauty of this tea’s complexity mean that it most definitely suits all occassions, all climates, and all moods.

This tea is a wonderfully complex tea, and this is as a result of an equally complex processing method. The tea was so highly revered in ages past that production methods were highly secretive. It’s important to note that, even if the fresh leaves are of a high quality, a small difference in production can hugely lower the quality of the finished leaf. The price of this tea reflects its quality – it is often not a particularly cheap tea (although some lower-standard tea do exist). Other factors to consider are the time of year the tea was harvested, ‘roasting’ level, and where it was produced. The fragrance, colour and shape of the leaves all effect the price massively also. Spring and Autumn harvsted teas are traditionally thought of as being higher quality, so these are probably the best time to be on the lookout for the tea. Bear in mind, that this tea CAN keep for a relatively long time if stored correctly – airtight, away from strong smells which can affect the taste of the tea, and at a fairly low temperature.

If all this seems overly-complicated, and leaves you feeling rather baffled, fear not! The key to finding a good ‘Iron Buddha’ tea (as with any other tea – or indeed, with any consumer good) is to buy from a trustworthy supplier. Having tried various teas both within China, HK, and from UK suppliers, I can assure you that JING Tea are definitely up there on my list of trustworthy suppliers, who never fail to supply tea of an excellent quality.

It is the origins of this tea that I find are just as fascinating as its complex aromas, and ridiculously complicated processing. Everytime I brew a pot of it,I ponder over these the origins, set in a distant past, which seems so magical to me. There are two legends surrounding the origins – one of them a rather practical, realistic theory. Another is so beautifully moving, that I am inclined to go along with this version of events purely on a fantastical basis!

The first, more ‘realistic’ story is that a scholar found a tea plant underneath the Guanyin (‘Goddess of Mercy’) rock. After cultivation, he presented the tea as a gift to the Emperor Qianlong, who enquired about the origins of the tea. Upon hearing it was oun undrneath the Guanyin rock, the tea gained its name. Another fable goes that, a poor farmer became so disheartened at the fact his local temple had fallen into such a state of disrepair that he vowed something must be done. As he was meely a farmer, with little income, he had no means to rebuild the temple, but instead swept it clean, and prayed there daily. One night, Guanyin appeared to him in a dream, telling him to look behind the temple. There, he would find riches. The farmer found a single tea shoot, which he cultivated into a large bush. The tea it produced was so wonderful, that the region became famous, the farmer became rich, and the tea gained its name.

Personally, I tend to go with the second story!

Reviews of two varieties of this tea to come!

A drink worth fighting for?

There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice
cup of tea.  ~Bernard-Paul Heroux

Not many drinks (if any at all, for that matter) can claim to have been one of the main factors that started a war. The humble little leaf that most of us enjoy on a daily basis, without giving much of a thought to it was in fact one of the catalysts for the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars 1839-42 and 1856-60. If we think about all the wars that have been fought throughout history, in the name of gods, kings and ideals, it’s a pretty startling thought that wars were also fought largely because of everybody’s favourite caffeinated drink!

Imperial China had long been one of the most powerful empires on earth – both financially and territorially, and held immense sway over an enormous population. By the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), China was very much aware of her position in the world. Indeed, the 中国 (China) literally means, “Middle Kingdom”. It was precisely this idea that the Chinese nation was at the centre of the earth, and anything beyond her boundaries was barbarian, uncivilised and often subservient to the Middle Kingdom, created the huge problems that were to push the Qing Dynasty towards it inevitable downfall. Whilst China was quite rightly entitled to take pride in her cultural prowess, this idea did not sit well with emerging Western powers, who had already opened up much of the world to trade. Chinese Emperors often felt that the Middle Kingdom had such an abundance of resources, and cultural surperiority, that they most definitely did not need the goods of foreign merchants. However, they were more than willing to sell Chinese silks, porcelains, and perhaps most importantly, tea, to foreign traders. The massive trade imbalance left Western merchants feeling rather out of pocket, as the silver coffers were draining at an alarming rate.

Earl George Macartney set out on a mission to Beijing to meet the Qianlong Emperor to try and negotiate terms of trade between Britain and China, but talks eventually broke down (some sources say it was in part due to a refusal on the part of Macartney – as a representative of the British King George III, to kowtow, and thus submit to another head of state, although this assertion has been fiercely debated, and debunked by many historians, suggesting more complex factors). The British passion for tea was creating huge problems for the economy; so much so that the only possible way the British believed they could redress the balance would be to smuggle opium into China’s southern ports. This was to set into motion a chain of events that eventually led to two wars between the two countries, China ‘leasing’ Hong Kong to Britain for 99 years, and in part, the downfall of a dynasty in China, and the foundation of a republic,
Of course, the issues are multi-layered, and incredibly complex. I have only introduced them incredibly briefly here, but most historians agree that tea played a major role in global politics in the nineteenth century.


(The Macartney mission of 1793)
What an incredible thought. Definitely something to ponder over, as I brew my next pot of Longjing…

If anybody wants to know more about the history of the period, I would highly recommend Dr Yangwen Zheng’s book “The Social Life of Opium in China”. Whilst at university, she was one of my professors, specialising in the opium era. An incredibly intelligent, informed historian, I would highly recommend the book to any tea enthusiast wanting to know more about the stories behind their favourite drink!

 (Yangwen Zheng’s book)

Reviews of UK tea retailers

Have recently ordered a batch of tea from one of my favourite sellers in the UK – JING Tea. I have bought from them many times before, and always been amazed at the quality of tea, value for money, and excellent service. Currently sampling the tea, reviews to come soon!

–EDIT: So far, so good. Delightful teas all round. Especially the Pre-Rain Organic Anji Bai Cha. Reviews coming as soon as I can remove myself from my teapot for long enough!

Welcome to the Peking Tea blog

Firstly, let me introduce myself. I am a UK based tea-enthusiast, but have spent the last few years living in Beijing. I have a long-held passion for tea in all its various forms. From the ethereal delights of West Lake Longjing tea, to rich autumnal Oolongs and everything in between. As a Brit, tea is very much a part of my culture, although sadly in the UK most people’s experience of this wonderful brew had previously been incredibly limited, as using loose leaf, and exploring the various grades and varities of tea was considered a time consuming affair. So it was with an enquiring mind that I set off out into the big wide world of tea!

As more and more people become aware of the health benefits of tea, it’s gaining increasng recognition and popularity here in the UK. Sadly though, it is in part due to this recognition, that low grade teas in health stores and supermarkets abound, and green teas are often dismissed as a bitter health drink, whilst oolongs are thought of as a simple weight-loss trick. While it can only be a positive thing that the many amazing kinds of tea available are becoming more widely known outside of their areas of production, it would be even better if we could all further our understanding of the art of tea, from the growing process, to the wildly diverse processing methods that turn a simple leaf into the world’s second most consumed beverage (bested only by water).

It is with this intention that I created this blog. I hope that we can make a community of sorts, whereby we can all share our thoughts, knowledge and ideas on tea, and hopefully further promote this wonderful drink!