Tieguanyin: The Iron Goddess of Teas

| © Lesley Lau / Culture Trip

It takes seriously hard work to produce Tieguanyin, an oolong variety better known as Iron Goddess Tea – so much so that most tea roasters no longer bother. Most, that is, except Patrick Yeung, who remains dedicated to this unique, aromatic brew.

Coffee may be first choice in many cities, but in Hong Kong, there’s no escaping tea. Go to any cha chaan teng and you’ll see diners gulping down glasses of ice-lemon tea, or sipping on hot, Hong Kong milk tea (black tea, sugar and evaporated milk). The city’s beloved dim sum, meanwhile, is never complete without a pot of Chinese tea. In fact a synonym for dim sum is yum cha, which means “drink tea” in the local Cantonese dialect.

Teas fall into six broad categories: black teas that are often strong and sweet; light and grassy green teas; mellow, grassy or nutty oolong; light and mildly sweet white teas; red teas, which are often fruity and full-bodied; and fragrant floral teas. A few decades ago the most commonly drunk tea at dim sum restaurants was a type of semi-oxidised black tea from China’s Yunnan province known as Pu-erh. But now Hong Kong connoisseurs enjoy a variety of teas, such as Dragon Well tea, a pan-roasted green tea from China’s Zhejiang province and the floral and caffeine-free jasmine and chrysanthemum varieties.

But for those looking for an intensely aromatic brew, with a long-lingering flavour profile, Tieguanyin is simply the king of oolongs.

A premium genus of oolong, Tieguanyin – “Iron Goddess of Mercy” in Mandarin – was born in Anxi County in China’s Fujian province. There are a number of different legends that purport to account for its origins. One tale tells of a poor Anxi farmer named Wei, who was directed to a cave behind a temple by Guanyin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, where he found a tea shoot. Another legend, from the early 18th century, speaks of specially trained monkeys plucking it from wild tea trees in Fujian’s Wuyi Mountains. Either way, the tea now known as Tieguanyin was presented to the Emperor Qian Long in 1741 and savoured exclusively by the Imperial Court before it became accessible to the general public.

Yeung has been roasting tea for more than half a century

Why ‘Iron’ Goddess of Mercy?

Patrick Yeung, owner of Fukien Tea Company and a Tieguanyin tea expert, explains the “Iron” part of the name by its heaviness relative to other tea varieties. But it has another name, too. That there are just three Tieguanyin roasters left in Hong Kong is, according to Yeung, down to the toilsome production process: another name for Tieguanyin is gong fu cha (“hard work tea”).

In 1952, Yeung’s father, who ran a tea export business from the port city of Xiamen in Fujian, emigrated to Hong Kong and opened up his first shop on Mercer Street in Sheung Wan. It’s still here – though blink and you might miss it – and has been 72-year-old Yeung’s place of work since he was 16.

“When I was young, I did not enjoy roasting tea, because the work was hard, the hours were long, and I didn’t get any holidays,” says Yeung. “But after I got more experience, I started to feel a sense of satisfaction. Every day there are customers coming to talk with me. I think if, one day, I don’t open the shop, I will feel really ill at ease. It doesn’t matter even if you don’t buy. I like to share more about Tieguanyin with guests who come into my shop.”

Fukien Tea Company is a small, hole-in-the-wall shop that looks like it belongs to a bygone era. Within the shop’s glass cabinet counter is delicate clay teaware that brings out the best in the brews. The shop’s walls are lined with curious tins filled with bales of loose Chinese tea leaves. At the the back of the shop, the resident white cat lounges in a corner as Yeung’s two sons help out with the bookkeeping. To the left is the humble sitting area where Yeung entertains his customers and conducts tea tasting sessions.

Fukien Tea Company on Mercer Street

Preparing Tieguanyin tea

So why is Tieguanyin tea such a (hard) labour of love? First the leaves must be left to wither, ferment and partially oxidize, before being roasted to remove all moisture. Unlike many other types of Chinese tea, oolongs like Tieguanyin can become either a green or a black tea, depending on how the leaves are processed. Yeung offers his customers two varieties – a light green version called Jade Tieguanyin, which he says younger folks tend to prefer, and Thoroughly Roasted Tieguanyin, which is made from the same leaves but roasted longer so they become the traditional black tea variety that Yeung himself prefers because “the flavour is very warm and smooth, and goes all the way down the back of your throat”.

“The Jade Tieguanyin is lightly roasted for about six hours at a low temperature, and the flavour is light and fragrant. The Thoroughly Roasted Tieguanyin is roasted for 60 hours at a higher temperature, and is dark, with a rich, smoky taste that will last longer in your mouth. People who are long-time tea drinkers usually like the darker variety,” says Yeung. “Before, we used coal to roast the tea and this took about 20 hours. Now, to protect the environment, we use roasting machines, but these require more time – that’s why it takes us 60 hours to make Thoroughly Roasted Tieguanyin,” he adds.

Yeung performs a tea ceremony

An Iron Goddess Tea ceremony

Yeung gracefully sets out a small clay teapot with some loose leaves in it on the table, and places tiny Chinese teacups in a sieve-like tray that rests atop a metal container. He then boils some water, which he slowly pours into the teapot then swiftly out again. “For the first round, you use the water to wash the leaves so they’re cleaner,” he explains. He then fills the teapot again and lets the leaves steep for 10 seconds. “You should not steep Tieguanyin for more than 10 seconds – otherwise it becomes bitter,” he cautions. Six or seven more rounds of tea can be made with the leaves in his teapot. Each round has a different flavour profile, and Yeung says that the third and fourth are the most intense and interesting.

At Fukien Tea Company, Tieguanyin sells for between HK$88 and HK$464 per 600 grams depending on their grades. The teas are packed in the traditional way with brown paper rather than plastic vacuum packs.

“The culture of tea drinking has changed. Now some teas sell at ridiculously high prices, but this is not right,” says Yeung. Pu-erh, for instance, a common table tea, has now become more expensive because it became trendy in Taiwan in the 1990s, while half a kilogram of top-quality Dragon Well leaves can cost as much as $28,000. “I always tell my customers that tea is a healthy drink, not a kind of collectible item like art or antiques,” he continues. “It is simply a beverage that quenches thirst, helps digestion, tastes good and brings people together.”

‘Some teas sell at ridiculously high prices,’ says Yeung

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