Featured Tea: Tieguanyin, the Iron Goddess


Two Bowls of TieGuanYin

Tieguanyin, brewed Gongfu style

Originally from Anxi province (安溪县) in China, Tieguanyin (铁观音) is one of the most famous styles of Oolong tea and makes the list of “China Famous Tea” (中国十大名茶). Today Tieguanyin is available from several other provinces, and many of the best Tieguanyin also comes from Taiwan. Very high grades of Tieguanyin can fetch extremely high prices, second in price only to Dahongpao (大红袍), but fortunately good quality Tieguanyin can still be found at a reasonable price for the everyday tea drinker.

Good quality Tieguanyin will often have an orchid-like aroma. The flavour is smooth and mild, with the characteristic “sweet aftertaste” or houyun (喉韻). An entire article could be written on houyun, but suffice it to say that a good Tieguanyin will leave a pleasant aftertaste in the back of the throat.

The leaves of Tieguanyin are lightly oxidized and will be rolled into small balls that unfurl into a full leaf when steeped.

TieGUanYin Leaves - Before and After

Balls of Tieguanyin unfurl to their full size when steeping

Statue of Guanyin

Statue of Guanyin
(photo credit: Jakub Hałun)

You may also find Tieguanyin called “Iron Goddess,” or “Iron Goddess of Mercy.” This unusual name comes from a literal translation of the Chinese “铁观音” which is a reference to Guanyin, the Buddhist bodhisattva, or enlightened being, associated with compassion. Guanyin originates from the Sanskrit name Avalokiteśvara (अवलोकितेश्वर), often called the Goddess of Mercy in English. It isn’t known for sure where the Tie, or “iron”, part of the name comes from, but legend has it that an iron statue of Guanyin looked over the town in Anxi where Tieguanyin originates.

One thing I’ve noticed about Tieguanyin is that people just can’t seem to get the romanization (“English” spelling) correct or consistent. The proper pinyin romanization for Mandarin Chinese is Tiěguānyīn, and “titgūnyām in Yale Cantonese (tit3gun1jam1 in Jyutping). I’ve seen this spelled as everything from “Tea Kwoon Yang” to “Tiet Kwun Yum” to the slightly less wrong “Tie Quan Yin” and everything in between. Keep an eye out for strange romanizations of this one at your local tea shop or café!


Just one letter away from a proper romanization

Tieguanyin should be steeped at a relatively high temperature for Oolong tea, at 90-95°C (195–205°F; String of Pearls). But if your first attempts come out too bitter, try decreasing the water temperature a bit.

Hopefully this gives you a taste of one of the great oolongs of China. Remember that you can re-steep the leaves of Tieguanyin at least 5 or 6 times: try using a small pot to steep just one cup at a time, or use a Gaiwan. Most importantly, enjoy!

A Classic Pot of British Tea

A silver kettle on a gas stoveWhile I always like to encourage people to use whole leaf tea whenever possible, there are some times when you just need to brew a pot of old fashioned British milk tea from a bag.

Here’s the method that was taught to me by my late Scottish granny and which has served our family well for at least a hundred years:

  1. Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil.
  2. Pour the water into a teapot until it is about 1/4 full.
  3. Swish the teapot around for 5-10 seconds to heat up the pot.
  4. Pour out the water from the teapot and bring the kettle back up to a rolling boil.
  5. Put one teabag into the teapot for each person, and then add one more “for the pot.”
  6. Pour the boiling water directly from the kettle into the teapot.
  7. Steep for exactly 3 minutes.
  8. Remove the teabags and serve.
  9. Add milk or lemon to taste.

If you don’t trust my granny, the great author George Orwell advocated a similar procedure in a letter in the Evening Standard, 12 January 1946. If you can ignore his misguided opinion of Chinese tea, his method is useful as a reference. The text (now out of copyright – please correct me if I’m wrong) appears here:

1933 Press Photo of George Orwell

George Orwell, 1933

If you look up ‘tea’ in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important points.This is curious, not only because tea is one of the main stays of civilization in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but because the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:

  • First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.
  • Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.
  • Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.
  • Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realized on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.
  • Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.
  • Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.
  • Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.
  • Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.
  • Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.
  • Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.
  • Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tealover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.

Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.

These are not the only controversial points to arise in connexion with tea drinking, but they are sufficient to show how subtilized the whole business has become. There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding the teapot (why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?) and much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tealeaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns and sweeping the carpet. It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sure of wringing out of one’s ration the twenty good, strong cups of that two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent.

We Know Tea: we just don't use any of that knowledge in its manufacture

Lipton Tea by Wondermark.com

Now you’ll be prepared any time you’re entertaining visitors who insist on having tea the way Thomas Lipton intended.

Beyond the bag: why whole leaf is better


You are almost certainly familiar with bagged tea, the familiar product that appears on grocery store shelves and in hotels and restaurants worldwide. While convenient and cheap – for shipping, storing, and preparing – the famous teabag steeps a tea that, while drinkable, pales in comparison to a well-steeped cup of whole leaf tea. So why are teabags so bad? Read on…

A photo of the inside of a tea bag, loose leaf tea, and full leaf tea

Three black teas: tea bag, loose leaf, and whole leaf

To understand what’s wrong with a teabag, it’s useful to know what’s inside. When tea is processed, the dried leaves are sorted according to their size using a tea leaf sorting machine.

A leaf sorting machine from a tea plantation

Each level has leaves (or parts of leaves) and branches of differing sizes.

The sorting machine has has a rack of vibrating shelves with holes of different size ranging from large on the top rack down to very small on the bottom rack. Tea leaves are picked and dried (and possibly go through stages of fermentation, depending on the type of tea being produced), and they are dumped into the top of the machine.

The biggest and fullest leaves are found near the top. The leaf is almost, if not completely, intact. This is the “whole leaf tea” that this blog is all about. A little further down and you start to find leaf fragments that typically end up selling as “loose leaf tea”, especially in blended teas.

So what comes out of the bottom of this monster? Little scraps of tea leaves and branches, called the “fannings” or “dustings”. This is the stuff of bagged tea.

So what’s the problem? It’s still tea, right? Perhaps an analogy would be best here. Pretend a friend has told you about a great bakery down the road that she frequents regularly. You’ve heard great reviews so you decide to check it out. But when you get there, instead of trying a fresh loaf of their acclaimed whole wheat, you opt instead for a bag of breadcrumbs they swept up off the floor. It’s not quite the same experience.

Now don’t get me wrong: there’s a time and a place for breadcrumbs. But you’re fooling yourself if you think it’s the same as the bread.

A close up view of the inside of a typical tea bag

What’s inside of a typical tea bag

The dustings inside of a teabag have a large surface area for their size. This means that the tea will steep quickly, but also that the bitterness and tannins will come out very quickly as well. There is a relatively accepted method of brewing black tea in teabags to minimize the bitterness (see this post for more information), but you’re never going to be able to get the full flavors out of most teas if you’re steeping the dustings.

Ironically, while “whole leaf” tea seems like an advanced concept, the lower surface area and longer steeping times actually makes them easier to brew for the amateur. If you’re just getting into tea, I strongly recommend jumping right into the whole leaf varieties from the start.

And that’s why this blog exists: to help everyone from the amateur to the tea enthusiast to learn more about loose leaf and whole leaf teas and, ultimately, how to steep a better cup.