Making of the Queen in Gongfu Tea
There exist two distinct styles of Tieguanyin — Iron Goddess of Mercy — the green bouquet style and deep-baked dark brown classic style.
While some people like their green style as fresh as possible, the dark version of the tea cannot not be made from new harvests at all, lest a tea worthless of drinking in two weeks.
The young “Goddess” has to be put through the test of time and undergo many episodes of charring fire to be reborn into a tea which taste profile is almost opposite of that of the fresh tea, and once the de facto choice for the espresso brew of diehard aficionados of gongfu tea making.
One wrong step the Goddess could easily become a fallen angel, an antithesis of taste and enjoyment.
The merit of a tested goddess is her ability to mature gracefully into old age to become a finer being, a comforting tea with better taste profile.
I shall explain the process in an simplified account:
Better Tieguanyin is usually harvested in April, lesser origins may have it earlier. This Spring harvest is generally sought after for its rounder taste and high floral nose. It is also this same harvest that will, in time, be the best for repeated baking into the dark version. Lesser batches, however, are often used in the market because the intense carbonisation can easily be strengthened to mask other, less desirable qualities of not so fine tea.
The only secret really is the recognition of proper timing, and a lot of patience
Around mid August, the tea is to undergo the first few rounds of baking. It is then rested a few weeks to mid/late September for one more entry into the oven before it is put into storage until next Autumn, when it will be fired again. This time for the last time.
The tea is then rested another month or two before it is taste ready, but the better version is almost always that has rested till the third year.
On the other hand, there are always those eager for cash producers who usually give a long bake of the fresh tea in summer and push it out of the door asap.
Shortcuts only mean failures
The quick fire creates a carbon crust on the outside of the tea bead. It insulates the live enzymes inside. Bioactivity gradually returns and later surfaces to do its revenge. The notorious phenomenon of “Reversal of the Green” — Fan Qing — will then haunt this batch of tea. What could have been a goddess becomes a fallen angel.
How does the tea taste with this fan qing? You may ask. The pungency of freshly rotten cut summer grass, coarse texture and dependent on how much fire, ashy charcoal or raspy fishiness, or both together.
Yet before the tea does that, when it is freshly out of the oven, it can be quite aromatic, concealing the devil inside. This is regardless of the original quality of the fresh tea. So some merchants ask for a high price, others lower ones. Tragically the result in a couple of weeks is the same, a fan qing tea regardless.
Birth of a goddess takes time, but manageable in our mortal lives
All in all, to do a deep colour style, the classic style of Tieguanyin, one has to be patient, skilled and wise enough to give the natural process of the tea a lot of time. That is how we do it. That is why you have to wait for some time after our previous batch of Tieguanyin Classic unexpectedly sold out much sooner and we have to give time to let our next batch enjoyment-ready.
After all, ancient fables say it takes a thousand years for fairies to become a goddess. Tea Hong’s Iron Goddess has taken only three, at least for now. To get the best out of this celestial being may demand an infusion skill developed through many more years. To be able to appreciate it, however, perhaps only the innocence of child’s uncontaminated sense of taste will be all that is required.