In Search of "Iron Goddess"

TieGuanYin (鐵觀音) oolong tea (TGY for short, aka "Iron Goddess of Mercy") has always fascinated me. In fact, TGY has many mesmerized fans in Taiwan. Look at how they describe this tea:

  • distinctive GuanYin melody (lingering)
  • unique fragrance like ripe fruits intertwined with floral essences of magnolia and osmanthus ...
  • a good acidic "punch," relieving thirst by causing the sides of your cheeks to salivate ...
  • bold smokey flavor from roasting at high temperature and intense fire (over extended time)
  • going strong even after 7 brews (steepings). Its aroma and taste is superior amongst oolong teas.

To clarify, I am talking about Taiwan TGY, which today is very different from the TGY popular in Anxi (in China's Fujian province). Even though Anxi was the birthplace of the tea plants and processing techniques used in Taiwan TGY, the Anxi version has now evolved into something quite different. Anxi TGY is a light tea, characterized by its fragrant high notes and fresh taste. It is lightly oxidized with a flavor profile more akin to green tea. On the other hand, Taiwan TGY is a strong tea. It is processed with medium oxidation and roasted at high temperatures for an extended period of time. 

For those unfamiliar with East Asian religions, GuanYin is a popular goddess worshipped by many in Asia, Buddhist or not. With a name that translates literally to "observe sound" - her divine role is to listen to people's prayers and supplications. In my mind, she plays a role similar to Mother Mary for Catholics and Christians in the Western world.

GuanYin Statue

When I first tried TGY, I was surprised to find I did NOT like it! It tasted very strange. The tea store sales lady had tried to warn me against trying TGY. "It's not really a tea for beginners," she said. Of course, that just made me want to try it all the more. But she was right. She quickly directed me back to popular high mountain teas and Oriental Beauty, and again I could "ooh" and "aah" over the wonderful tastes of Taiwan's oolong teas.

However the experience left an indelible impression on me. Like a child eager to try coffee and prove that she has grown up, I wanted to quickly mature into a "proficient" tea drinker. I would prove myself by joining the rank of TGY's mesmerized fans.

Finding the "taste" of TGY, much less appreciate it, proved to be a real challenge.

I began by going to the place where it all started - MaoKong area near Taipei city.* Almost 200 years ago, 1000 TGY seedlings were brought back from Anxi in China, planted there, then processed by the tea making method learned in Anxi. Today MaoKong is bustling with restaurants, tea cafes, and tea stores though tea production has declined sharply. A scenic cable car ride transports you to MaoKong with views of rolling hills and Taipei City. Not surprisingly, this area is now very popular with both tourists and locals alike. A little intimidated by all the stores selling TGY, I escaped into the TGY Exhibition Center. 


At the Center, a tea vendor was demonstrating his tea farm's TGY. The tea tasted nice, with a smokey and slightly burnt flavor. However I didn't really detect anything interesting or distinctive and I wondered about the GuanYin lingering everybody talked about. On the other hand, the tea was certified organic and the story of the young man working with his dad was heart-warming. Even though the tea was quite expensive (other fellow samplers got up and left after the young man declared the price), I purchased a small amount and decided to slowly experiment at home. With time and experience, I thought my nose and tastebuds would learn to identify the so-called GuanYin lingering. Unfortunately the tea remained nice but undistinctive. Because of its rather heavy roast, it reminded me of a Tung Ting oolong.

Then I tried the even more pricey TGY made from "Real-Bush" subvariety using the TGY method. (In Taiwan, tea made from other subvariety/cultivar using the TGY processing methods are also marketed as TGY.) Unfortunately the "Real-Bush" TGY continued to leave me confused. I visited several Taiwan teamakers renowned for TGY teas. Even though their teas tasted good, again the only distinctive flavor I could detect was the heavy smokey roast. If done well, the heavy roasting does not result in a burnt taste.

After repeated failures, I began to doubt myself. Were my nose and tastebuds the source of this problem? We know that our ability to taste and smell deteriorates with age. If that was the case, it wouldn't matter if I came across the perfect TGY. I still wouldn't be able to tell it apart. [Sigh]

I continued my search, always asking if I could sample TGY. One day, finally, the Iron Goddess smiled upon me.

I was in a tea class when this long-awaited aha moment happened. Immediately I recognized the sour fruity exotic GuanYin lingering. This TGY matched all the descriptions I have become very familiar with. When asked about this tea, the teacher informed me it was made from mature leaves of "Real-Bush" TGY brought back from Anxi, then roasted in Taiwan.

I can't say I fell in love immediately, but I was finally able to understand why TGY has so many dedicated followers. The funny thing is that, once I learned to recognize this distinctive flavor, I could go back and detect a subtle note of it in some of the TGYs I previously purchased.

If like me, you are curious about why a good TGY has become so hard to find in Taiwan, stay tuned to my next post "The Making of a Good TieGuanYin."

* Taipei City is the capital of Taiwan and located in its North. MaoKong area is located in ChangHu Mountain near Taipei, and easily accessible via the subway and a cable car system.