Jan 4 2015

Why is Iron Goddess of Mercy China’s Favorite Oolong Tea?

When it comes to green tea, we think of Japan and China. When it comes to black tea most people probably think of India and Sri Lanka, but China also has a lot of black tea. In fact they have my favorite variety, called Golden Monkey tea. When it comes to white tea there’s only China. When it comes to oolong tea, the same is true. While white tea is becoming more well known, it is still difficult to find. For that reason, I feel that wulong tea is the most Chinese of all the teas. It is the quintessential Chinese tea.

Loose leaf tie guan yin tea

Iron Goddess of Mercy tea leaves

So obviously, when I went to China, high on my list of things to do was trying oolong tea. Now, I am fully aware of white tea and absolutely love it, so that was high on my list, too. Which one of these two do you think was easier? It was the oolong tea. By far.

In three years in China I have not yet seen white tea sold in a regular store. You have to go to specialty shops and really search for it. It is not generally sold, but I suppose that is because white tea is so distinguished and is always very high quality. The teas you find in the supermarket aren’t generally that great, although compared to what you would buy in the West, the quality is actually exceptionally high. And since the prices are low, they make great bargains. In fact, I buy most of my tees from supermarkets. This includes big chains like Walmart. It sounds strange, but they actually have great bargains on teas because they are so cheap.

Knowing that, it should come as no surprise that I made my first purchase of Wulong Tea at Walmart. I also made my second and my third purchase of oolong tea at Walmart. When I buy tea at Walmart, I always start with the cheapest I can find, just to give it a try. It’s usually not very good and I never buy it again. But once or twice I have found a great bargain this way. That did not work out with oolong tea.

Iron Goddess of Mercy tea leaves

Ti Kuan tea leaves close up

Surprisingly, to me at least, the one variety I found in every store in China is Iron Goddess of Mercy tea. I don’t know why but this seems to be the most popular variety in China. Since I was seeing it everywhere, this was my first purchase. I bought the cheapest one they had. It was absolutely horrible. I figured this was because I bought the cheapest, so I bought a more expensive one. It was slightly better, but still not something I would ever buy again.

A month or two after that first purchase, a coworker of mine, friendly old Chinese man, let me try some of his Tie Guan Yin. He had a very expensive variety and he assured me once I’ve had it, I would change my mind about Ti Kuan. It’s true, his tea was much better and it was actually enjoyable, but it was certainly not worth the money. I have had very cheap green teas that tasted so much better than this very expensive iron goddess tea.

For those who don’t know, this variety of oolong tea is barely oxidized at all. It is very, very close to a green tea. The problem is, green tea simply tastes better. I don’t understand the popularity of this variety of tea in China. Since that time, I have bought many oolong teas, but never again an iron goddess. My favorite so far was Big Red Robe tea, but that is probably not a surprise, given its high price and its status as one of the most distinguished teas of all.

If you ever make it to China I highly recommend you try some Tie Guan Yin for yourself. Chances are you won’t like it, but so many Chinese people seem to enjoy it, maybe you will, too. I would be very curious to know, actually. I want to know if it’s just me, if I simply don’t enjoy that taste, or if it’s just something that’s uniquely Chinese and all Westerners don’t like the taste of this tea.

For more on Tie Guan Yin: http://www.holymtn.com/tea/kwanyin.htm


Apr 2 2014

Did you Know Darjeeling Black Tea is Actually an Oolong?

If you ask most people to name the world’s best black tea, they will tell you it is Darjeeling tea from India. These people are wrong. For one thing, there are several black teas from China that are better than anything you can find in India. The only reason Indian tea enjoys the reputation it does, is because of its ties to England and the fact that it has been supplying them with tea for so long. It is also a big marketing ploy.

None of that is what I’m getting at here, however. My point is that Darjeeling tea is not actually a black tea. Yes, the Darjeeling region produces all types of distinguished teas, including white tea, green tea and black tea, but the majority of the tea that comes from the area and the tea that we know as Darjeeling black tea is actually an oolong tea. The leaves are not fully oxidized and should thus not be considered a black tea. In fact, they are less oxidized than many of the actual oolong teas.

I have no idea how teas from this area became known as black tea. Perhaps this is simply what the English wanted and the Indians told them that’s what they were selling. They probably told them it was a different variety and the English realized it tasted better than black tea, because oolong tea generally does taste better than black, so they didn’t complain.

I have no idea if this theory is true, but if you’ve ever traveled to India you’ll know that it’s very possible. They will tell you anything you want to hear to try to get you to buy something and what they’re trying to sell you is, in almost every instance, a substandard product and the price for that product is at, a minimum, double what it should be. Usually it is much more.

I can definitely see them lying about the type of their tea simply to make the sale. Even today, much of the tea from this area is pretty terrible. There is some great tea coming from India, but most of it is horrible. I seen so many tea shops in the country selling teas to tourists but the tea leaves they sell are an abysmal quality. And you can bet they are not even really from the area they claim to be from. Fake tea is a huge problem in India.

Nevertheless, you’ll see the shops full of tourists paying 10 times the going rate for Darjeeling tea, while not even getting the actual real thing. This means that, in effect, they are actually paying close to 100 times the going rate for a sack full of twigs and a few disgusting leaves.

a cup of darjeeling teaI myself went to a lot of tea shops while in India, trying to find some decent tea leaves. I like drinking tea every day, but I could not stand the disgustingly sweet chai they sell in that country. I like to taste the tea, not the sugar. In fact, I don’t even consider India a tea drinking country, because they drown the tea flavor in sugar and spices. I suppose this makes sense, given the low quality of the tea leaves used, but it does not make them tea drinkers. It makes him sugar addicts and if you’ve tasted their desserts, you know I speak the truth. They are so sweet, I can’t even choke down one bite.

Eventually I did find a shop that had some decent white hair silver needle Darjeeling tea. Needless to say, it was nowhere near the quality you would get in China and it cost just as much. Nevertheless, I happily bought some, because, by this point, I was really missing my daily tea and it was clear this would definitely be my best option.

For some more info on Darjeeling tea, head to About.com.


Mar 30 2014

The Highly Distinguished Da Hong Pao Tea

On a site about Wu Long tea, it only makes sense for the first post to cover the most distinguished and famous of all the Chinese teas: Big Red Robe Tea. Also known by its Chinese name, Da Hong Pao, this tea comes from bushes in the Wuyi rock region of China’s Fujian province. Only a handful of these bushes still remain, making this tea the rarest on earth.

Big Red Robe oolong tea leaves

Luckily for us, those bushes have been cloned and they grow in various other areas. Tea leaves from these cloned bushes taste just as good as the originals. That said, these leaves are not nearly as distinguished. Of course, that also means they are not nearly as expensive. Big Red Robe tea from the original bushes has fetched the highest price ever for tea on the world market.

Is this tea worth such a high price? The Answer is simple and the same as it is for every other high-priced food product: no. This tea is definitely not worth that incredibly high price, especially since the cloned bushes are not all that expensive and taste just as good. You are paying for the status as you always do when you buy such a high-priced product and that is more true in China than anywhere else, where paying a lot for things that are not worth it marks you as a high status person.

The tea is quite nice though. If you like oolong tea, as I’m guessing you do, considering you’re on this site, then this is perhaps the best you can find. It is oxidated for a fairly long time, so it is a much stronger tea than the lightly oxidated Iron Goddess. In my opinion, this makes it a classic and traditional oolong tea and one that everyone should try at least once in their lives.

If you trying to get into these varieties of tea, Da Hong Pao is perhaps the best introduction. It brews to a dark reddish color, almost like a slightly watered-down black tea. The taste is hard to describe. It is stronger than any green tea, but has no bitterness at all and instead is slightly sweet with a light fruitiness.

I couldn’t find much information about the legend of this tea, but I’m sure it’s out there, since every Chinese tea seems to have some ancient mythological tale attached to it. So let’s just make one up.

A long time ago a beautiful girl was imprisoned in a house on top of a cliff. Unlike similar tales in the west, she had no hope of ever leaving, no matter how dashing or charming the prince who showed up. Since this was China, the princes were not really dashing, but short and sporting the status-indicating potbelly. Obviously, a prince such as this had no chance of climbing up the rock either and thus would never be able to rescue the maiden.

Instead, when her prince showed up, she simply asked for the best tea he could find. He brought bush after bush and tried tossing them up to her, but he was too weak and none of them reached her. Instead, they bounce back down at him and the few got caught in cracks in the rocks and stayed hanging on the cliff wall. The strongest of these took root and killed off the others. This unique growing environment ended up giving them a unique flavor, one that can only be found in leaves grown on this rock wall.

These are the current Big Red Robe bushes, which still cling to this very same rock wall, even though the girl is long gone and the prince is long dead. The bushes still produce wonderful tea and they are the only creatures in the story that ended up living happily ever after.

This blog post on the eBeijing site details a foreigner’s experience with this Da Hong Pao tea.