It's time to take a break from the rooibos festivities for a quick return to a "pure" tea topic: part two of the four-part oolong series that started with an introductory oolong article and a look at the famous Wuyi oolongs. This time, we'll be touching on oolong teas from Anxi county, and the surrounding areas of Southern Fujian province. Like all of the other famous oolong genres I've discussed, Anxi's teas are famous both for the cultivars that produce the leaves and for the traditional processing techniques used to produce the teas' signature shapes and characteristics. In general, Anxi oolongs are world-famous for their floral, orchid-like aromas and tightly-rolled appearance.
As I mentioned in the introductory article, the oxidation and roasting processes are key in distinguishing most oolong genres, and Anxi oolongs are no different. They are typified by relatively low oxidation (to preserve the delicate, flowery aroma), and roasting can cover a wide range. Really, though, the most recognizable aspect of Anxi oolong processing is the rolling--Anxi is primarily famous for its semi-pellet rolled oolongs. Although a quick look at dry Anxi oolong (Right) provokes a response of "That looks to me like a complete pellet," the accurate terminology used in the tea business is "semi-pellet." The process for achieving this leaf appearance is very laborious--the withered, bruised, and fired leaves are placed in a cloth bag and rolled by hand or machine, removed, and dried with very low heat. This process is repeated numerous times (usually at least three times, but often many more) until the tea master is satisfied with the result and the leaves are tightly rolled into tiny balls.
The pictures provided in this article are of our "Monkey-Picked" Tieguanyin. Tieguanyin (AKA Ti Kuan Yin or many similar transliteration variations), is surely the most famous Anxi oolong--it's name means "Iron Goddess of Mercy," which refers to a famous bodhisattva, who is a goddess of compassion and is cognate with Avalokitesvara of the Tibetan Buddhist school and finds her roots much earlier (a male version of Guanyin was said to guard the Western border of China and was the last person to see Lao Tzu on his final journey to the west and immortality--according to legend, Lao Tzu orally recited the Tao Te Ching to Guanyin before disappearing into the unknown Western lands). Other famous cultivars/teas from Anxi and Southern Fujian include Huang Jin Gui (Jade oolong), Mao Xie (Hairy Crab), and Fo Shou (Buddha's Hand or Buddha Palm). Although these oolongs are all semi-pellet shaped, they often vary significantly in roasting--it's possible to have a very green Tieguanyin or a heavily-roasted one. Neither is necessarily better than the other, although greener, light-roast Tieguanyins are probably more typical of the genre. Lighter-roasted Anxi oolong is more fragrant and floral in character but can sometimes be slightly harsh on the stomach, while heavier-roasted teas tend to be darker, mellower, and even a bit fruity.
"Monkey-Picked" refers to those distant days when the highest-quality wild tea trees were only reachable by monkeys and people had to taunt the monkeys, who would then throw branches down in anger (no joke, it's in the Cha Jing!). Nowadays the moniker usually denotes high quality. Anxi oolongs are harvested around four times per year: spring, mid-summer,
late summer and autumn/winter. Spring is always the most expensive and usually the highest-quality, although quality teas are also produced in summer and autumn harvests--if you find a sample of good late summer or autumn Tieguanyin, there's no reason to shun it just because it didn't come from the spring, and you'll likely save quite a bit of money! As you can see in the second picture, this Tieguanyin is machine-harvested, which is typical of most but the priciest and rarest Anxi teas. After infusion, the leaves unfurl to large, whole specimens with only the slightest hint of color difference at the bruised edges. The flavor of this Tieguanyin is strongly sweet and floral, with an orchid-like aroma, which is a good representation of what the genre has to offer.
Tieguanyin is one of the most famous oolongs in the world, so with that fame comes occasional (deliberate) misinformation and wide variation in quality--I recommend trying a number of different Tieguanyins and other Anxi oolongs to get a good idea of what the genre has to offer, keeping in mind that quality can span a wide range and a perfect example may require some research. At Miro we ofter a few Tieguanyins that are quality representations at affordable prices. Stay tuned for Feng Huang Dancong oolongs and Taiwanese oolongs (which share a number of similarities with Anxi oolongs!). Questions and comments are encouraged!