Tie Guan Yin Production
The Oolong varietal Tie Guan Yin originates from AnXi county, FuJian province, Southern China.
Tie Guan Yin is today divided into three distinct types: Shu Xiang Tan Bei (熟香碳), Nong Xiang (浓香) and Qing Xiang (清香) light, fragrant Tie Guan Yin. The former can be distinguished by a heavier, longer oxidative process and roasting which are often known as traditional or classic Tie Guan Yin.
For Tie Guan Yin tea to be of a high quality it must always combine these characteristics:
Aroma: A long lasting aroma, which is typically characterised by naturally occurring hints of fruit, nuts and flowers;
Tea liquor: A clear and bright liquor;
Taste and flavour: Complex layers of flavours that naturally complement one another. Combining sweetness with mellowness along side notes of floral honey and even a bite of sharp astringency with a long enchanting lingering finish;
Shape: Tight, even curled, dense pellets;
Colour: Depending on the style of Tie Guan Yin, the colour of the dry tea leaf pellets range from a bright, vivid, fresh green to an almost black, reddish-brown for the traditional styles. It is important that the tea is of a uniform colour;
Infused leaves: Silky bright, round stalk, pliable and resilient when stretched.
Tie Guan Yin Tea Production Process
From the tea bush to a good cup of tea, Tie Guan Yin tea production is a complex series of individual steps. Each separate process, from plucking to packing directly affect the quality of the final product.
1. Cai Qing (Plucking) 采青
There are two main seasons for haresting high quality, high mountain Tie Guan Yin tea, spring and autumn. Spring tea is typically harvested from early to mid-May and autumn tea in early October.
Inner Anxi's high elevations and cold temperatures result in tea bushes entering a state of hibernation during the winter, similar to other premium tea regions. This results in spring tea containing higher levels of compounds such as polyphenols, which have a direct impact on taste and health benefits, making the taste often more full-bodied than autumn tea. Autumn tea, due to wide variation in temperature during late summer and early autumn days and nights, is typically characterised by more distinctive aromas than spring tea. Nonetheless, each high quality Tie Guan Yin tea will embody these two important characters that make this variety of tea so appealing.
The Pluck used for Tie Guan Yin tea is one bud and two or three leaves. The leaves are ideally harvested, depending on the prevailing weather between 9am to 4pm. Very high quality tea leaves during optimal days, are usually plucked between 9am to 2pm and are called "Wu Qing" (午青, wu meaning noon and qing meaning green). The leaves plucked before 9am, are called "Zao Qing" (早青, zao, meaning morning), due to the morning dew, tea leaves harvested during this time are typically of a poorer quality. Quality is affected by higher than optimum moisture levels, which impacts how the plucked leaf responds to processing. Leaves plucked after 2pm, are called "wan qing" (晚青, wan meaning evening). It can be said that Tie Guan Yin made from wan qing has less aroma than from wu qing and are typically of a lower quality.
The choice of plucking time is impacted by the weather, state & location of the tea plant as well as availability of labour and thus speed of plucking.
2. Shai Qing (Withering) 晒青
Withering is freshly plucked tea leaves beginning the active process of dehydration. Withering aims to reduce the excess water in the tea leaf whilst accelerating the oxidative processes that began when the leaf was plucked.
The tea leaves are laid outside in the direct sun for 20-50 minutes. They are usually turned 2-3 times. Shai qing is best carried out between 4-5pm depending on the temperature and strength of sunshine, humidity and leaf moisture amongst other factors to regulate the speed, strength and degree of withering.
3. Liang Qing (Cooling) 晾青
This step is the cooling of the now withered leaves. At this time, water stored in stem and stalk preads throughout the leaf equalizing the moisture content of the entire leaf. The leaves are layered at depths of no more than 100-150mm throughout this process and turned regularly to disperse heat and the leaves to cool evenly.
4. Yao Qing (Tossing) 摇青
Tossing is one of the most critical stages in the Tie Guan Yin production process. It is a mixture of withering and oxidation. Oxidation is highly important in formation for many taste and aroma compounds which give the tea its liquor, colour, strength and briskness. ** Citation needed
Tossing is performed using a special bamboo drum. These drums were traditionally manually turned, but are motorised now. Tossing is conducted during 3-4 phases. Initially, the leaves are tossed for 10-15mins, and then 'cooled' or 'rested' for 2 hours; this is repeated a second time for 5-10mins, followed by a resting period of around 2 hours. The third phase is 15-20mins, with a cooling phase of more than 12 hours. The duration of yao qing and cooling are depended of the oxidation level required.
Tossing requires tea makers to be experienced at:
i. Observation: Visual monitoring of shape and colour of the leaves.
ii. Smell: How and when different notes, such as grass and floral form and at what stage the strength is optimal and balanced.. The fragile notes of e.g. grass and floral elements that need to be teased out of the leaf need to be optimal and balanced. Monitoring speed as well as progress of this minute art can only be achieved by smelling the leaves
iii. Texture: Leaves that have been tossed enough should be firm with a certain degree of elasticity.
iiii. Verification: General check of the leaves condition, examining the veins, looking for changes in (plant/leaf) sap and other indicators such as colour of the leaf edges, etc.
5. Sha Qing (Fixation) 杀青 （炒青）
Although commonly referred to as fixation in many sources, Sha Qing is achieved, by heat. During the 'kill green' process most if not all, enzymes are denaturalised by the high temperature, stopping or slowing oxidative processes at a chosen level.
Around 7-10kg of leaves are put into a round iron pan, pre-heated to 220-250c. Traditionally wood-fired, many machines are now electric or gas powered. The leaves are rapidly heated, halting oxidation, removing excess water and conditioning the leaves for shaping. The more leaves being fixed each batch, the higher the roasting temperature must be.
6. Shuai Qing 摔青
A relatively new and modern process. During shuai qing the leaves are laid out on a large square linen cloth, the four corner s are gathered together so the leaves cannot fall from the bundle. The tea farmers beat the bundle against a wall or the ground repeatedly.
During this process, not only are the leaves tossed and bruised, but friction between the cloth causes some additional sap and intracellular liquids to be expelled from ruptures in the leaf. These 'juices' enhance the softness and stickiness of the leaves and are another important step in preparing the leaf for rolling. It is the shuai qing stage that causes the edge of the leaf to fray.
7. Zheng Xing Bao Rou (Wrapping) 整形包揉
The tea leaves are wrapped in linen cloth bags to form large round balls.
8. Rou Nian (Rolling) 揉捻
The partly processed tea, wrapped in the linen cloth is placed into a specially made rolling machine. The linen bags are slowly compressed as the ball is rolled between the steel plates. Guides on the rolling machine ensure the bag is constantly turning, thus rolling the leaves evenly. This process causes the leaves to slowly form into sphere-like pellets.
During the rolling phases (rou nian), the pressure is slowly increased. This both tightens the individual pellets, also causing further ruptures in the leafs cell walls and outer Epidermis.
9. Da San (Loosening) 打散
The tightly compressed balls of tea are taken from the linen bags and broken open so that the individual leaves are freed. Loosening is important to ensure the leaves are exposed to an even temperature, consistent amount of air and distribution of pressure. This prevents individual leaves from sticking together.
These 3 steps (7-9) are repeated 20-40+ times until the tea leaves form into spherical pellets. The number of repetitions will depend on the condition of the leaves, the weather, the season, the grade of quality and market demand. Sometimes a farmer will deem that a looser leaf will yield better results. Traditionally, greater repetitions are reserved for higher grade teas as the additional time spent directly impacts the cost of the finished tea.
10. Bei Huo (Baking) 焙火
Baking is an intermediary process which is carried out during the repeated rolling stages above. Typically baking is 2-3 times, initially for around 30 minutes at 50-60c and then the subsequent times, where needed, for a shorter 20 minutes at a similar temperature. The tea leaves are laid out on bamboo sieves with iron stands and put it into a stove. The traditional way of baking is using charcoal to bake the leaves. Today many now electric stoves which are more convenient to control the temperature.
11. Gan Zao (Drying) 干燥焙火
Final baking. The leaves are dried to the necessary moisture content. The heat and during endures any remaining enzymatic reactions are halted. The drying takes up to 3 hours at 60c dependent on the condition and state of the processed leaf. The tea produced at the end of this stage is known as "mao cha" 毛茶 and each pellet retains a stalk.
12. Picking out sticks and packing 挑梗-包装
The final stage is to remove the stalks. This often done after the tea has been sold by the farmer or at least transported to one of the many trading towns and villages downhill of the tea gardens. Traditionally, this process is completed by hand, often by immediate family members such as grandparents, children or extended family and friends or in shops that retail the packed Tie Guan Yin.
Dependent on the grade of tea, degree of picking and sorting will vary. Higher grade teas may be sorted a second time or the initial process may be more strict, with additional emphasis placed on controlling the colour and size variations so the resulting tea is of a uniform nature. This stage removes tea leave dust which is used for other applications as well as tea bags.
As you will see, the production of Tie Guan Yin is very complex and time consuming. Every step here is very important to form the teas characteristics. A great Tie Guan Yin requires a lot of expertise, judgement and patience as well hard work. During the primary seasons of tea, spring and autumn, tea farmers have very little opportunity to sleep as each day's harvest merges into the previous days production.
A rule of thumb is that 2.5kg - 3kg of green, fresh tea leaves are needed to produce around 500g of mao cha which, in turn, yields around 300g of finished tea. Variation will depend on the quality of the original leaf, processing and the general grade.
We hope that a greater understanding of the process will further enhance your enjoyment of the Tie Guan Yin Oolong teas available from Wan Ling Tea House.
 Summer tea as well as all year round harvesting at lower elevations.
 Reference needed.