When you hear iron goddess of mercy, what does it make you think of? A heavy metal band, maybe? A religious figure? A piece of art?
Would it surprise you to learn that it actually refers to an unassuming and floral oolong tea? It may not be what you first expect, but if you’re anything like me, curiosity will get the best of you and you’ll just have to try this semi-oxidized tea that could moonlight as a rock and roll star.
A fascinating history
As with many tea monikers, the origins of guan yin tea, are steeped in lore and mystery. Commonly written as tieguanyin, or sometimes seen as Ti Kuan Yin or TGY, Iron Goddess of Mercy oolong tea originated in China and is now also grown in central Taiwan.
Tieguanyin tea is known to have been grown since the 1800s, but exactly who first cultivated it, and where, remains unknown. There are two similar, but slightly different legends that explain where the tea may have gotten its name. However, since there are no first-person accounts or documents relating to its origins, we, unfortunately, have no record to credit the person or people responsible for making this wonderful tea available to us all those years ago.
The legend of farmer Wei
As the legend goes, Wei was a poor farmer who swept his local temple as an act of service to honor the gods. All that time in the temple resulted in a miraculous gift for Wei, who had a vision that led him to search a nearby cave for valuable treasure.
This treasure turned out to be a tea shoot. While some may have passed this by as nothing but a plant, Wei decided to plant it in his garden and carefully tend to it. His hard work paid off, as the single shoot grew into a tea bush, which he used to make what we now know as tieguanyin tea. He went on to share his cultivation with the surrounding community, which turned out to be a thriving crop that helped benefit his neighbors as well.
The legend of scholar Wang
Wang, on the other hand, was a scholar. It’s said that he was walking by the Guishan Guanyin, or Guanyin Rock, where he found a tea shoot. Just like Wei, he took it home, planted it, and cared for it until it grew into a tea bush. He then brewed a cup of tea for the emperor at the time, the Qianlong Emperor, who enjoyed it so much that it became the popular tea that it remains today.
A versatile flavor profile
The taste of tieguanyin tea varies greatly depending on where the tea leaves originated. In fact, tieguanyin is considered to have two different sub-types–Anxi and Muzha–and they couldn’t be more different.
Anxi tieguanyin tea
The Anxi version of tieguanyin is named after the area in which it’s grown, Anxi County, which is located in the Fujian Province in southeastern China. This tea is just barely oxidized and can be found both roasted and unroasted. The unroasted variety is especially light, floral, and smooth. It is the more common of the two tieguanyin teas.
Muzha tieguanyin tea
As with Anxi tieguanyin, Muzha tieguanyin gets its name from where it is harvested. Muzha tieguanyin is oxidized more than Anxi, making it closer to a black tea than a green tea, though it is still considered an oolong tea.
What really makes Muzha stand out from Anxi is that it is roasted, giving it a more complex flavor profile, often described as nutty and smoky. The difference between Muzha tieguanyin and Anxi tieguanyin is obvious when poured, as Anxi presents as light yellow and Muzha appears as more of a reddish-brown.
A tea that’s tasty and good for you
Tieguanyin isn’t the fountain of youth, but this tea can give your health a bit of a boost. The caffeine alone can give your brain power a jolt, helping you to focus and feel ready for the day ahead.
It may seem contradictory, but it can also help you to relax. That’s because it contains l-theanine, which is an amino acid that helps to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.
If you’re trying to shed pounds, tieguanyin tea is not only a tasty zero-calorie beverage you can sip on each day but it also contains flavonoids, which studies have shown to be effective in combating obesity.
Last but not least, oolong teas are well-known for their antioxidant content, particularly polyphenols. Polyphenols are not only great for your skin, but studies have yielded very positive results relating to their impact on more serious health problems, including cancer and cardiovascular disease.
How to brew tieguanyin tea
There is no right or wrong way to brew tieguanyin tea. It really depends on your preference, what you have available to you, and how much time you have.
If you have the ability to measure your water’s temperature, you can bring it to a boil, let it cool to around 200 degrees Fahrenheit (93 degrees Celsius), and let the leaves brew for about 1-2 minutes.
If you’re on the go and don’t have a full tea set at your disposal, you can let the tea leaves brew in a mug of hot water. 2-3 grams of leaves will be appropriate for a single mug of tea.
Then there’s the always reliable Gong Fu method, which takes time and precision but is well worth the result. With the Gong Fu style of brewing, you’re able to get multiple steeps out of your leaves and the flavor grows with each brew. This method not only makes for a unique flavor with each subsequent cup but can also serve as a ritual or meditative experience that can have just as much of a benefit on your mental health as the l-theanine the tea contains.
A tea that wears many hats
It’s rare to find a variety of tea that can be both light and dark or refreshing and complex. Whether you enjoy a less oxidized tea or love the flavor that roasting tea leaves adds to the final product, there’s a version of tieguanyin for you. That’s the beauty of this particular kind of tea–there’s something for everyone!