Tea Writings

A blog about tea from the desk of Cecilia Tan
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Tea Review: Canton Tea Co “Tie Guan Yin”

January 07, 2011 By: ctan Category: Tea Reviews

I’m drinking a pot of “Tie Guan Yin (Iron Buddha)” from the Canton Tea Co right now, and despite the company’s somewhat unique ideas on spelling and nomenclature, and possibly questionable cultural understanding, the tea itself is damn good.

I drink a lot of ti kuan yin (my preferred transliteration). I was first introduced to this tea by name through, believe it or not, The Republic of Tea, who used to sell an Iron Goddess of Mercy like fifteen years ago. Theirs wasn’t particularly good in those days, and they don’t carry it any more, but the name “Iron Goddess of Mercy” stuck with me until I started researching tea a bit more.

I also researched the province that my ancestors are from–Fukien, as they called it, now called Fujian in the current Chinese government’s preferred designation–which happens to be the place that the very best ti kuan yin supposedly comes from. Kuan Yin, the Iron Goddess herself, is worshipped there, and I visited a temple to her on a Fukienese moutainside in 2007.

Kuan Yin has a curious history as a goddess, and sometimes a god, and sometimes a buddha. It’s not unusual for Chinese cultures to absorb and remake cultural influences from outside into something more natively Chinese (just look at communism). This makes it somewhat complicated to encapsulate a single anecdote on who, or what, Kuan Yin is, or was, when even her gender and status as a god or boddhisatva changes depending on who you talk to and at what point in history.

Nonetheless, she is much more usually accepted as a goddess or female figure these days, so Canton Tea Co’s designation of the tea as “Iron Buddha” struck me as a bit odd. But then Canton Tea Co strikes me as a bit odd in that their packaging and image seem to be based on cultural echoes of what might be recognized by western white folks as “Chinese.” Instead of going for the ancient, chop-socky film style, though, they’ve tried to capture a kind of Communist Manifesto look, with a big red star for their logo and the questionably capitalized slogan “Real tea to the People.” (I was thinking if I ever opened a tea shop in Beijing my slogan would have to be “We put the ti in Tiananmen Square…”)

There is, of course, a long long history and tradition of British Imperialism (CTT is a British company) that encourages this sort of marketing behavior on the part of merchants, much of it tied with the tea trade itself, so this is hardly surprising and I can’t really bring myself to label it “cultural appropriation.” The tea they sell actually comes from China. Its provenance is in fact important and relevant. And this is no different than the cutesy “French” packaging one finds on jars of Herbs de Provence and fleur de sel sold in the grocery store. I note it mostly because with dozens of mail order tea sources out there, packaging is one of the only things that distinguishes one from another, and the Canton Tea Co has clearly put a lot of thought into their corporate image and design. And what’s a little British Imperialism among friends?

The fact is this tea is so good that each time I take a sip, I’m surprised how good. When I did the first rinse of the leaves in hot water before steeping, the scent that steamed up from them was classic ti kuan yin. I knew from that it would at least be a decent workaday cup of iron goddess. The first few sips were good, with a creamy undertone not quite as creamy as a “milk oolong” but quite delicious. As it cooled, the floral notes came out, and the pot remained delicious to the last drop. It’s what I would call a full bodied tea, very satisfying in the mouth.

As I said, I am picky about my green/jade oolongs and ti kuan yin in particular. And this one definitely impressed me.

I rarely review a tea before I have made at least two pots and also seen how many steepings the leaves can hold up to, but I wanted to record these first impressions while they were still fresh. It’s high quality stuff, and I would purchase it again without hesitation. (Actually, disclaimer, I didn’t purchase this sample package. I got it free from Canton. But I will be purchasing it now.)

Later: I’ve now had the second steeping and found it so tasty, I served it to a guest. Not as orgasmic as the first steeping, but on par with some of the lower grade oolong’s FIRST steeping. The third steeping, even, was drinkable, though fairly unremarkable (other than to remark that the third steeping was drinkable, which many are not!). I didn’t chance a fourth steeping. The leaves were still very aromatic at that point and if I was hard up I might have tried for one more, but I decided I’d worked the leaves hard enough. These are definitely quality leaves.

All in all, nicely done Canton Tea Co.

Related links:
Tie Guan Yin page at Canton Tea Co’s website: http://www.cantonteaco.com/oolong-tea/iron-buddha-oolong-tea-tie-guan-yin-wu-long.html

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