Lesson in Tea Buying 3/3: Tie Guan Yin
For those that don't know, I am a huge fan of Tie Guan Yin and am on the hunt for a truly great Tie Guan Yin. For a brief moment last summer I thought I had found it.
Of course, I am on the hunt for a truly great tea in every category but the hunt for Tie Guan Yin is a little unique because I have a flavor profile in mind that I can't seem to find no matter how many times I go to Anxi. A flavor, so different from all other Tie Guan Yins I drink.
Most Tie Guan Yins made these days fall under the Zheng Wei or the Xiao Qing category. These two categories define at what time the tea leaves finished fermenting and went under the kill green step. Zheng Wei being the shortest time, with the green being killed the morning after and Xiao Qing being killed in the afternoon. The Zheng Wei flavor, the majority of what is made, is very light and floral. The extra fermenting time of Xiao Qing also gives it a light flavor but adds a little of the Tie Guan Yin sourness. More than four trips to Anxi had yielded me no results in the quest for truly amazing Tie Guan Yin. Everything I tasted was Zheng Wei or Xiao Qing. Then sitting in my home in Anhui I found something that was significantly different and better.
I found the seller on Taobao to be honest. He was selling a Tie Guan Yin sample pack of five teas, two packets of each. For 100RMB it seemed like a good deal. I wasn't expecting to find anything, just wanted to taste more teas.
I received the sample pack in the mail and started with the most expensive sample. A whopping 4000 RMB this one would cost per Jin. I tasted it and was left in shock. It was bold with unique and complex characteristics. The tea had a strong, but even, sour sensation. There was a metallic finish lingered in the back of my mouth in a way that no other had. It had been so long since I tasted the metallic finish that I had actually forgotten what it tasted like till right then. This was a tea that could even stand up to food. This was the flavor I was looking for!
To be honest, the tea wasn't perfect. The tea lacked balance, wasn't too clean, and showed a few flaws that I wasn't happy with. That being said, it was pretty damn close and in the right direction. I decided to taste all of the other teas and save the second pao (pao is a single serving of tea) till the end. I went through all the other Tie Guan Yins and enjoyed each one. Each tea was unique and different. It had its own flavor profile and characteristics significantly different from the others. By the time I got through all the other teas though, I had already decided to buy the first one. I saved the last pao and planned to send it to my friend Marjorie in New York.
I messaged the guy on wechat, ordered half a jin and once again waited anxiously. The tea came, I once again opened the box excitedly, opened a bag, and stopped. When I cut the bag open the aroma from the tea lifted into my nose and I immediately knew it it wasn't the same aroma. It was too fresh and bright. The tea I had before was stronger and heavier. I brewed the tea and on my first steep it was confirmed, it was a different tea.
I steeped the tea a few times more hoping I wasn't just over thinking this and it was the same tea. I looked for the notes that I had tasted before, tasting similar ones but knowing they weren't the same. It was that strong metallic finish that was lacking the most. I went to the fridge and took the sample I had planned to send to Marjorie for comparison, still hoping I was mistaken. I was not. Two completely different teas. The original tea showed so much more power, characteristics, and personality. The new tea was nice, but your basic Tie Guan Yin with nothing interesting to show for it.
I messaged the guy the conversations went very similar to the ones before. Me saying its not the same tea and him saying it was impossible. This time though I offered to send the teas back for him to try, he agreed and I sent them back to him. He tasted them and still thought it was the same tea. "Next time you are in Fujian, come to my office." He said.
"I'll be there next month" I replied.
Flash forward a month and I'm in his office in Quanzhou. I learned that he was from Gande, but now lived in Quanzhou selling Gande tea. His office was two rooms he rented in an office complex from which he sold tea online. (This would explain the high price, it was retail pricing). In one room sat a simple tea table and a few computers on a badly carpeted floor. In another room were shelves of tea. Besides selling Tie Guan Yin he also sold Yan Cha and red tea. Different Yan Chas lined the shelves while his Tie Guan Yins were kept in a fridge.
We sat down and started tasting teas. He first started with the second tea he had sent me. I confirmed that it wasn't the same tea explaining that the flavor was far too light and simple. He then brought tea after tea seeing if there was something else I might like, none of them coming close to what I had had.
I was faced with a decision. I had paid a high price for tea that I hadn't received and was sitting in the two-room office of the man who had sold it to me. What should I do? Should I ask for my money back or just take a replacement tea? I decided this was not a bridge I wanted to burn. Even if he hadn't given it to me, he had access to teas that I was looking for and could be a stepping stone to getting them.I ended up leaving a jin of the best Tie Guan Yin we had tasted that day. It has gotten rave reviews from everyone I sent it to.
It's hard to say what one should take from this. I am still don't want to assume I will be cheated at the first chance a tea seller gets, but I also know that I need to be careful. I have learned a few lessons and tricks to buying tea and while I don't think this will be the last time this happens, it will be a harder slip to pull off.