Understanding Grades of Tie Guan Yin

by Jason Walker on August 16, 2012

in Member Content

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As with most agricultural products, tea is graded from commodity levels and upward. Oftentimes increases in gradations involve an increase in price. Then the challenge becomes a negotiation of when to stop climbing the grade ladder to find that right point between price and quality level.

The rationale behind a grading system can tell you much about the manner in which the product is admired. Consider eggs and beef. Theoretically, you should not be able to taste a difference between a Grade AA and a Grade B egg. Eggs are not evaluated according to taste. Measurements related to egg grades may or may not reflect conditions for better taste. On the other hand, prime, choice and select cuts of beef would be expected to deliver noticeable differences in taste as related to texture.

Background Characteristics of Tie Guan Yin

Tie guan yin (铁观音) wulong often receives grade values when entered into competitions. “Competition grade” tie guan yin is offered by  some retailers, as is “monkey picked” iron goddess of mercy. But these descriptors raise questions related to who assigned the tea’s grade and how it was evaluated.

A little bit of background about tie guan yin can help. Tie guan yin is a specific sub-varietal, so it was originally associated with specific plants grown at a specific location. The place was Anxi county, and could include different villages with slightly modified processing methods. Some time back, sub- sub-varietals within tie guan yin emerged. Among these, one called red bud crooked tail peach (红芽歪尾桃) was developed from mainly cross-breeding red heart (红心) and hong ying (红英). Some consider the red bud crooked tail peach varietal as the only true tie guan yin. Others will create the tea from green heart(青心) or red heart(红心) varietals.

Tie guan yin can also be processed to express certain fragrances. Qing xiang (青香) expresses the lighter green, floral fragrances of the tea, while Nong (sometimes misspelled Long) Xiang (浓香) creates a richer, more concentrated taste through more extensive roasting/baking. The effects of age and longer roasts also contribute differently to the experience of tie guan yin.

Connoisseurs also remark on a tie guan yin’s yun (or 音韵), which expresses the concept of the tea having a rhythmic or musical characteristic. Others have tried to define this intangible feeling by associating it with a plum-orchid aroma, a “drilling” (钻) feeling in the teeth or inner cheeks, and an effect on the person’s qi.

Tie guan yin can also be classified according to season. Spring tie guan yin often gets the most recognition.

Competition and Grading of Tie Guan Yin Teas

It is relatively easier to find information about the Taiwan competition and grading processes for Taiwanese teas, less is recorded about Fujian’s tie guan yin competitions.

First off, it appears that there is more than one official body. This article cites the existence of at least 3 organizations: the MinNan Tea Judging Association, the National Tie Guan Yin Tea Judging Association, and the Fujian Provincine Anxi Tea Culture and Judging Panel. However, information on the practices of these organizations is scant.

What can be found is from the Anxi County Tea Industry Authority, who oversees the King of Tie Guan Yin Competition. As recorded here, some rules are specific and useful, while others are left widely open to interpretation:

  •  Spring and Autumn harvests are judged separately
  • Teas are judged at different stages, including village, county, province and national levels
  • a notary public often oversees the collection, tabulation, and recording of votes
  • Entrants submit 2.5kg to 6kg of their tea
  • teas entered are tested to assure that health/sanitation standards are met. Note: it is presumed this refers to checking for pesticides or other pollutants
  • competing teas are rated/classified as either qing xiang or nong xiang
  • Teas can be awarded gold, silver, bronze, or a “quality award.”
  • Only one tea can receive a gold award per competition. There may be multiple quality awards distributed.
One of the key problems you may have noticed is the missing information about how winning teas are collected for subsequent sale. In a scenario like this, a farmer could dedicate himself to creating 6kg of spectacular tea, win a gold medal, and then use that gold medal to try to pass off hundreds of kilograms of his other teas that do not meet gold-medal standards.

It is for reasons like this that some have remarked tie guan yin tea competitions in mainland China are of little to no merit.

In the end, buyers must beware of assigning almost any value to grades and “competition grade” descriptors applied to Fujian tie guan yin. When these are used, they may be somewhat more persuasive if the vendor can tell what competition was entered, something about the class in which the tea competed, and the number and levels of awards distributed during the competition.

Above all, don’t let an award sway you too heavily in determining what teas are right for you.


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Walker Tea Review- a tea blog with tea reviews and tea tastings.
Want to see a tea reviewed? Contact me: jason@walkerteareview.com

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