A premium Oolong tea, also known as Ti Kuan Yin.

"There are so many myths and legends surrounding this tea, possibly because it's so good that it demands a good story." - Aroma Tea salesperson

The story goes that a Chinese monk was walking with his pet monkey in a garden when he was filled with the desire for a nice cup of tea. Who can blame him? After all, for me, as for the Chinese tea-drinkers, the recuperative powers of tea are just the thing for the tired soul. This particular day, the only available tea was on a steep slope, and too high for the monk to pick for himself. Sensing his master's disappointment, the monkey took matters into his own paws, scaled the tree and picked the best leaves from the top and brought them back. The monk brewed his tea and balance was restored. The tea was magnificent, and the monk took cuttings from the tree and cultivated them himself.

There are many tales told of this particular Oolong variety. According to some, the tea grows in such steep and mountainous places that it's impossible for people to access the best leaves, so they train monkeys to pick the young leaves. Some tales leave out the monkey and focus on the miraculous; one such tells of a man who began to clean and restore a ruined temple which housed an iron statue in honour of Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy. One day, after his labours in the temple, he had a dream in which he was visited by the goddess, who told him of a hidden treasure near a cave in the mountains. The treasure was his, the goddess told him, if he promised to share it. He went to the cave and discovered a single shoot of a tea bush. He transplanted the bush and shared the resulting tea with his neighbours.

The Tea and the Truth

This tea is known by many names, notably 'Ti Kuan Yin', 'Iron Buddha', 'Iron Guan Yin' and 'Iron Goddess Oolong'. It is known to have been grown since the 19th century in Fujian province, and whilst production is not limited to China, real aficionados claim that the best teas still come from the area around Anxi.

AS with so many fine teas, the real secret lies not just in the variety of tea, nor in the locale, but in the timing of the harvest and the method of processing. The leaves are best picked at the beginning of summer (though tea is still made from other seasonal pickings). The leaves are withered outdoors, fanned to cool them, then withered again and allowed to oxidise. After rolling and a final drying, the tea is toasted.

There is considerable variation in the styles of tea produced. Some newer styles are closer to green tea than Oolong, having been roasted less. The traditional toasting method is less common than of yore, and this is the style that has the better and more complex flavour, and commands the highest prices on the market. Some varieties of the tea sell for upward of a thousand dollars per pound. Such a tea being a little outside my price range, I selected one that was priced at a more moderate $20 for a quarter pound. I eked it out over a period of a few months, and thoroughly enjoyed every cup. At that price, I would not drink it for any occasion, choosing PG Tips or Yorkshire Tea for my regular morning beverage, and using the "monkey-picked" only as part of a meditation ritual. Worthwhile? I should say so. Better than five or six cups of Starbucks' coffee any day.

So, given the simple beauty of the Guan Yin tale, where does the "picked by monkeys" myth originate? Well, for my money, the best explanation is that an English tea merchant visited the area and having tasted the delightful brew, wanted the secret for himself. Understandably, the locals did not want to give away their secret and told him the monkey story to throw him off the scent. I can hardly blame them.

Encyclopædia Britannica
Various tea sites, and The Aroma Tea Shop in San Francisco

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