I recently purchased several "light roast" Wuyi yen cha from Seven Cups that I received along with the two Bai Ji Guan samples. Lightly roasted yen cha are rarer than medium and "traditional" roasted teas, and since Seven Cups features several light roast teas, I figured I had some learning to do with my first purchase. My previous experiences with such oolongs have been very good--generally the flavor leans a little more to subtlety but a little away from complexity, as the roasting doesn't compete quite as much with the tea's inherent flavor characteristics.
Tie Luo Han is one of the Si Da Ming Cong (4 famous yen cha cultivars) and the name is usually translated as "Iron Warrior Monk." Seven Cups translates it as "Iron Arhat." "Arhat" is usually used to describe leading disciples of a buddha (though the term also applies to the buddha as well)--when the buddha reaches enlightenment and attains nirvana, so too do the arhats through his teaching. Some scholars will Christocentrically explain that arhats are "the saints of buddhism," though this analogy (like most of its kind) is probably more misleading than it is helpful, though it is apt on a thin surface level. I've always liked to think of this tea as the male version of the famous Tie Guan Yin, which is an even less apt analogy for every reason except the similarity between the names. Back to the matter at hand, this Tie Luo Han turned out to be a real gem.
The dry leaves are thick, long and complete, which is what I love to see with yen cha--it means whoever sold it to me took really good care of it. The leaves' gray/green coloration only comes through slightly in the pictures (surprise, surprise; I think it's time to embrace my camera's many flaws and play off my grainy tea photos as a "lo fi" artistic statement). Since the tea's obviously pretty green, I use less leaf than I would with a roastier yen cha, filling the pot roughly half full. I also infuse for about 15 seconds to start with (rather than flash-infusing) to get the best flavor.
Mmm-boy, this one is a winner. The honey-colored liquor yields a delicious assortment of dried fruit flavors reminiscent of raisins and dates, as well as a dark cooked apple-like feeling (thanks to Authoritea for encouraging me to buy this tea sooner). The wet leaves echo this experience but add a savory grain-like aroma to the mix. In the fair cup, the aroma is achingly honeyed with a wee bit of spice; I think the very successful light roasting for this tea really brought out a different character. Usually Tie Luo Han gets heavy traditional roasting, which can have its merits, but with this much underlying tea flavor, it's nice not to have the competition of a strong roast obscuring the tea show. With the second and third infusions, the liquor becomes dense and buttery, which is the aspect of these light roasted oolongs that keeps me coming back over and over again. The tea goes about 7 or 8 infusions before thinning to the point of simplicity, though I'd probably find at least a little enjoyment out of 10+ infusions. The mouthfeel was pretty pleasant for most of the session, with an acceptable astringency peaking around the third go.
The wet leaves behave interestingly--some remain tightly twisted, some pop open completely, and some remain in limbo between both extremes. It's also easy to see that the oxidation doesn't seem to be too heavy, just sort of creeping into the edges of the bruised leaves. I don't feel like I'm any closer to understanding what the archetypal Tie Luo Han tastes like (I most certainly could not pick a Tie Luo Han blind out of a line-up, or probably even say what makes three different Tie Luo Han teas similar to each other), but I can say that I found this specific one extremely pleasant to drink. Despite the fact that it's light-roast and 2 years old, it's still holding up better than the 2007 Bai Ji Guan I tasted from Seven Cups--and it's on sale! I may have to get some more.