Does your tea bug you? It would if it’s Oriental Beauty Oolong, one of the most exotic teas and a bit of a rarity, with only about 20 kilograms of leaves processed per hectare. But it might not be so exotic without some insects getting into the act. Those little buggers chomp their way into tea fame.
Oriental Beauty Oolong (White Tip Oolong, Bai Hao Oolong, Formosa Oolong) is from Taiwan and is said to owe its sweet flavor and fruity aroma (the reason for the nickname “Champagne Oolong”) to tiny bites on the leaves by insects. For those of us who have tried and fell in love with this tea, you can thank one tea farmer willing to take a risk.
At first, tea farmers thought that insect bites had ruined the tea leaves in their gardens. However, one bold farmer harvested and processed the leaves and sold them to a tea trader named John Dodd, where it is supposed to have made its way into Her Majesty’s teacup in the UK. It became known as Oriental Beauty (“Dong Fang Mei Ren” in Chinese), but also picked up the name “Bragger’s Tea” (Pong Fong Cha) when the farmer who had dared to harvest the leaves and got a high price for them told his fellow farmers about it. They thought he was just bragging.
The insect responsible for this taste sensation goes by a variety of names, depending on who’s telling the tale. Some call it “criquets” (possibly a misspelling of “crickets”) while others call it a “leaf hopper” or “aphid” (a scourge as any rosarian knows), some say the insect is a “green fly,” and another uses the name “cicada.” The best name is the green leafhopper (Jacobiasca formosana), but whatever name it’s called, it still does its magic on the tea leaves, sucking the phloem juices of the tea stems, leaves, and buds. This produces monoterpene diol and hotrienol, starting oxidation of leaves and tips which adds a sweet note to the tea liquid.
The tea is also a more highly oxidized (65-85%) oolong. In fact, the oxidation stage of the processing acts not only on the chemicals in the tea leaves but also on the tiny bits of saliva deposited by the insects when they bite the leaves, thus adding to that distinctive sweetness. The leaves do not have that fresh smell, and the liquid is smooth and sweet, not astringent or bitter.
This tea also gets better with aging and proper storage (away from light, heat, and humidity). You can also steep the leaves 3 or 4 times, and maybe even a 5th. Use a gaiwan or glass teapot for steeping small quantities (about 8 ounces) and enjoy sipping the liquid at a leisurely pace. Start with a very brief (about 30-45 seconds) first steep with subsequent steeps being slightly longer.
Once you taste this tea, you won’t worry about the bug part. You will just enjoy!
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