Since teas from Vietnam are spotty as far as purity and quality go, I was excited when TeaHaus was able get the oolong Oriental Beauty. But interestingly, many things come to play with this tea—its potentially problematic name, the role of pests, the source, and of course the quality of the tea itself. Here’s a quick look.
The use of “oriental” continues to be debated and analyzed, rightfully so. But what about as a tea name descriptor?
John Bickel explores this at some length in his insightful post, “Using the Term ‘Oriental’ in Tea Names.” I recommend that you read his article, in which he highlights both sides of the debate.
The word simply means “the east” or “the part of the sky where the sun rises” as opposed to occidental (“the west” or “the part of the sky where the sun sets”), but when used to refer to people? Who is “east” and who is “west” depends on where you are located when you make that decision. We live on a sphere: anyone can be both east and west of someone else. The problem with the word “oriental” was that it was used, beginning in the 15th century, by westerners to separate themselves from those they deemed “other.”
But Bickel points out that in Asian countries, the word doesn’t carry the same baggage—possibly because when the Taiwanese call their oolong “Oriental Beauty” they’re “just not keeping up with shifting English use.” Or, the issue isn’t an issue simply because other names for the oolong are more common in Taiwan, with the name “Oriental Beauty” used for exports.
As David Campbell demonstrates in his fascinating history of the tea (very much worth reading!), the origin of both tea and name are rather murky. The most convincing idea is that the name was invented as a marketing device, perhaps in the 1980s or possibly as early as the mid-1950s; the name wasn’t commonly used until the 1990s (Campbell 2017).
Regardless, the name is beginning to be phased out so you may well find this tea with other, less fraught, names.
In addition to the complicated nature of its name, this oolong has an equally complicated production process behind it. This particular organic oolong is from the Jin Xuyen cultivar, grown in northern Vietnam’s Tam Duong district, at altitudes up to 2300 feet, although usually Oriental Beauty is produced in Taiwan. In fact, some would argue that it’s not truly Oriental Beauty if it’s not from Taiwan.
What makes this oolong particularly interesting is that farmers allow tea green leafhoppers to bite the leaves, which triggers chemical changes within the leaves as they fend off the pests. As Eric Scott explains in his comprehensive article about the process (I recommend you read this as well!), growers want just the right amount of damage, which imparts a sweetness to the leaves. Too little or too much and you end up with a bitter taste.
To control this, the leaves will be plucked when they have been optimally damaged by the leafhoppers. Because the tiny insects are able to bite only tender leaves (and these are tiny bites!), they’ll move on when a plant has only mature leaves available. Removing weeds growing among the tea plants also apparently reduces the number of leafhoppers (Scott).
So what is this bug-bitten oolong like? What do those volatile chemicals released by the tea leaves taste like? Because that’s what gives this tea its unique flavor.
The leaves themselves are a beautiful mix of furry white buds and light to dark brown small leaves, very loosely twisted and rolled, with a strong sweet and fruity aroma. According to Campbell, the buds lose moisture after being bitten by the leafhoppers and so keep their fine hairs.
I brewed a heaping teaspoon in 8 oz of boiling water for 3 minutes. The dark golden brown first brew (shown earlier in this post) had the aroma of honey. Its smooth sweet liquor had a strong honey note with a slight aftertaste that did not linger.
The second brew was darker in color, with a smooth liquor that had notes of sweet berry. Looking at the spent leaves, there were numerous bud tips, always fun to see.
I enjoyed this tea with its smooth sweetness, all thanks to those tiny leafhoppers. I must admit, though, that I liked it better when it was brewed at TeaHaus with its high-quality filtered water system. Most fine teas are better when brewed with ideal water, of course, but in the case of this tea, I think it lost a lot when I used my city tap water.
But I did find this tea’s history fascinating, as have many others—at least based on the number of excellent articles already written about this beauty of a tea.
–Bickel, J., “Using the term ‘oriental’ in tea names,” T Ching, 5/18/21.
–Campbell, D., “Oriental Beauty: Myth and mystery,” Tillerman Tea, 11/1/17.
–Scott, E., “Oriental Beauty and Other Bug-Bitten Teas: Fact or Fiction?,” Tony Gebely, Tea Epicure, accessed 10/13/21.