This tea dates from the end of the 19th century, when Taiwan started exporting its Oolong teas overseas. At that time, tea was mostly harvested at low altitude in the plains of northern Taiwan or in the Wenshan forest. Most tea farmers were new immigrants from Fujian with little tea growing experience. They had moved accross the Formosa Straight in search of a place to start a new and prosperous life. Formosa tea was their 'Klondike gold'. They mostly sold their harvests to foreign agents (John Dodd or Jardine Matheson) for export to the West. The better the quality, the higher the price they would get.
During each summer, the tea farmers would be upset to see their crops eaten by swarms of small criquets, particularly present in the warm plains. They didn't even bother to harvest the leaves, because low quality tea was usually turned down by the foreign tea traders. One farmer in Hsin Chu county didn't accept this fate. He harvested these bitten leaves nonetheless and managed to sell them for a high price to John Dodd. Legend has it that this tea was so good that it supposedly made its way to the queen of England who named it "Oriental Beauty" (or 'Dong Fang Mei Ren' in Chinese. See the calligraphy on the left). In Hsin Chu county, meanwhile, our farmer proudly told his friends for what a high price he had been able to sell this tea. There, people named it "Pong Fong Cha" or braggar's tea.
Oriental Beauty is sometimes called 2 other names: Bai Hao Oolong, Oolong with white hair/fur, or Wu Se Cha, tea with 5 colors, in reference to the appearance of its dry leaves.
Beyond the name, what is Oriental Beauty? It is a highly oxidized (+/-70%) Oolong harvested from young leaves, in summer, just after they have been bitten by the tea jassid (a small criquet). This bite starts the oxidation of the leaves and adds a sweet and sour note that is so characteristic.
But because it is such a popular and tasty tea, many plantations around Asia and Taiwan are trying to imitate Oriental Beauty. This year, I tasted imitations from India and China (fragrant, but very bitter mouthfeel). I also found 'high mountain' farmers in the Lugu area making Oriental Beauty with their summer Gao Shan Oolong (but leaves are bigger and less insect bitten, which gives a less distinctive taste). To clear the confusion in search of the real Oriental Beauty, let's examine the following:
A. Summer 2005 Pinglin, Wenshan area, top grade Oriental Beauty
(The actual leaves look better in real. This picture was taken with the bottom of the package). The leaves are made up mostly of luanze (qingxin) Oolong. This Wenshan Oriental Beauty has a very nice and fresh fragrance (red berries, pineapple...). But I found it was best brewed light or with short infusion times. Unpleasant astringency would develop if brewed too long. (Open leaves on the left show the high oxidation level). Therefore, typical Wenshan Oriental Beauty has an emphasis on fragrance.
B. Summer 2005, Pinglin Wenshan Mao Ho Oriental Beauty (monkey hair)
This is particular Oriental Beauty is made with an older Oolong varietal. It is particular feature are the many white hair that cover the dry leaves like fur. It is less fragrant and sweet compared when compared with A. It develops more forest, mushroom notes. However, it can better be brewed for longer times and has a mellow and long aftertaste.
Red tea (and Oriental Beauty is close to being fully oxidized) is best brewed in glazed ceramic. The Mao Ho Oriental Beauty, however, with its forest notes will be enhanced when brewed in an Yixing zisha teapot.
C. Summer 2005 Hsin Chu county Oriental Beauty
This top grade Oriental Beauty comes from where it was originally invented. That means where the tradition making this tea is longest. It is probably no accident then that this Oriental Beauty tastes best in my overview. It has both wonderfully complex smells (cinnamon, hints of orange, pineapple...), but also a sweet and round aftertaste. It can brew for minutes without turning astringent, a trait only the very best teas display.
D. Summer 2005 Feng Huang, Dong Ding, Guei Fei Cha (Concubine tea)
This summer Dong Ding Oolong finds its inspiration in Oriental Beauty: the farmer hasn't used any pesticides on purpose. He wants the criquets to get a bite of the leaves and then oxidize them more strongly than he usually does with his traditional Dong Ding Oolong. But it's not an imitation of Oriental Beauty, because the leaves are still fist rolled as is tradition in the Dong Ding area. That's why he could give this tea a new name, Concubine tea. And that's why I find it interesting, because it doesn't try to imitate Oriental Beauty (and imitations are almost always very inferior to the original in the tea world, as this study and my experience have shown). Instead, he created a new tea with its special character: a highly oxidized, insect bitten, summer Dong Ding Oolong that is better than a traditional summer Dong Ding Oolong.