What are its characteristics? And why is it so @#$% expensive?
Leaf quality (!) is the main difference: - The very best Oriental Beauty is made with very small leaves and buds. In this regard, it is somehow similar to the finest green teas that are smallest at the beginning of the season. Buds are very concentrated in flavors and it takes much more effort for the pickers to harvest 1 kg of buds than 1 kg of full sized leaves.
- Such harvests of top grade buds are very small, just a few kg a day. This then leads to higher process costs, because you still need one experienced farmer to process this small quantity. - The small green jassids prefer to bite/eat young leaves (buds). The leaf than reacts to defend and recover from the bite. This causes a partial oxidation and the very specific high pitched Oriental Beauty fragrance. So, the finest Oriental Beauty has to come from the smallest leaves,
- Most tea farmers have to rely on climate and soil. Oriental Beauty farmers also need the tea jassids. Their bites is a gift, a little miracle, not something that you can count on every day (with pesticides or too cold or too hot weather, they won't come).
- Organic farming makes tastier food. So, organic leaves should also be more appetizing for tea jassids. But organic farming is more expensive (reduced yields, more work to maintain), - Actually, you can find Oriental Beauty produced almost in all Taiwan, from Wenshan to Ali Shan and Hua Lien. It's even produced in China, as I reported here (see also Teaparker's article about OB from Yunnan). Many Taiwanese farmers make their own version of Oriental Beauty with their summer Oolong harvest. Sometimes, these OBs can be quite good. But they can not reach the heights of the best Dong Fang Mei Ren from Hsin Chu county:
- In Hsin Chu county, there are Oriental Beauty tea competitions that motivate the local farmers to make the best possible tea. The top prized teas sell at very high prices in the local market. - Bai Hao Oolong (OB) is their flagship tea, the tea that their grand parents used to make. It receives their highest attention and benefits from past experience. - The cultivar (Qingxin Dapa) is best in balancing fragrance and taste for this tea. - The original soil, terroir of Hsin Chu county also adds its specific flavor. Conclusion: for the top grade, there can be no compromise. It must be made of competition grade, jassid bitten small leaves and buds, harvested from Qingxin Dapa trees in an organic plantation of Hsin Chu county. Basta. (Except for the tea jassid, all pictures show my Top grade OB 2008).
I live in Taiwan since 1996 and have been studying tea with Teaparker. He's a worldwide tea expert and author of over 30 tea books. The study of tea isn't just theoretical, but it's also rooted in daily practice. It's a path of continuous improvement. As my brewing technique improves I get access to better teas and better accessories. These things go hand in hand. My blog documents my learning since 2004. And I have set up an online tea boutique with my selection of top quality teas, accessories and tea culture.