One of the most exotic teas might not be so exotic without some insects getting into the act. Yes, you read that right — insects!
Oriental Beauty Oolong (White Tip Oolong, Bai Hao Oolong, Formosa Oolong), according to a number of sites that sell this tea, owes its sweet flavor and fruity aroma (causing some to nickname this the “Champagne Oolong”) to tiny bites on the leaves by insects. It owes its existence to one tea farmer willing to take a risk, according to legend.
At first, tea farmers thought the insect bites had ruined the leaves. 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. Rather typical that those who take risks are not always praised by others when those risks work out well.
The name of the insect responsible for this taste sensation varies, 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.” One article specifies the green leafhopper (Jacobiasca formosana) and says that it sucks the phloem juices of the tea stems, leaves, and buds. This produces monoterpene diol and hotrienol, giving the tea its unique flavor, and starts oxidation of leaves and tips which adds a sweet note to the tea liquid.
The tea also gets some of its flavor characteristics from being 65-85% oxidized (or fermented, as some call this stage of tea processing). In fact, the oxidation 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 creating that distinctive sweetness. There is no distinct odor of fresh leaves, and the liquid is smooth and sweet without any astringency or bitter flavor.
This is a tea that can also get better with some aging, like pu-erhs. And since it is a fairly rare tea, with only about 20 kilograms of leaves processed per hectare, you may want to hold on to whatever you buy and be sure to store them properly (away from light, heat, and humidity). You can also steep the leaves 3 or 4 times, and maybe even a 5th. The first steep should be very brief (about 30-45 seconds) with subsequent steeps being slightly longer. A Yixing clay teapot, a gaiwan, or a glass teapot are recommended. Steep small quantities (about 8 ounces) and enjoy sipping the liquid at a leisurely pace as you would a fine wine.
One final note to those of you a bit squeamish about the whole bug thing: don’t think about it. If you eat hotdogs… Well, we won’t go there. But there are lots of countries in the world where insects are a regular part of their diet. That should make you feel better!