A Trio of Wulong Beauties - Vietnam, India and Taiwan
In November 2022, we have a tea box of Wulong Beauties. This is a continuation of the honey theme in the October 2022 tea box when we introduced three 2nd flush Darjeeling teas.
This box is a twist of the famous Oriental Beauty tea (东方美人茶). Let us begin with a little history. Oriental Beauty tea originates from Taiwan northwest, specifically in Xin Zhu county, but are being made at the other counties of Taoyuan and Nantou as well. It was purportedly named by Queen Victoria at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 when she was presented with the tea and was impressed by the leaves dancing in the glass. Another version mentions Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and yet another mentions Queen Elizabeth II. The later versions are more believable as Taiwanese teas were first made known to the western world at large by Scottish merchant John Dodd who set up his tea company Dodd and Co in 1865. A particular incident recorded him buying an usually unwanted tea at an exceptional high price, such that the Xin Zhu farmer who sold him that tea excitedly reported his unexpected windfall noisily to his neighbours who naturally disbelieved him and subsequently earning this tea the title of "braggart's tea" (膨风茶).
Understanding the style of this tea, it seems like a tall tale that a bug bitten tea harvested in summer, and at an uneven oxidation level across all the leaves could be so beautiful in flavour. In Taiwan, a tea jassid from the Cicadellidae family feast on the tender leaves and buds of the new tea stalks grown from the adequate sunlight of spring and early summer. The leaves turn physically ugly with bite marks which start to oxidise. Such leaves could only be made into a highly oxidised tea lest these ugly marks would show. The insect bite also promotes the plant to release chemical compounds which turn the newly grown buds white, which retain the colour after the tea is processed.
We could imagine what went through the mind of that legendary Xin Zhu farmer. In a rush to quickly dispose off these seemingly low quality teas, it would be reasonable to understand why he chose not to roast this tea - an otherwise standard process for wulong teas. For the same reason in trying to maximise any value from the physically damaged leaves, the fresh greens were plucked with less discrimination - from the bud to much larger leaves down the stalk so that the tea is heavier. Such picking resulted in varying degrees of oxidation in the different sizes and tenderness of the leaves, turning the tea into a spectrum of colours aside from the already whitish tips - thus its other names of Five Colour Tea (无色茶) and White Tip Wulong Tea (白毫乌龙).
In all aspects, this alien looking tea which was not roasted was unorthodox and non-traditional of the deep roasting wulong styles of Taiwan and Fujian of that time. Like a tea born out of mistake, it managed to reverse its fate because of the exceptional good flavour it has. The protagonist of this drama is the tiny tea jassid. In Taiwan and China, it is the Jacobiasca formosana species from the Cicadellidae family. In India's Darjeeling 2nd flush tea, it is the tea jassid called Empoasca flavescens from the same Cicadellidae family. In Vietnam, another species of tea jassid feeds on the tea sap during summer, and produces the same flavour effects on the processed tea. These teas are usually organic or conventional organic, or in the least, low in pesticides. This is so that the tea jassids can populate amongst the plants. The skill of the producer is in deciding when to pluck the leaves - a rightly bitten leaf gives off the magical honey notes, while an over-bitten leaf carries a bitter taste.
In this tea box, the Taiwan tea is Oriental Beauty from Xin Zhu, made using Camellia sinensis var. Sinensis, with a soft-stemmed (软枝) variety called Green Heart Da Pang (青心大冇). The Vietnam tea is made in the style of Oriental Beauty and we named it An Nam Beauty, after the ancient name of Vietnam. It is made using Camellia sinensis var. Sinensis, using a local variety grown in Hoa Binh province in northern Vietnam, southwest of Hanoi. The India tea is from Bihar, south of Darjeeling. It is named Doke Rolling Thunder, and it is a rare wulong tea from India. We feel that it resembles the Oriental Beauty in style and flavour. Different from the previous two teas, it is made using Camellia sinensis var. Assamica, using the TV 25/TV26 cultivar developed by the famous Tocklai Tea Research Institute. All three teas are made by hand.
The three teas in both pictures from left to right are An Nam Beauty, Rolling Thunder and Oriental Beauty. All teas are brewed at 1 min, at 3 gm to 100 ml water. The lower set of teas were brewed at 85°C and presented a lighter tone. The upper set were brewed at 90°C, with a darker tone. (The 5°C differences translated into deeper colour and the attendant deeper flavours.)
An Nam Beauty is loosely rolled and the leaves look less compact with a bigger volume. The tea is made entirely by one person, from picking to rolling to firing. Leaves are whole, well rolled and have varied colour against the generally black leaves. Its buds are golden and not white like the typical Oriental Beauty, perhaps due to higher oxidation levels from the warmer local climate. At 85°C, it smells like honey with a hint of caramel. At 90°C, it becomes roasted almond and walnuts in the brewed leaves, which curiously turn into deliciously fruity notes of longan and honey in the brew. Reminding us of ching teng dessert popular in Singapore, both temperatures produce syrupy and sweet brews, elevated at the higher temperature. It has a slight throat resonance (喉韵).
Rolling Thunder made entirely by hand is significant given that most of the teas made in India are done by machines. The leaf colour is varied and displays lighter to darker brown tones. The flavour profile is more wide ranging, smelling of yellow rose and honey with some greenness or raw spice, maybe even lemon, with a hint of astringency. This is perhaps due to the higher variation in oxidation levels hinted by the colour scheme of the tea as well as some amount of broken leaves, The aroma is forward and strong, albeit short. In the lower temperature brew, it presents sweeter and cleaner notes, with a gentle caressing touch. In the higher temp brew, it presents a creamy mouthfeel. There is little throat resonance.
Oriental Beauty has tightly rolled leaves, presenting the least volume amongst the three teas. It has white tips and its leaves are colourful against a backdrop of pitch black leaves. Its white tips remain light in colour even after brew. Its brew colour is the lightest, suggesting the reason for its clean flavour. It benefits from a higher temperature brew when the notes are more complex and pronounced - it smells of lotus flowers and some notes of pineapple, condensing into clear longan, frangipani and honey notes when slightly colder. In the lower temp brew, its mouthfeel is soft, turning into creaminess at the higher temperature. This tea won a Commendation prize at the Xinzhu Oriental Beauty tea competition in July this year.
It will be difficult and unfair to give a one-liner summary statement for the three teas. Underlaying all the teas is the alluring honey note characteristic of bug bitten leaves. Against this is the buffet of other complex notes reflective of the terroir and craftsmanship of the makers.
With this tea box, we concluded the six delicious honey teas for 2022!
Thank you for drinking tea with us!