The Quest for Oriental BeautyFor many years I’ve wanted to venture north, out of my familiar playground of Dong Ding and High Mountain Oolong Country in Central Taiwan, to explore the heart of the famous and ever more popular Oriental Beauty Oolong Tea in Emei, Hsinchu County. I’ve been especially interested in this area since it is comprised of small, family heritage tea farms. And yet, for no good reason, I have only just made my first expedition to Oriental Beauty Country.
Our tea advisors, Tony and Lisa Lin have taught tea culture seminars at the local farmers’ association in Emei, meeting local farmers, and they referred me to a young, progressive farmer who I visited a couple days ago. He left his tech job in the nearby Science Park a few years ago to inherit the management of his father’s tea farm. It was a pivotal decision in his life, and one that he speaks of with modest pride. He has since educated himself by enrolling in intensive courses offered by the Tea Research Extension Station (TRES) and Farmers’ Associations. Of course he had grown up on a tea farm, and learned by osmosis in his youth.
He has already innovated the production of his family farm to include the production of Black Tea, Baozhong Oolong Tea, and Green Tea in addition to Oriental Beauty – which is only harvested twice a year. The yield of Oriental Beauty is a small fraction of the harvests of other tea types. This is due to the fact that Oriental Beauty Tea is the result of a small insect called a leaf hopper (Jacobiasca formosana) that feeds on new tea leaf buds seasonally. To produce Oriental Beauty, no pesticides are used at all during the growing season, so as not to deter these bugs.The growth of the leaves are stunted as a result, but produce a very distinctly flavored tea –which is said to have been given its name by the queen of England in the 19th century because she was so fond of it.
After tasting both last year’s late spring and late fall harvests of Oriental Beauty, he brewed a pot of last summer’s Black Tea, which was also of very high quality. The price reflects the rarity of this traditional tea from a small family farm, but I eagerly bought some of each and promised to be back for future harvests. In classic Taiwanese fashion, his mom insisted that I take a complimentary bag of their organically grown oranges home with me.
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The medium oxidized leaves have undergone extensive, repeated roastings that have resulted in a very balanced, integrated character. The initial steepings offer a freshly cut wood aroma with a toasted nutty flavor. This proceeds to open up into a sweeter, more complex profile that is strikingly reminiscent of roasted winter vegetables, including parsnip, caramelized onion and butternut squash.
Mr. Zhang's father cultivated tea on their homesteaded land in Xiaobantian, on the southside of Lugu Township, where he grew up in the midst of traditional tea making. At 20 something, he decided to embody his local tradition by clearing land to cultivate his own plot of tea. For the last 20 years, he has managed his own humble, privately owned plot of tea. Throughout this period, he also acquired seasonal work in tea factories in Lugu, Shanlinxi, Alishan, Fanzaitian, and Lishan. In a word, he learned the ropes of tea making in a comprehensive way, like most tea farmers of his generation. Lugu hosts the highest concentration of tea makers in Taiwan, and is a hub of specialty tea making culture.