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Is this the most beautiful tea in the world?

Exploring an enigmatic oolong with ‘diehard fans’ known as the Oriental Beauty 

Oriental Beauty Tea a high-elevation cultivar which gets its flavours from bug-bitten leaves. (iStockPhoto)
Oriental Beauty Tea a high-elevation cultivar which gets its flavours from bug-bitten leaves. (iStockPhoto)

If you google this tea, do remember to search for it as “Oriental Beauty Tea”, not just “Oriental Beauty”. The search results are, let’s just say, less helpful for the latter.

Continuing my exploration of the oolong, I chose the popular Oriental Beauty this week. This tea falls in the oolong family but since it’s more heavily oxidised (compared to green, which is unoxidised, and black, which is fully oxidised), it tends more towards the black tea. That is, of course, simplifying the complexities that go into making an oolong. But I do think it’s a detail worth knowing. You can gauge the extent of oxidation by simply looking at the wet leaves and the extent of green they show. The Oriental Beauty will show leaves that are completely red.

Reading that it’s a high-elevation tea which gets its flavours from bug-bitten leaves reminded me of our own Darjeeling muscatel. The name Oriental Beauty, or Dongfang Meiren, is indicative of the fact that it has been made in a specific style that originated in a specific place—Taiwan. It’s typically made with a leaf and bud—noteworthy, since oolongs are often made from large leaves. The presence of the bud makes these oolongs “tippy” and lends them a few other names, including Bai Hao (silver tips) and—the name I like most—Pengfeng Cha, or Braggarts Tea. Who bragged is unclear but the implication is that the tea was so good that someone bragged about it.

I had with me three versions of this tea—the original Taiwanese as well as two teas made in this style, from Darjeeling’s Gopaldhara and Arunachal’s Donyi Polo. Omak Apang (Donyi Polo) produces it at the end of the first flush, or right before autumn, from unpruned chinary bushes on the estate. Rishi Saria (Gopaldhara) offers a quick lesson. He says a lot depends on the weather conditions and the cultivars available. The original chinary bushes, and the AV2 clone which is propagated in Darjeeling, are well suited for the Oriental Beauty-style oolong. They do not oxidise too soon since they are slow-fermenting clones. It’s a tea that’s tedious to process, he adds. So it’s likely to be on the bucket list of tea speciality makers.

It’s a tea Darjeeling fans will enjoy, since it’s both familiar yet different. While I liked it, I will confess it didn’t bowl me over. But, as Saria says, “There’s tea and there’s the Oriental Beauty.” Clearly, it has its diehard fans. In Taiwan and China, for instance, contests are held to judge the best of these teas, and there are apparently farmers who only make this style of tea in season and nothing else all year.

The Oriental Beauty is a must-try because it showcases the range, possibilities and craftsmanship of the oolong. I will remember it as the tea that led me to another oolong, the High Mountain Honey Oolong, a close relative, also from Taiwan, also made from bug-bitten leaves, lightly roasted and with an added dash of wow!

For Oriental Beauty-style oolongs, look for the name “Beauty” in the names.

Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1

Also read | Savouring a tea named Duckshit Snowflake

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