Beauty and the Bug

This may sound alien to most, but in life, it is possible to experience ‘good stress’ as well as the garden variety ‘bad stress’. Psychologists refer to it as ‘eustress,’ and is the kind of stress we experience when we are excited. It makes us feel alive.

Going on a first date or strapping yourself on a roller coaster are good examples of eustress. Apparently this good stress applies to botany as well, at least in the science of tea cultivar.

You see, there’s this little unassuming green leafhopper, the Jacobiasca Formosana, whose stress production is crucial in the making of an exquisite oolong tea called Oriental Beauty. This tea is sometimes marketed as White Tip Oolong or Champagne Oolong, and is produced in Hsinchu County, Taiwan.

Legend has it that tea farmers in Beipu, Hsinchu County noticed their bushes had been attacked by leafhoppers and considered the crop ruined. However one farmer decided to process his tea as usual. It was so delicious that merchants paid him twice the usual price. He boasted to his neighbours, hence named his tea, “Peng Feng cha”, or Braggart’s tea.

Jacobiasca Formosana are found throughout East, Southeast, and South Asia. The fine line between being a pest or farmer’s best friend is the lower altitudes at 300 to 800 metres. The warmer climate is required for Jacobiasca Formosana to feed, unlike the ideal temperature for other teas. The tea bushes are grown without pesticides on the leeward side of hills with sufficient humidity and sunshine. When the leafhoppers attack, they suck the juices from the stem, leaves and buds. This causes the bushes to defend themselves by producing enzymes called monoterpene diol and hotrienol which give the tea its unique flavour.

The stress from the leafhoppers to the tea bushes causes a good thing to happen. The buds turn white along the edges, thus it’s alternate namesake: White Tip Oolong. The bites start the oxidation of the leaves and tips, imbuing the tea with sweet and fruity notes. Similar action of these insects helps form the muscatel-like flavour of India’s second flush Darjeeling tea.

Harvested in the middle of summer in June and July, only two leaves and a bud are picked, unlike other oolongs which usually are picked with around four or five leaves and a bud. Only about 40% to 50% of leaves are harvested, thus only small quantities are produced each year. The leaves are then sun-withered for two hours, followed by indoor withering on bamboo baskets to achieve 60% to 70% oxidation. The withering process is longer than other teas as the moisture content is higher.

Of course this lengthy process means that the tea is in rare supply, and much coveted and valued in the tea world. Leaves are only ripe for harvesting when damaged, and the variations in ways the bushes have been attacked by the insect means that colours vary beautifully from brown to gold, black to a deep dark green and lily white. This also means that its harvestation requires intensive labour, and to make just 600g of tea, the oolong requires 4 to 5 times more the amount of bud and leaf sets that regular tea.

Naturally sweet and full of health properties, the Dong Fang Mei Ren, Bai Hao Oolong or Pom Fong is widely considered as one of the best teas in the world. It is fragrant, complex and full of flavour. This floral brew is said to aid digestion, boost metabolism, immune system and have a calming effect on the drinker.

It’s favoured name of ‘Oriental Beauty’ is said to have come from a Queen of England, perhaps Victoria or Elizabeth II, but the antioxidant benefits that help one’s skin to glow makes the moniker fairly self explanatory.

Imagine if only the quiet leafhopper was like it’s loudmouth cousin, the Cicada, we’d know that behind every beauty is a bug.

Bernadine Tay is a tea designer and founder of Quinteassential. She tells stories and relives memories through her tea designs. She is the tea curator and brand ambassador for Wedgwood, and has designed bespoke blends for luxury brands and hotels. She had won 7 Great Taste awards out of her 12 blend designs for her own tea range and is now also a tea judge.