Friday, May 29, 2015

Oriental Beauty from Thailand (Bai Hao, Peng Feng, lots of names)

Not to knock Thai teas, but I keep thinking I'm missing something.  If someone were to really love mild, sweet, rich textured, lightly oxidized oolongs (Jin Xuan or Ruan Zhi based) then I have tried good teas here.

interesting looking tea

But my natural style preferences lean towards more oxidized teas, and I've tried better versions of similar teas of those types from Taiwan.  The only more-oxidized oolongs I've tried from Thailand were unpleasant,  but I have a version at home I've not tried yet, so one more chance at that.  So why never something else, better, or at least different.

Finally I've found that in a Bai Hao tea from Thailand, also sold as Peng Feng, most commonly referred to as Oriental Beauty (see vendor reference here, the Tea Village shop page).

another picture, same tea

Of course the main story from this type of tea relates to insects eating part of the leaves, which is said to improve the tea.  I'll do the review part first here (makes sense that way), and a bit of review of that story and research on the reality of it, but the vendor description of that follows:

Peng Feng is made of selected tea leaves that have been bitten off by small green cicadas.  At the site of the bite, the tea leaf juice is released, which causes a fermentation sheet to occur long before harvest.  At the final stage of production, the tea has an exquisite aroma with a honey-sweet and fruity aftertaste.

I'm reminded of reading a similar description of the same basic thing in a New York Times article recently, along with comments on a tea group discussion mocking it for not being accurate enough:

Picking up the steeped leaves, he pointed to bite marks. They are made, he explained, by a small green insect called a leafhopper. The bites expose that part of the leaf to air, changing its chemistry and giving the resulting tea a distinctive sweetness that has traces of honey.

If memory serves the change in the tea leaf was about stress response, not a direct reaction with air, but I'll get to that in the research section.  It would only make a difference to someone pretty obsessed with tea, but then I am writing a blog post about the subject.

The review:

The tea was nice, one of the most interesting I've tried in Thailand, probably per my own subjective preferences the "best" Thai tea I've tried, but that could relate to my preferences as much as tea grades or whatever else.

It tasted like a more-oxidized oolong, probably mid-range as that goes, not really close to black tea, unusual since oolongs tend to gravitate towards one extreme or the other.  But then what you find in a typical tea shop--or God forbid a grocery store--need not be an indication of what exists for the range of better teas, and needn't really overlap so much.

The taste was unusually sweet, with a lot of fruit, and a cinnamon component.  For some teas I get the sense that someone with a different type of palate might list off ten different flavor components, but for me I work through sorting out what the tastes remind me of.  A rich, "round" type of fruit flavor reminded me of peach, but there was something else, a brighter tone, harder to pick out.  Eventually I decided blueberry would describe it best.

It sounds like I'm talking about a cobbler, right, peach, blueberry, and cinnamon.  But of course the tea didn't exactly taste like a cobbler, although some taste components did.  Or then again maybe it did; maybe if I'd made a peach and blueberry cobbler heavy on cinnamon spice and tried it with the tea I'd be amazed at the similarity.  The vendor description mentioned honey I suppose that fits too.

Really the tea flavors are complex and hard to describe.  Those are basics that initially occurred to me, and there's a trace of yeast / bread dough underlying the stronger fruit flavors, which I suppose could possibly be teased out to both fruit and floral components. 

A discussion of the general tea type on a Tea Chat (forum) thread  mentioned taste range (and brewing advice), listing citrus, honey, plum, muscat, Champaign, perfume, vanilla, and caramel, and of course other fruit and floral elements are also typically ascribed to different versions.

As for astringency, there was none.  The partial oxidation level gave the tea an unusual rich underlying flavor profile, almost more a feel, although the two are separate, as can occur with white teas.  I had the sense that experimenting with different brewing techniques could probably optimize this tea better than with some other types.  To me this is the opposite of most lightly oxidized oolongs in the sense that you only need to avoid screwing them up, and getting the same type of basic flavor profile out of them is kind of a given (although one could always adjust to optimize).

The leaves were unusually small, so this actually looked similar to two different white teas I'd reviewed not long ago, one from China and the other Darjeeling.  The appearance was a bit unusual, not really a rolled-style tea, not open in the way Bai Mu Dan white teas are, not really twisted like black teas or darker oolongs tend to be.  It seems like I should be going somewhere with those two unrelated ideas, some conclusion I'm about to draw, but I'm not.  It was interesting tea, unusual, but then the taste and feel of the tea had already determined that.

Research, mostly about insects biting the leaves:

I must have tried a version of Oriental Beauty before but it's been so long I don't remember what I thought of it, and don't really have a baseline for expectations.  For research I'd move on to the bit about the insects soon enough but I'll reference a couple mentions of flavor profiles to start first.

One of many people's favorite tea blogs, Tea For Me, recently included a review of an Oriental Beauty:

The taste was full of floral sweetness with notes of honey and a very subtle hint of spice. There was also an interesting biscuity quality that I seldom see in Taiwanese teas.

So maybe a little similar, although floral and fruit might seem different enough.  To be honest I was thinking of that difference when I tried the tea, about how a general sweetness really could be interpreted as tied to floral tastes by one person and fruit by another.  I keep coming back to the issue of objectivity; what would someone else taste, and to what extent is any of this "real."  About being "biscuity" the tea did have an unusual character I described related to oxidation level, a  mild yeast-like flavor, that was hard to pin down, which could relate.  I don't mean the tea was sour, or the flavor wasn't "clean," so maybe a trace of mild bread-dough sounds more positive and accurate.

Another Oriental Beauty citation by the same blogger will help fill in a bit more detail about variation across type:

Just as with the traditional oolong version, the leaves were bitten by leafhopper insects. This causes the oxidation process to begin while the leaves are still on the tea plant.... At first it tasted like a typical Taiwanese black tea. With each sip a really nice honeyed fruit quality became more and more prevalent. If I stopped drinking for a bit, a really nice floral after affect popped into my palate too.

So there's a second introduction to the concept related to the insects, which I'll get back to, and mention of this tea being prepared as a black tea (interesting), and fruit flavors but floral aftertaste.  Since these are all different teas the taste of one doesn't really inform another but we could get a feel for some basic range here, and comparing descriptions is interesting to me.  It's no coincidence both of these are teas from Taiwan; that is where this general type comes from, so it's really odd the version I'm trying came from Thailand.  But in general the tea types (cultivars) and processing techniques were imported from Taiwan, and the terrain is similar, so not so unusual.

It would be nice to refer to something that isn't a vendor's blog, or even standard review, to get more background about the insects or teas.  One Teamaster blog reference covers the standard story, but it's more a general "the legend goes" version than a research piece on what really happens:

During each summer, the tea farmers would be upset to see their crops eaten by swarms of small criquets... They didn't even bother to harvest the leaves...  One farmer in Hsin Chu county didn't accept this fate. He harvested these bitten leaves nonetheless and managed to sell them for a high price... Legend has it that this tea was so good that it supposedly made its way to the queen of England who named it "Oriental Beauty" (or 'Dong Fang Mei Ren' in Chinese.

The same post goes on to describe several different specific teas but these don't add much to the rest of the background (interesting for someone really into learning about tea types though).  Per the descriptions some versions do have significant astringency, and complexity, sweetness and fragrance, and mixed interesting flavors are the common elements, including some not ordinarily referenced, like pineapple.

Taken together it is curious these leaves of the tea I've reviewed are so small; how could there really have been time for an insect to get to them?  That is presented as a genuine part of the tea story though, not as legend that may not apply to some versions.

One research-oriented reference on the tea tried to identify what the change in the leafs amounted to, with much of the abstract cited here (original source reference:  Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2007 Jun;71(6):1476-86.  Chemical profiling and gene expression profiling during the manufacturing process of Taiwan oolong tea "Oriental Beauty"):

Oriental Beauty, which is made from tea leaves infested by the tea green leafhopper (Jacobiasca formosana) in Taiwan, has a unique aroma like ripe fruits and honey. To determine what occurs in the tea leaves during the oolong tea manufacturing process, the gene expression profiles and the chemical profiles were investigated. Tea samples were prepared from Camellia sinensis var. sinensis cv. Chin-shin Dah-pang while the tea leaves were attacked by the insect. The main volatile compounds, such as linalool-oxides, benzyl alcohol, 2-phenylethanol, ... increased during manufacture. ...  Many up-regulated transcripts were found to encode various proteins homologous to stress response proteins. ...  Thus the traditional manufacturing method is a unique process that utilizes plant defense responses to elevate the production of volatile compounds and other metabolites.

It's not even clear what this means, from the limited citation.  The change during the manufacturing process isn't of interest as much as the change when the insects eat parts of the leaves (note they are referred to here as "leafhoppers").  Naturally one would want to scan the whole of the original article, which is found here.

cited from research paper, note tea leaf appearance difference

A reasonably close read (it is a bit dry) seems to identify the research really doesn't relate at all to how leaves change originally, since only leaves related to plants attacked by insects were tested, and the changes that result were only referenced by research or prior understanding.  They do make a lot of interesting points related to secondary research, but these don't relate to the actual work here:

It has been reported that volatiles of monoterpenes such linalool and ocimen and of C6-compounds such as hexanal and hexenols are produced by insect attack and wounding.

Interesting, if not meaningful to me.  So the article is worth a read but the sources used would probably be of more interest if the main goal was to find out about that particular change.  It makes the conclusion statement in the abstract portion seem a bit misleading; the manufacturing method and the plant responses may well work together to produce unique compounds in the final dried tea product, but without a comparison to leaves that hadn't been affected such a conclusion relies on what they already knew or expected.

I recently ran across a Siam Tea post about a Thai Oriental Beauty tea, which I'll cite from here since there is good background on the tea type (with more information on the sales order site).  It can't be the same tea because it looks different, a completely rolled-ball preparation for the Siam Tea, unlike the one I reviewed.  The tea is also described as floral (versus fruit components), and the brewed tea is yellow versus orange-brown, possibly less oxidized but hard to be sure.

Most of the information is the same, the basic storyline, tea description, etc.  Thomas (the site owner and author) mentioned a recent discussion of citation of an old article on a tea competition in Taiwan that I had read of, but I've lost track of the original source of that.  That discussion was a bit vague anyway, a possible link to one of those historical stories actually being true (related to the "braggers tea" part of the legend, only indirectly related to the rest).  From that post:

...the interaction of a particular leafhopper type...  with the tea plants of the Cing Xing cultivar effects special – and highly desirable – taste properties in the resulting tea.   The leaves of the tea plant are bitten by the small animals during the time before the harvest, whereas their proboscis leaves behind a secretion in the tea leaf that mixes and reacts there with the remainder tea juices.

Note that this is really a different account than the other two I've referenced, that air exposure causes a reaction and that plant stress response does instead, possibly related to protecting the plant, although I'm not seeing that spelled out.  In a way it doesn't really make any difference, except the fact of the matter is at stake, and it may change how leaf harvesting and appearance relates.  I'll try to tie a few ideas together about all that.

The research paper picture seemed to indicate the plant was undergoing a stress response, not that individual leaves changed composition related to air exposure, or at least that's how I interpreted the color change in all the leaves shown.  If this is the case then leaves wouldn't need to show bite impact for all of the tea leaves to be affected, but if the other effect is responsible (air contact, or direct reaction relating to a leaf being eaten, really two different things) then any tea made up of mostly whole leaves wouldn't be affected in the same way.

Of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so in that sense it doesn't matter, the tea is really good or it isn't.  It is one of those cool tea stories, though, with a bit of science behind it (if a vague bit), and this particular tea was really nice.


  1. I would say the latter description of how the leafhoppers alter tea chemistry is more accurate. I have heard people say that the bites begin the process of oxidation (which involves exposure of enzymes and other chemicals to air), but there is more than just oxidation going on here or attack by ANY insect would be desirable.

    Plants can often sense what insect is attacking them so they can respond accordingly. The volatile chemicals that the tea plants release after being attacked may serve to repel the leafhoppers directly or they may attract predators and parasites of the leafhoppers. We don't yet know the function of these chemicals.

  2. Interesting points, thanks. To a large extent I guess it doesn't matter but it is still interesting. To some extent the same issues affect the taste of the tea so they do matter, related to when the tea should be picked, which leaves should be picked, if the leaves used need to be directly affected or not (bitten), etc.

  3. All I can say is that as a total tea newbie, my favorite so far, and I have tried a bunch with no prior knowledge is Oriental Beauty for sure. My palette is unrefined and balks from astringency or the taste of Puerhs or even Big Red Robe, but it sure does rejoice when Oriental Beauty is 'in da house'!