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November 19, 2023

Traditional Hakka Eastern Beauty (And How to Age Oolongs)

written by Augustus Rushing

東方美人 Dōng Fāng Měi Rén Eastern Beauty tea is distinguished as one of the most classic connoisseur oolongs, globally celebrated for its unique and refined qualities. Due to its limited precious supply and widespread acclaim, the higher prices it commands has given rise to the proliferation of imitations from various regions, in other areas of Taiwan and beyond. Acquiring the genuine article from its true origins can present a challenge, demanding trustworthy connections as well as a hefty investment.

As we shall see, the exceptional value of this tea isn't solely rooted in its rarity but also in an extraordinary ecological phenomena that begets it. Moreover, the capacity of the finest versions to age enchantingly under the right conditions adds to the magic, solidifying Eastern Beauty as an outstanding luxury tea. Let’s explore what makes this tea so special and how its best versions are able to be matured through aging.

During our Taiwan travels in spring 2023, we were most fortunate to forge a connection with one of the original premier 客家 Hakka families that developed the style of this iconic bug-bitten oolong tea from Hsinchu County.

Since 1927, for nearly one hundred years, The 古 Gǔ family of Beipu township has been managing their own tea gardens, developing processing techniques, and making a brand for themselves that is now favored enough to regularly get them visits from high-ranking government officials.  Their Eastern Beauty teas are the most rich and complex versions of this style that we have ever tried, hands down. They are Hakka that speak in the 海陸 Hǎilù dialect.

Below, I'm hanging out with generation #4 Gǔ Chéng Qián and his son, #5 Gǔ Yì Píng.

A good amount of ink has already been spilled about the Gu family and their super legit prestige (as well as all the fun origin myths about the endless variations on the tea’s name: 東方美人 Dōng Fāng Měi Rén Eastern Beauty / Oriental Beauty, 膨風茶 Péng fēng chá Braggart's Tea / Liar's Tea, 白毫 Bái Háo White Hair / Tip, Champagne Tea, Five Color Tea, to name a few) so let's move on to cover some basics and get to what kind of magic is afoot when we're working with summer vs winter versions + aged vs unaged versions of this tea.

How is Eastern Beauty Oolong crafted?

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the green leafhopper jassid about 3-5 mm in size, 浮塵子 Fúchénzǐ

First, let’s take a look under the hood.  In Taiwan, anywhere there are unsprayed tea plantations that are regularly experiencing weather above 70°F, leafhopper insects, Jacobiasca formosana, descend upon the tea plants to suck the juices out of their leaves.  Left alone, these tiny jassids can decimate crops and can even prove fatal to plants.  As a reaction, the tea plant adjusts its growth strategy as well as releases a cocktail of terpenes to attract natural predators to the leafhopper (named 浮塵子 Fúchénzǐ "floating dust") as a kind of ecological distress signal.

Phytochemical transformation ensues

As Fuchenzi’s predation of the tea plant continues, the bushes release up to 10x more of the terpene linalool (found also in cannabis, lavender, basil, and bergamot) than normal, and up to 20x more 3,7-dimethyl-1,5,7-octatrien-3-ol, the terpene known to impart the famous "muscatel" flavor to Darjeelings (whose second flush is also a bug-bitten tea, by Empoasca flavescens) is produced in reaction to the bug’s saliva.  Geraniol (found in rose, lemongrass, geranium, the scent glands of honeybees, and many perfumes) and Hotrienol (found in grapes, wild ginger) are also involved, and together a distinctive 蜜香 Mì xiāng honey aroma is produced that is retained in the finished tea if harvesting occurs at the right time.

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the honey aroma terpenes released attracts the leaf hopper's natural predators, who then get to have a feast of their own.

If this cascade of events alone wasn't enough to make this tea nothing short of remarkable, the extensive production methods the buds and leaves will undergo from this point forward developed by the Taiwan's tea producing Hakkas like the Gu family will most certainly dignify it as such.

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The Gu family's gardens in Hsinchu County

Crafting this material into Eastern Beauty

First, freshly emerged sets of 1 bud + 1-2 leaves from impressive 60-80 year old 青心大冇 Qīng xīn dà mǎo cultivar gardens under leafhopper siege are hand-plucked to be indoor-withered and agitated through multiple cycles to sufficiently evaporate and agitate the moisture from the leaves.  Processing steps afterwards include piling to induce oxidation, pan-frying at a relatively low range of 170-200°C (depending on the season), remoisturization / more oxidation as the hot leaves are wrapped tightly in a cloth, rolling / bruising of the leaves in the wrapped cloth to break up the cell walls, additional piling, and drying with a short roast.  This produces the bulk unfinished tea, the 毛茶 máochá.

After resting for a month, the mao cha undergoes a series of multiple sorting and roasting steps of various low temperatures (averaging 80°C) and times are then employed to finish out the production of this tea before the final step of sorting out the huang pian. Producing a deep, golden-auburn ambrosia in the cup, Eastern Beauty is one of the most oxidized oolongs at levels between 60-80%.

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Another name for Eastern Beauty is 白毫 Bái Háo translating to White Hair, in reference to the silvery down seen on the buds of the finished tea.  This characteristic is usually found just in recently-emerged young buds of springtime growth, so how does a traditionally summer-harvested tea get graced with so much pekoe down?

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For top grades, what the farmers are generally harvesting are recently emerged sprouts sent out from the nodes between the stem and petiole, a kind of backup attempt on the part of the tea plant at rerouting its typical growth pattern once the tea plant becomes sick under the siege of the tea jassids.

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This small new sprout growing between the stem and leaf petiole is what they're after, and will be responsible for the white hairs after production is complete. Fuchenzi's herbivory creates new, hairy bud growth out of season, and with a very different phytochemistry makeup than usual.

More bugs = more honey = more white hair = less yield = higher price

Young, recently sprouted growth, regardless of season, will contain more caffeine alkaloids, polyphenols, and indeed more white downy hairs, the 白毫 Bái Háo.  Thus, since both the release of the aromatic terpenes as well as this new growth is prompted by Fuchenzi's attack, one can correlate the amount of white hair visible in the dry tea with the amount of honey fragrance and flavor there will be in the brewed tea.  This is not the only reason for the higher costs of more white-tipped versions of Eastern Beauty; to ensure copious honey-fragrance, they must time their harvest later and later, which means less and less yield overall as the plants strain under the attack. But if timed too late, the tea becomes bitter and the plant's life is risked.

That means that for those seeking the true, Hakka made, ample honey-fragranced, abundantly white-tipped Eastern Beauty from Hsinchu County, prepare to pay top dollar, as it's sure to be in produced in micro batches, in much shorter supply than other teas.

Summer 2016 Eastern Beauty

The Gu family's summer tea

Like most of the far eastern tea world, the Hakka people refer to their seasons according to the 農曆 Nónglì Chinese Calendar, a traditional lunisolar seasonal timetracker often used as an agricultural calendar.  This is important to note as a westerner accustomed to seasonal timing based on a Gregorian calendar as our timeframes for the seasons will be slightly different.  For example, the Gu family considers the best time to harvest their summer tea is under the solar term 芒種 Mángzhòng, generally taking place between June 6th and June 21st.

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Historically, summer has been the defining season for Eastern Beauty Oolong production.  This time of year sees significant insect activity, producing much honey aroma in the tea.  According to young master Gu, this factor, combined with the abundance of moisture brought in by monsoon season produces tea with 甜水 tián shuǐ "sweet water".  Besides this being the iconic time of year for Eastern Beauty production, and the inverse relationship to honey-fragrance/presence of downy hairs and crop yield, the tea pickers must be paid higher wages during this very hot — and yes, buggy — time of year, also why summer tea has to be priced high.

The abundance of ambient moisture in the environment during this time of year also demands skills, knowledge, and extra attention to detail during one of the most critical steps of tea production — withering.  If moisture in the leaves are not properly shepherded out through a myriad of gentle agitation 浪青 làng jīng and withering steps during this time, the entire batch is ruined. The importance of this step cannot be understated.

Proper summer tea is considered the premier experience of Eastern Beauty — *chef's kiss* Oolong tea at its finest. Unaged versions are exceptional and classic; buoyant, bright, and crisp, while matured versions are smoother and often develop notes of dark fruitleather with a deepened aromatic profile.

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four grades of Eastern Beauty from the Gu family

The Gu family's winter tea

Winter tea is the Gu family’s second favorite season next to summer for Eastern Beauty production because of its naturally complex aromatics.  Winter harvest usually takes place under the solar term of 立冬 Lìdōng between the dates of November 7 and November 22nd.  At an elevation of 400 meters in the rolling hills just outside of Beipu on the northwest corner of this subtropical island, this time of year doesn’t get cold enough to dissuade Fuchenzi from continuing to feed on the tea gardens, therefore bug-bitten tea is still able to be made during this time.  After the wet season and as the temperature drops to an average of 10 degrees below summer time’s, the growth rate of the tea slows down, producing more natural sweetness, thicker texture, and richer aromas. Since the tea leaves’ cell walls are more robust from their slowed growth, more advanced agitation is needed, just a slight bit more oxidation can occur, and the leaves are able to endure a bit more of a finishing roast than its summer counterpart.

These different growing conditions that allow for variations in processing technique set the tea’s maturing trajectory upon a naturally different direction as well.  Thus, both matured as well as newer versions of winter Eastern Beauty present to us compelling deviations from the classic summer styles, at a bit more of an accessible price point.

How does Eastern Beauty age?

Aging, 醇化 Chúnhuà, is possible with Eastern Beauty, but it's important to note its process is different than the enzymatic transformation that white teas and pu’er teas can undergo.  During Eastern Beauty processing, the fresh leaves’ enzymes are mostly arrested from their oxidative trajectory through fixing via the heat of 殺青 shāqīng wok-firing process as well as through its roasting finish. So what is transforming in the leaves over time?

With proper storage, the process that aging catalyzes in Eastern Beauty (and many other oolongs) is similar to that of anaerobic polymerization in reduction aging of wine. Amino acids and sugars that are naturally present in the tea leaves — and even more so in Eastern Beauty due to their further release of sweet compounds in an attempt to power recovery from leafhopper attack — are transformed and concentrated when the tea is baked during the final finishing steps, experiencing the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction represents a transformation of flavor through the exposure of heat and we often taste it as caramelization (present in coffee roasting, ghee, breads/baked goods, chocolate production, etc.). Under the right conditions, these transformed sugars from the leafhopper attack as well as the roasting are then subjected to a slow polymerization.

The Gu family simply call this 後發酵 Hòu fāxiào or “post-fermentation” to achieve an aged effect 陳化作用 Chén huà zuòyòng.  If we utilize specific “cellaring” conditions we can intentionally steward this process, maturing our Eastern Beauty teas into an even more fascinating substance.

So what are the proper storage conditions for Oolongs?

There's a good reason why you find moisture-reducing silicia gel packets in nearly every oolong bag packed in Taiwan: excess humidity is the bane of the oolong aging process. Keep your oolongs at most 50% humidity, ideally under.

Other guidelines include:

  • Keep cool: between 50-70°F is ideal.
  • Keep them oxygen-free sealed away from air, vacuum sealed if possible.
  • Keep them away from odors, spices, scents.
  • Keep them out of the sunlight, ideally without any light.

The West: not so great for aging living enzyme teas, but ideal for maturing oolongs (no pumidor needed)

Those guidelines sound pretty easy to achieve right? If you live in a temperature controlled dwelling in the global West, chances are that vac-sealed oolong that's been sitting forgotten about in the back of that one drawer or closet has been stored near perfectly, and is maturing very well. That's because while we may have to artificially augment temperature and humidity for enzyme-rich teas like pu'er and whites to age well, the West's drier and cooler climate is naturally more suitable for storing oolong for optimal maturation.

Within these proper storage parameters, over time the aroma of Eastern Beauty will be enhanced as the flavors continues to evolve. The vibrant, zingier aspects of the profile will start to mellow. Any bitter, punchy flavors revealed by aggressive brewing will sweeten, and the mouthfeel will become more smooth. Over the course of several years, a deepening and settling happens, so that there is a marked difference between vintages, most notably in the first 10 or so years. 

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Traditional Hakka Eastern Beauty Oolong not only stands as a testament to the intricate interaction of expert craftsmanship atop unique and elaborate processes in nature, but also to its ability to gain further dimensionality through post-production aging. Seek the interplay between all three of these factors in their optimized forms, and you may discover one of the most sublime experiences the world of connoisseur tea has to offer.

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