Oriental Beauty has always occupied a very unique position in the diverse and long-spanning history of tea. Although it is a type of oolong, it does not present any of the normal flavors we have learned to expect. It has a character similar to black tea, but also carries a stronger, almost umami-like flavor which furthers its distinction. Known to originate during the Japanese ruling era (1895 ~ 1945) of Taiwan, it soon turned into one of the most renowned and expensive teas in the world due to it's popularity in Great Britain. As a result, this type of tea is often referred to as "Fan Zhuang Oolong," which literally means "a tea specifically made for barbaric foreigners."
Over the course of time this tea has transformed itself into one of the most expensive and luxurious varieties available, it's popularity bolstered in part by the Oriental Beauty Competition that is now being held annually in Taiwan. We share an intense appreciation and curiosity for Oriental Beauty, and as such we decided to travel to the birthplace of this tea and experience first-hand the processing of what is now a staple. Thus began our journey to one of the hometowns of the Hakka people - Er Mei (峨嵋).
To gain an understanding of a tea like this, it only made sense that the very first place we would visit is its plantation. When we arrived at the site it was a scorching midsummer day, and we were rather appalled by the temperature. We had left the "high mountain" regions and moved down into the hills. It was so extremely hot that without any shade to escape to, it felt as though it would be impossible for us to stay long.
From here we observed that the appearance and tools of these tea pickers were a little bit different than those from the high mountain region - their baskets were much smaller than the "high mountain baskets" we were used to seeing.
The baskets were smaller simply because they were being used to carry smaller, younger leaves. The material they were picking was a very different size than the material required to make a Jade Oolong or Dong Ding Oolong, both of which require fully grown leaves to process. Oriental Beauty calls for leaves that are extremely "tender", and it only gets better if bitten by the Jacobiasca formosana- type of mini cicada which loves tea trees very much.
The grandmother in this photo was in her 80s, and maintained diligence simply because there were not enough young people becoming involved to fill the need for labor.
A tea picking squad working under the extreme temperature of noon without complaint. Our fragile crew on the other hand, was suffering.
This was one of the plantations that was managed by Mr. Hsu's family. And no, that is not their castle in the background. The plantation might seem big in the picture, but after comparing it to what we saw in the Lishan mountain area, this plantation was quite "small" to our understanding.
One should not forget to mention the small best friend of any tea plantation - spiders, a great resident species that signifies a low pesticide environment.
After harvesting, material was sent to outdoor withering, a step shared by all oolong teas. Sunshine is a key element in this kind of tea processing, but since the materials are more tender and fragile at this early stage, an electric shade is used as needed to prevent "over withering." Also, since the sheer amount of material is lesser than with normal oolongs, the tea leaves are very thinly scattered on each tray.
The shade is pulled over the fragile, thin leaves so that they are not damaged by constant ultraviolet exposure.
The electric shade was located on top of the building, used to control the intensity of the sunshine. Once the outdoor withering was complete, the tea was sent to the indoor withering room.
Here we meet our young master, who is the fourth generation in this family-run tea operation. He was picking out any undesirable leaves in order to ensure consistent quality. Notice that the room lacks air-conditioning. This was to make sure that the tea would oxidize properly, for the Oriental Beauty requires higher temperatures than Jade Oolongs.
A gentle stirring of the tray was still required intermittently during the 4 to 5 hour period of indoor withering.
The tea leaves would gradually and elegantly transform from exuberant green to a faded, more earthy version of themselves.
Normally it would take three to four hours for this stage to be completed. The tea had to go through gentle stirring numerous times before it reached the final stage of "waving" to keep the water within the tea leaves for "oxidation".
Again, the quantity is significantly lesser than what we would expect from Jade oolong processing, so even the final waving, normally done by a waving machine, was now completed by hand as well with a crew of no more than five people.
The final "waving" had a focused feeling.
Once this step was done, the tray would be covered by another tray which partially concealed the tea leaves, creating an even warmer and more humid environment within.
After all of this, the crew could finally take a two hours rest without any interruption. The work was done . . . for now. And it was also time for dinner.
To add some more historical context, the Hsu family has been in the business of making Oriental Beauty tea since the very beginning of the 20th century. However, it was not until the 21st century that Oriental Beauty began to make a name for itself in the market. The prestige, desirability, and prices all surged after Mr. Hsu, the father of our young master, won a series of competitions from 2003 to 2005.
But there is always more to be done, so back to the factory. After a couple of hours in the tray, the tea takes on this "reddish" appearance. This is due to the oxidation of polyphenols.
Once the oxidation was considered finished, the tea tray would be placed on a scale. Scaling was critical for the accuracy of "stir frying," which we will see next.
The temperature would normally be controlled between 180 ~ 200 celcius degrees when stir-frying the tea. This process would not only stop the oxidation, but also further "mature" the tea to get rid of the "rawness" (青) character within.
The material was then tossed into the familiar "stir frying machine."
Temperature was the key element of a successful "stir fry," but beyond that our young master here was hesitant to share his specialized methods.
Young master here was covering the entrance of the machine in order to create an environment that would retain enough heat for the tea within.
Oriental Beauty exiting the stir-fry machine.
After "stir frying the leaves," we entered a very special stage for Oriental Beauty - "hand rolling." This rolling is heavily related to the "waving" process. If the tea is properly waved and rolled, the tea will carry a heavier taste than those which are not properly rolled. This is because the elements in the stems are all forced into the leaves. In short, waving serves not only the purpose of "keeping water," it is also a crucial step in balancing all of the different qualities inside the tea.
This process, "hand rolling" has to be done delicately even though it looks a bit brutal from an outsider's perspective.
After being rolled into shape using the material shown, the tea ball is then "de-massed" by throwing it against the ground. This process is repeated a handful of times, and the impact is notable. It allows the nuanced flavors inside of teas to come out more efficiently when brewing.
Roll, thump, roll, thump . . .
This "hand-crafting" step will repeat several times to improve the overall quality. In fact, when making even higher-end teas, machine rolling is not used at all. But since the production we witnessed during this visit did not belong to the high-end category, machine rolling was the logical next step.
This is a traditional rolling machine in a style that is seen at most of the other tea factories. Because we were not processing a very high-end tea, the final rolling would be done by machine. This also happened a bit differently than what we would observe at a normal oolong or black tea processing site.
This machine was called the "B machine," and it looks very different from the familiar "A machine" we often encounter. It is much smaller, quieter, and requires human involvement in a way that the "A machine" does not.
Unlike the "A machine" which has a big and loud rolling tray, this machine requires that the tea be spread by hand, and resting in a way that allows for even heat distribution.
Once the tea was evenly paving the first tray, the operator (whom is the young master in this case) would "flip" the teas down to the heating sector at the bottom of the machine by switching the handle.
The machine has multiple handles to control the fall of the tea, which allow it to be dried by temperatures around 100 Celsius degrees. The lower levels get increasingly hotter. This machine was historically used in the drying process before the advent of the "A machine." It looks and operates primitively, but the nature of low quantity in the processing of Oriental Beauty makes this machine a necessity.
Normally the tea would be dropped to layer seven before it was pulled out. After the first stage of rough drying, it would be sent to the normal roasting machine for the final stage. It was already 2:30 AM in the morning, and all of us were longing for a good rest.
The labor intensive part of the process finally drew to a close once the door of the tea roaster was shut. It was finally the right time for us to take a rest and simply wait for the final product, which would be finishing inside of the roaster for the next couple of hours . . .
The next morning we got to experience the end result!
For very high quality teas, such as those that would be going to competitions, further hand-picking would then take place to enhance the overall consistency and character.
And so ended our long and fascinating journey through the world of oriental processing. It was finally the time to go home. There were many steps and processes that this tea shared with typical oolongs, and yet it carried something special to its own existence, and has done so since the beginning of the 20th century. With over one hundred years of tradition, many unique techniques have been preserved and passed down, as we saw with our friend the young master. The tradition is living on, evolving and finding a new path in this strange new world that is the 21st century! Under the effort of the new generation, with guidance from their elders, we can only hope that these traditions will continue to bring us teas as wonderful and unique as the aptly named Oriental Beauty.