Bug Bitten Oolong originated in Taiwan in the early 20th century. Once, there was a tremendous amount of leafhoppers feasting on one farmer’s tea bushes. Instead of forsaking the whole harvest, he decided to proceed with processing these tea leaves. Thus, the first Oriental Beauty Oolong came into existence — the forerunner of bug-bitten tea.
The farmer treated people to this tea and was astonished by the feedback. Everyone was obsessed with the unusual sweetness this tea possessed! The farmer proceeded to sell the tea, and it was a big success. Since then, the leafhoppers weren’t an unprecedented pest but rather a welcomed guest!
Farmers use "Mi Xiang" to describe bug-bitten teas. This means “honey fragrance” and refers to the honey-sweetness these teas develop.
Why Are The Bugs So Important?
When the bugs bite the tea leaves, the tea plant has a natural defense mechanism. It releases stored sugars and sends them to the bitten parts to promote recovery. Furthermore, the tea plant produces certain enzymes which further alter the overall flavor of the tea.
Interestingly enough, the tea plant reacts differently depending on which pest is biting it. It is only with the tea leafhopper (found primarily in Taiwan, China, and Japan) that the plant has this particular response, making the tea so delicious. Leafhoppers live in warmer climates and not in high-elevation tea gardens. Their ideal tea grows at 800 meters and below. However, high mountain bug-bitten teas also exist. These are usually bitten by other pests, for example, aphids. While the final taste is slightly different, they are delicious nonetheless.
When it comes to leafhoppers, they are relatively small — about 3mm. Hence, they naturally leave almost unnoticeable bites on the tea leaves. Skilled tea farmers will swiftly spot the difference. However, don’t expect to be seeing big munches on the tea leaves or anything of that sort.
Interestingly, the enzymes produced by the tea plant to ward off leafhoppers are a particular smell that attracts insects that are the leafhoppers’ predators. Humans can also sense this smell, and if you ever visit an Oriental Beauty tea farm, you’ll notice it right away. This aroma is not only attractive to leafhopper predators but to us humans as well. Especially us tea connoisseurs! When it comes to the enzymes produced to ward off other pests, we might not be able to sense the fragrance all together!
Big-Bitten Tea Farming
Farming bug-bitten teas is not as straightforward as it may seem. Firstly, the tea farms must be pesticide-free. Otherwise, the tea bugs won’t come. However, keeping an utterly pesticide-free garden has its own challenges. Not only might it attract the wrong kind of critters, but it might also attract too many leafhoppers.
Too many leafhoppers will damage the tea. Meaning, too many bug bites will result in a bitter tea unworthy of sale. To ensure a healthy tea garden, farmers must use sustainable farming methods. For example, tea farmers will closely monitor the tea gardens and pluck the tea leaves as soon as they have sufficient bug bites. Tending to the weeds and plants around the tea garden also helps keep excess pests at bay.
Our Favorite Types Of Bug Bitten Oolong
Oriental Beauty Oolong Tea (Dongfang Meiren)
Oriental Beauty was the first bug-bitten oolong to be developed and is still the most popular. The first thing you will notice is the beautiful colors of the tea leaves, a direct result of the bug bites. The colors vary from greens to yellow and browns and remind us of fall leaves. It is pretty timely, considering the tea harvest is in the summer and most enjoy it by the time autumn rolls around. The taste is honey-sweet with notes of chrysanthemum and ginger. The aroma is of champagne and foliage. Most bug-bitten oolongs undergo heavier oxidation, resulting in a deep, robust flavor.
Bug-Bitten Red Oolong is a tea variety unique to Taiwan’s Luye Valley, on the South-East side of the island. A few tea farmers in the area developed Red Oolong. Luye Valley sits at a low elevation, and the tea farmers there take pride in the leafhoppers’ attraction to the site. Thus, most tea producers practice organic farming techniques, making it easy to upkeep the traditions. The tea is unique and robust. The taste is, of course, honey-sweet with strong roasted notes. The aroma is of ripe fruits.