Though Chinese tea has a history that spans thousands of years, tea farmers and crafters continually come up with techniques for making new and interesting teas. In the early 20th century, one farmer in Taiwan experimented with using leaves that showed damage from bug bites, and created the first Eastern Beauty tea. The commercial success of this risky experiment proved there was something special about this novel processing choice, but it was only recently that modern science has shed some light on the reasons behind the unique flavor.
Today, bug bitten leaves are used to make many different kinds of tea, in what seems like a wider variety every year. While some famous styles use bug bitten leaves by definition, others use the phrase mi xiang to denote a bug bitten version. This title translates directly to “honey fragrance”, and describes the naturally sweet characteristics of many bug bitten teas. As strange as it may sound, the attacking insects play a big part in the flavor of the final tea.
In fact, it is the plant’s defensive response that produces the naturally sweet aroma in the finished tea. As insects attack, the plant releases specific enzymes that create new flavors, while at the same time sending extra stored sugars to that part of the plant to power recovery. Plants can distinguish between various types of insects and respond differently to each, potentially even attracting specific predators to eat the attacking herbivores.
Traditionally, it was believed that only bites from the Taiwanese leafhopper would have the desired effect, since this was the pest that created the original Eastern Beauty. But recent research has revealed that the leafhopper found in mainland China is actually the same species, leading to the development of more bug bitten teas from the mainland. Research on this topic has also shown that other unique teas (like Darjeeling) may owe their distinctive flavors to similar processes triggered by other attacking insects. Many of the mi xiang teas on our own shelves are made with aphid-bitten leaves, as they come from high elevation tea gardens in Taiwan, where colder temperatures limit leafhopper populations.
Any bug bitten tea also requires careful craftsmanship to reach its full flavor potential. The farmer must manage the pest population to prevent too much damage, without eradicating the valuable bugs with pesticides. If the leaves are too damaged, the tea will turn out bitter rather than naturally sweet. By managing surrounding vegetation and using sustainable bug traps, farmers can control the number of insects without eradicating them with pesticides. Crafters also adapt traditional techniques to better emphasize the unique qualities of their bug bitten teas. In Taiwan, this means that mi xiang teas are usually more oxidized than traditional oolong styles.
Ultimately, the enzymatic effects that occur within the plant are the reason behind the naturally sweet flavors of bug bitten teas, but this must be accompanied by skilled farming and crafting to result in a great tea. While famous styles like Eastern Beauty are often priced based on reputation, less common mi xiang teas can be hidden gems. Try our Tung Ting, Mi Xiang for a new take on a classic Formosa Oolong, or our Formosa Red Assam, Mi Xiang for a black tea that tastes like it already has milk and honey added in.
Which are your favorite bug bitten styles? Let us know in the comments!
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