Healthy competition can be a very good thing. In the case of tea farmers and producers, tea competitions can drive participants to learn more and create better teas. It can be good for tea drinkers as well.
Taiwan has been organizing tea competitions for nearly 40 years, and these competitions have raised standards and improved the reputation of the industry. But not all competitions deserve the same levels of admiration.
I asked three experienced Taiwan hands to help explain how Taiwan tea competitions work, and what can be expected of competition teas.
An introduction to the contributors:
Kyle Shen (KS) is a member of Fang Gourmet Tea. Kyle grew up drinking tea in his native Taiwan, and has been one of the tea experts of Fang for several years now. Kyle is also involved in the curation of Taiwan teaware and antique Yixing pots on display during Fang’s Tea Expos.
Chicco Chou (CC): Chicco is Operations Manager of Mountain Tea. His family has been growing teas in Taiwan since 1987. Their teas have been competitors in the North American Tea Championships and in Taiwan tea competitions.
Andy Kincart (AK) is Sourcing Director for Eco-Cha Teas. Andy has mostly lived in Taiwan since 1989, and spends his days with tea growers and producers. He also attends tea competitions, and draws his information from industry contacts. He and Eco-Cha chronicle the harvest of their teas in their Harvest Reports.
I asked Kyle, Chicco, and Andy a series of questions about Taiwan tea competitions?
1. Are some competitions more prestigious, or more important than others? If so, which ones are more significant?
CC: Some tea growing regions of Taiwan have specialties that they are particularly famous for. The best way to find a prestigious tea competition is to decide on a particular tea to search for, then find the counties and townships that are famous for that type of tea. Examples include EMei Township in HsinChu county for Oriental Beauty and LuGu township in NanTou county for DongDing. The local farmer’s association in that township is the body that governs the competition.
KS: In general, competitions held by government or farmer’s associations (FA) are considered to be more objective and therefore far more respected.
AK: Yes, some are more significant and prestigious than others. Historically, the most densely populated, most developed, and consequently most prestigious competition in Taiwan is the Lugu Farmers’ Association’s Dong Ding Oolong tea competition. This competition is held twice a year for winter and spring harvest and warrants about 6000 entries per competition.The reason it is the most significant is: A) that it has the most entries by far, B) it is the longest running competition in Taiwan (since 1976), and C) it warrants some of the highest prices for prize winning teas. There is a historical impetus behind the reason this competition has been developed far more than others that involves the rapid development of High Mountain Tea in nearby regions, which threatened the value and the preservation of the quality of traditional Dong Ding Oolong in the 1980’s. The Lugu FA has become one of the most renowned and trusted brand names in Taiwan as a direct result of the development of their competition. This competition has set a precedent for the methodology and promotion of all other present day tea competitions in Taiwan.
I am told that the second largest competition in Taiwan is produced by the Meishan Farmers’ Association in Chiayi County- with about 2,000-plus entries per competition. The third largest is the Alishan Farmers’ Association tea competition, which is the neighboring township to Meishan. These are both High Mountain Tea (“green oolong”) competitions. There are many other organizations that produce tea competitions as well. These are smaller in numbers but they also have more types of competitions, such as Tsui Yu Oolong, Jin Xuan Oolong, and Four Seasons Spring Oolong. The Nantou County Tea Industry Public Office holds competitions for these three tea types in two different categories: High Mountain Tea and Dong Ding Oolong Tea. Each competition has less than 300 entries, but the total amount of entries for all their competitions together exceeds 2,000. They even have a competition for Aged Oolong.
One factor to consider in determining the significance of a given tea competition is the type of tea that is being made and judged. Due to the large-scale mechanization of tea production combined with commercial promotion of greener, unroasted tea – known as High Mountain Tea, this the most produced type of tea in Taiwan. Consequently, the most competitions are produced for this tea type. Besides volume, it is worthwhile to consider the significance of rarer, more specialty tea types such as Oriental Beauty and Tieguanyin Oolongs. These are produced in much smaller amounts comparatively, but are quite significant in their own right as high quality traditional tea types.
2. What can you tell us about the competitors and judges of most competitions – do winners really represent the best of the best, or is it more about farmers willing to pay high entry fees?
KS: Different competitions include or exclude competitors of different origins. Mostly by tea variety and some are restricted by farming locations. Reputable competitions invite reputable judges. Entry fee is usually USD$50 to $100 per sample and the winner may gain 10 to 30 times the increase in price. For entrants, it can be gamble with high returns.
CC: Depending on the competition there can be thousands of entrants and multiple rounds of judges; for example the competition in LuGu township typically has around 7000 competitors! There might be two types of judges; the first round judges would be trained locals, and the second round are professionals from the Tea Association of Taiwan. The entry fee is modest, typically around $50 to $70 US dollars per tea entered, but entrants must submit roughly 30 pounds of their tea for consideration. Only two pounds are used for judging, the rest is reserved until after the competition. When a tea wins an award, the governing body of the competition offers to buy the remaining 28 pounds of tea from the entrant at high prices for resale. Teas that do not win any awards are returned in full, minus the two pounds used. As always, a reputable competition will be the key to finding the best of the best in Taiwanese tea.
AK: To my knowledge, all official competitions in Taiwan require that all of the hired judges are certified – meaning that they have graduated from the tea judging course conducted by the TRES (tea research extension station).
In the case of the Lugu Farmers’ Association, there are two levels of judging – a preliminary judging and a secondary judging. The preliminary judging is comprised of 6 teams of 5 judges each that are supervised by 3 advisors. (Lugu Farners’ Association Tea Competition 2014) Many of these judges are tea makers who have attained certification as a professional tea judge. This step in the judging process accomplishes the task of disqualifying roughly 1/3 of the entries from the competition as well as grading the lower 3 levels of prize winning teas.
The secondary judging is comprised of a team of 4 or 5 senior judges. The FA considers it to be more objective to have the secondary team comprised of TRES and FA employees rather than private farmers who are certified judges. It is their task to determine the placement of the higher ranking teas, namely third class, second class, first class and the top 11 entries. In this process some teas will be brought up from 3 plum blossoms to third class, and vice versa.
As for the question of competition winners really representing the best of the best, well it depends on who you ask. As I see it, competitions are meant to set precedents for quality standards as well as function as an interface between consumers and tea producers. Local competitions set standards that take consumer demand into consideration. This in effect will vary the type of tea produced slightly, while still remaining well within the range of a given tea type.
Tea makers enter competitions to gain a reputation, to potentially be able to sell their competition tea for many times more than the going market value, and to stay tuned to current consumer demand as determined by the host organization. Of course, there is considerable controversy among participants regarding the changing trends of tea judging standards, but overall the consensus is that competitions are seen as worthwhile for tea makers as well as consumers. However, I personally know tea farmers who have no interest in entering competitions. They have sufficient demand for their specialty product of limited quantity and prefer to follow their own sense of what is quality and what is a specialty type of tea.
Having said that, I have had the opportunity to taste many award winning teas, and in my experience they are almost always exemplary teas. I have tasted the champion prize winning tea at the Lugu FA and it was to date the best oolong I’ve ever had.
I believe that overall, competitions are an impetus for tea producers to offer their best in an effort to gain a reputation for themselves. This, in effect raises the quality standards in general. I think the guidelines that the TRES have set and train their judges to follow are fundamentally valid and have made enough of a science out of the process of tea evaluation to make it effective in a fairly reliable way. Are all prize winning teas the best of the best? I don’t think that is necessarily the underlying goal of tea competitions.
The most functional aspect of tea competition is to provide the consumer with a reliable standard of quality. In effect, buyers of competition teas are allowing professional judges to do their tea shopping for them. One basic criterion covered is that the organizations that produce competitions conduct random inspections of the tea leaves for trace chemical residues. This effectively ensures that all entries in the competition meet these requirements, as being disqualified for not passing trace chemical testing is highly detrimental to the participant’s reputation. I believe the registered name that does not pass inspection is no longer allowed to enter the competition they were disqualified from for this reason. Beyond this, I think consumers come to appreciate the results of a particular competition over years of experience and find the price/quality range within that competition that meets their preference. Overall, competitions have proven to be more consistent than individual tea producers for overall quality – which is a significant service to the consumer, given that it is an agricultural product that varies from season to season.
3. What kinds of judging criteria are used, and what are the priorities? For example, is dry leaf appearance more important than liquor aroma?
CC: In general the categories are broken down thus: 20% on the appearance of the dry leaf, 20% on the appearance of the steeped leaf, 20% on the aroma, and 40% on the taste.
KS: Judging criteria are slightly different in different competitions. For instance, the following is the standard set for Baozhong competition in Pinglin (坪林) area. Appearance 20%, color of liquor 20%, liquor aroma 30% and taste 30%. While standards for Dong Ding oolong are: Appearance 20%, color of liquor 10%, liquor aroma 30% and taste 40%
Lugu FA judging process:
22 jin (jin = 600g catty) of tea leaves are obtained from each participant.
One jin is used for judging – separated into 3 parts: preliminary evaluation; secondary evaluation; comparison for market quality.
3g of tea leaves are brewed in a 150ml lidded cup with boiling water for 6 minutes. The brewed tea is then poured into an observation bowl. When the tea has cooled to about 45 degrees Celsius, it is observed. At the same time the dried leaves presented on a tray are observed for their appearance (color, consistency, shape, presence of bud tips are noted). The appearance of the brewed tea is also noted for brightness, clarity and color. After the tea has been viewed, the aroma of the brewed leaves in the lidded brewing cup is noted along with the flavor and character of the brewed tea. Finally, the appearance of the brewed leaves is noted for color, consistency, suppleness, etc. Observing the brewed leaves allows judges to determine the tea varietal, environment of cultivation, oxidation level and the effects processing and storage procedures used.
The significance of each aspect of observation is divided as:
Dry Leaf Appearance: 10%
Brewed Tea Appearance: 10%
Aroma of Brewed Tea Leaves: 30%
Taste, Aroma, Character of Brewed Tea: 40%
Appearance of Brewed Tea Leaves: 10%
4. What kinds, levels of awards are given at most oolong competitions? E.g. gold silver, bronze? Grand Champion? How many awards are given?
KS: Of course, there are gold, silver and bronze prizes. Take Lugu farmer’s association (鹿谷農會) as an example. Grand prize, first place to 10th place and then, the next level, three to one plum flower award.
CC: While there is usually one “first place” or special award winner, the awards for Taiwanese tea competitions are divided into tiers, with multiple winners per tier. Just as a rough example, imagine a special award for the best tea of the competition and a seven-tier distinction award, ten first place teas, twenty second place teas, and fifty third place teas. From here the distinctions broaden into the standard star rating system. There will be a hundred four star teas, two-hundred three star teas, five-hundred two star teas, and so on. Perhaps up to half the teas entered will qualify for distinction.
AK: Lugu FA Dong Ding Oolong Tea
About 6000 entries per competition; spring and winter competitions
Champion prize (sells for about NT$250,000)
Top Class – 2% of total entries
Second Class – 5% of total entries
Third Class – 8% of total entries
3 Plum blossoms – 20% of total entries
2 Plum blossoms – 33% of total entries
Emei FA and Beipu FA (alternating) – Dong Fang Mei Ren Oolong (Oriental Beauty)
1000 entries approx.
Each entry is only 12 jin (600g) because the yield per land area/tea plant is significantly less than other tea types
Champion Prize (sells for about NT$300,000 – based on scarcity of produce)
Mu Zha FA – Tie Guan Yin Oolong
Spring and winter
350-400 entries; spring and winter competition
Champion Prize (sells for about NT$20,000)
Yu Chi FA – Black Tea: Separate Competitions for : Assam; Tai Cha #18 (Red Jade); Tai Cha #21; Taiwan Mountain Tea (wild strain)
About 400 (or less depending on tea type) entries per competition
Champion – first place
Gold Medal 50-60 (approx. 15% of total entries)
Special Quality 200 (approx. 50% of total entries)
5. Would you buy an authentic, competition-winning tea before seeing or tasting it? Why or why not?
KS: I personally started drinking oolong released from competition of Lugu farmer’s association. I think it is still a signature of quality and an excellent starting point when you are a novice drinker or still at loose in the sea of tea.
CC: For the famous tea competitions such as LuGu or EMei, the competition winner and first tier teas sell out very quickly. There is practically no time to request to see or taste the winning teas, and the demand is so high that a buyer has to act quickly to even buy any. As always, it is important to verify the reputation of a competition before buying competition-winning tea. If the competition is reputable, it is a sound decision to buy a winner or first tier tea without first seeing or tasting.
AK: I would buy a competition tea at a certain award level and price range without seeing or tasting it if I were not able to visit tea farmers directly and do my own tea shopping. The reason for this is that the tea has been assessed by a number of tea professionals with trained discernment that surpasses my own. If I were looking for a reliable standard of quality and did not have the opportunity or time to choose an individual batch from a source I know and trust, then competition tea is the next best option.
6. How can a U.S. consumer know for sure he/she is getting a competition tea?
CC: Competition-winning teas are specially packaged and sealed. The seal will include relevant information about both the tea and the competition that it took part in. The key to getting a true competition-winning tea is to search for a reputable competition and to verify the seal on the container.
KS: There are only few competitions providing anti-counterfeit labels, so U.S. consumers need to know where they are buying from.
AK: The competition tea is packaged by the FA or other organizations with an official seal/label that has a serial number that is registered at the association to certify that it is competition tea. So the only standardized guarantee is if the consumer can confirm that the packaging is authentic.
Thank you to my contributors. As evidenced by their responses, Taiwan tea competitions can vary to a great degree, but established competitions can be a valuable platform for showcasing excellent teas.