Taiwan has a number of different tea competitions, that take place throughout the year,
90% of competitions in Taiwan are for oolong teas, but there are also competitions for black tea, such as the one in Yuchi, and for special Taiwanese teas such as Oriental Beauty and Muzha Tieguanyin. Competitions can have hundreds or even thousands of entrants.
The incentive for farmers to enter their teas for competitions is that their teas are more marketable for quality, and if they score highly, will allow them to sell their teas for several times the original price.
Competition winning teas are assured to be of high quality, as they have been tasted by experts who have verified that they are better than many other competitors. In addition, they preserve regional teas, tea culture, and traditional techniques.
The first major one of which was the Lugu Farmers’ Association Dong Ding Oolong Tea Competition, in 1976. It has since served as a template for other tea competitions around Taiwan.
How do they work?
Judges carefully evaluate and taste the tea entrants, for criteria such as dried leaf shape, brewed colour, brewed aroma, brewed flavour when hot and when cooled down, and brewed leaf shape.
Naturally, all teas have to be brewed using the same parameters: 3g of tea for 6 minutes in a 50ml cup, with the water at near boiling point. They are also given a code before judging so that the entries are anonymous and they are repackaged so that it is clear when resold that the tea was entered for competition.
Processing a tea for a competition is challenging, as the teas to either side of yours can influence the evaluation as the teas are judged against each other as well as according to criteria. In addition, the conditions of the day of competition will affect the nature of the tea, and have to be taken into account.
In stages, the tea is tasted by different judges and given different gradings, whose prices change accordingly.
Not trying to be cheeky, but if you would like to try a tea that was awarded a high grading in a competition, try our Honey Black Tea.
In tasting tea, every aspect of how the tea affects you is important, not only the aroma and flavour but also the texture of the tea, and how it affects you after drinking.
In order to effectively taste tea, it is important to brew it carefully. Although I enjoy drinking tea without brewing parameters, there are advantages to using them, including getting the best out of the tea, and being able to compare different teas. Brewing tea at different “strengths” can help to emphasise different aspects, and bring out good and bad points. As you become more experienced, you will become more sensitive to what makes good tea.
This tells you about the processing, whether the leaves were machine picked or hand-picked. If they are in fragments, it can indicate that they were machine-picked. It also shows how heavily oxidised the tea is: the darker, the more heavily oxidised. A darker tea can also be a fermented tea or a roasted tea.
These leaves are black in colour as this is a fully oxidised and roasted black tea. The leaves are twisted and there are some smaller and some larger leaves. There appear not to be any buds. The leaves appear whole and you can see the odd stalk.
Warm the teapot and put in the leaves, and smell them.
I recommend using porcelain for this, as it’s neutral. Use hot water to warm the teapot, pour out the water and add the leaves. You can give them a little shake, which also helps to even out the leaves so that you can the quantity. Cold leaves will not usually leave an aroma.
Do a rinse and smell the lid of the pot, and the wet leaves.
The leaves are quite steamy for a few seconds after the rinse, but all the aromas should now change and bring out other aspects of the tea. In the case of Nantou Honey Black tea, a rinse is not really necessary.
The rinsed leaves (or the leaves on the first infusion after the tea is poured) have a honeyish aroma and the smell of baking spices is fresher and brighter.
Brew a cup of tea and look at the colour of the tea soup or liquour.
The colour can tell you about the nature of the tea as well, for example a roasted oolong can have a deep yellow colour, a green tea should often be green. It can also tell you about the brewing. If it’s a green tea, and it’s yellow, this can mean that the temperature of the water is too hot. If this black tea comes out yellow instead of red, then that means it is being brewed with less tea leaves compared to water, or that the water is not hot enough.
Taste the tea
You can choose whether to slurp the tea or not. Slurping the tea puts air into it which can help to taste more flavours. Tea should not be rough or overly bitter, but should be strong and smooth. Good tea will be complex. Hold the tea in the mouth and breathe out through the nose.
This tea is very floral, has notes of a honey-ish sweetness and a there is a hint of cinnamon.
Observe the texture
Is the tea thick or thin?
Nantou Honey Black Tea is slightly viscous, but very smooth in texture.
Smell the empty cup
Tea which leaves a good aroma in the early steepings in the empty cup is of good quality. This can show that the tea was grown slowly on a high altitude or a low temperature; or picked in spring after absorbing nutrients during the winter. It may also mean that the tea trees are older or grown in better mineral rich soil.
The tea leaves a mild aroma on the inside of the cup.
What are the effects after drinking the tea?
How does the tea affect your body? Do you feel a warming or cooling effect? Does the tea dry the mouth and throat or moisten them? Sometimes there can be a drying followed by a moistening effect. I like teas that have a hui gan or returning sweetness after you swallow them. Does the tea make you feel more energised? Do the flavours linger? If so, this shows that the tea is of good quality.
This tea has a warming effect, and is slightly tannic, so it slightly dries the throat. After drinking a lot of the tea, I started to feel the caffeine. The finish is very smooth.
Observe the wet leaves
Some buds are now visible as well as whole leaves. The picking style was a bud and two leaves. The colours are olive green and brown. The leaves are fairly small, which is a testament to the farmer’s rallying call “Pick higher! Pick higher!” on the tea bush.
I thoroughly recommend drinking tea outside, it’s very liberating. All the used leaves and the rinse can just be poured away.
This is another kind of bowl brewing technique that works well to drink and evaluate teas against each other, and can be adapted for several people drinking together.
As it is easy and effective, I recommend this technique for people who may want a simpler “tea ceremony” that requires no special equipment. I highly recommend this method.
This is all you need – a spoon, a drinking cup and a bowl for eachtea that you are drinking. If you have more people, increase the number of drinking cups to ideally one cup per person per tea (so two people drinking three teas would have six cups in total).
Here I have measured out 5g of the Honey Black Tea, and roughly 5.5g of the High Mountain Oolong.
I filled up the bowls to roughly the same level with hot water.
If serving more people, you can use larger bowls and more tea. The amount of tea is just a guide, please adjust to personal preference, and you can also add more water if it gets bitter.
Use the spoons to pour the tea into the cups, and you can smell both sides of the spoon to appreciate the aroma. This worked exceptionally well with both of these teas.
All that is left is to enjoy the tea, refill the bowls with more water, and drink as much as you want with the same tea leaves. I found this method very easy and also very effective. The flavours of both the teas come out in all their complexity and richness, in aroma and taste.
For a more advanced technique, have a look at my post on gong fu cha.
Tea in Taiwan is harvested virtually all year round but the timing of an harvest has an effect on its flavour. Each season produces its own character, and Spring and Winter harvests are generally considered the best. For example, in oolongs, spring teas are considered the sweetest, most flavourful and floral, and winter teas the most aromatic and crisp; summer teas are the bitterest, and autumn teas the most astringent. Some tea drinkers will prefer winter teas, and some spring teas (though spring teas seem perennially most popular).
The notable exception in Taiwan to this is bai hao, Oriental Beauty oolong, which is harvested during the summer and has a unique beautiful aroma and taste similar to black tea. It is characterised by high oxidation, white tips and having undergone the process of being bitten by tea jassids, which are small crickets.
It only takes a few days for a bud to appear, open and turn into a large leaf, and the flavour will change during this time, as will the chemical composition. This means that there is only a short window in each harvest season to pick tea leaves at the point that they grow to the point required by the tea. Some teas are made using only the buds, other teas with a bud and two leaves, or a bud and three leaves, some teas using only leaves. Teas require leaves that are similar in size, of a good texture, and in good condition. Farmers also want to pick as many leaves as possible during the time window to harvest to make a large enough batch of tea overall.
The time that harvest takes place is not completely fixed, although farmers have a good idea every year from the traditional harvest times, which are related to the Chinese lunarsolar calendar. In Spring, the best green teas are those which are picked before the Qing Ming festival on 4th or 5th April. However, farmers also observe their tea bushes, as changes in the microclimate of the tea farm can cause the leaves to be ready to be harvested at a different time than expected. Although a delay may seem like a bad thing, drought or cold weather can actually improve the taste of the final tea. There are many mechanised processes in tea making but at the end of the day, nothing can really replace the dedication and experience of farmers in using their senses and observation to make a fine tea.