Making the Grade

Happy New Year to all. May 2019 bring you prosperity, joy and, of course, much very fine tea.

Speaking of fine tea, it does not take a great deal of online searching to find a host of vendors offering Taiwanese “competition” tea, or “competition grade” tea. But what on earth does this mean? The quick answer is: most of the time, not much.

Teas that win competitions, particularly the major ones, are rarely, if ever, sold in bulk for the quantity available usually is quite low. Winning teas are packaged in small lots that carry a serial number and some sort of official seal of the competition. If the tea is not in an official package, it likely isn’t a true “competition” tea.

Further, as the supply of these winning teas is largely controlled by the regional Farmer’s Association, they rarely, find their way into the trade. And, winning teas can sell for astronomical amounts of money. A champion tea in the Lugu competition commands a price in the range of $8000 per jin (a jin is 600 grams.) True competition teas are expensive; very, very expensive.

Due Diligence

If you fancy a genuine “competition” tea, and they are available, be prepared to pay a very hefty price and be sure to ask to see the bona fides before you part with your money. Reputable vendors of true competition teas, and there are several, will happily comply for they will be proud to show off the fine specimen in their catalogue.

“Competition grade” tea presents a thornier problem for the term literally means nothing at all. It is rather like the term “Reserve” on a bottle of California wine: utterly meaningless. In the unlikely event that the tea in question had been entered in a competition, it was eliminated in the early rounds. Why? Because it was not judged good enough to continue. If the tea hadn’t been entered in a competition, the term simply means that the producer or the vendor thinks it is of high quality, or more likely, is trying to generate sales. In this sense it functions in much the same way as the term “monkey picked.” The tea may be stellar; or perhaps not so much. To the extent possible, taste a sample before committing to a major purchase.

What are  These Competitions anyway?

But what are these competitions, when did they begin and what are the requirements for entering them?

Award Plaque from Pinglin Competition

The first tea competition in Taiwan was organized in 1975 in the Pinglin area for Wenshan Bao Zhong and there are now hundreds of these in every tea producing corner of the country. The most prestigious of these competitions is held in Lugu twice per year and is organized by the Lugu Farmer’s Association for the region’s Dong Ding tea.[1] This competition has been running continuously since 1976, boasts some 6000 entries per season and offers the most remunerative prize of all. Other important competitions are held for Oriental Beauty (in Emei and Beipu on an alternating basis,) for Muzha Tie Guan Yin (in the Muzha region of Taipei City,) for Bao Zhong (in Pinglin) and for black tea (in Yuchi.)

The Gold Standard

The Lugu competition has led the way in setting standards and procedures for other events. The entry fee is about $US60 and each entrant must supply 22 jin of tea. This tea is divided into three lots: 1 jin for the judging panels, one jin that would be returned to the grower for comparison purposes and 20 jin that are held in reserve for packaging and sale by the Farmer’s Association should the tea earn an award.

The tasting panels for the early rounds are made up of locally certified judges. For the later rounds nationally certified judges, often from the Tea Research and Extension Station (TRES,) perform the evaluations. All teas are brewed according to a set standard: 3 grams of tea brewed for 6 minutes in a 150 ml evaluation mug using boiling water.

Tasting utensils

In the Beginning

To begin, each tea is evaluated and assigned a grade A through D. The grades are assigned for appearance of the dry leaf (10%,) color (10%,) aroma (30%,) flavor (40%,) and appearance of the infused leaf (10%.) All teas are then evaluated a second time and either eliminated (about 30%,) awarded 2 or three plum blossoms (about 55% – the plum blossom is Taiwan’s national flower,) or sent on for a further three evaluations and a final ranking. Teas that are eliminated are returned to the grower.

In the second set of evaluations, the teas again are first graded A through D. A through C progress to the next stage and D grade teas receive two or three plum blossoms. The second tasting at this juncture divides the teas into third class (about 10%,) second class (about 5%,) or first class (only 2%.) The first-class teas are then ranked and the top 10 teas are awarded individual prizes.

Once the results are tabulated and the winners announced, the 20 jin of each top tea are packaged, according to grade, into uniform, Lugu Farmer’s Association boxes. In other words, only 12 kg of each winning tea is available to the public. That means all winners from the First-Place tea down to the last of the two plum blossom teas.

Fool me once…

Of course, it is not only consumers who can be fooled into believing something is what it is not. The 2015 competition in Lugu saw a tea farmer by the name of Lai garner one of the very top prizes for his Dong Ding. Unfortunately, it was later discovered that his tea was not a true Dong Ding at all but a blend of Taiwanese tea and Vietnamese tea. The story does have an optimistic conclusion, however, for it has prompted stricter controls to be adopted for assessing the validity of claims about origin.[2]

If you have the good fortune to taste a true “First Class” competition tea you are in for a real treat but be wary of the many claims that proliferate in the retail space. Often the Emperor has nothing but a new set of clothes.

That’s my take. What’s your view?


[1] The procedures outlined in this post are based upon the information in “Tea Art and Tea Life” a publication of the Lugu Farmers Association.

[2] The testing is now possible only at the level of country of origin (e.g. Taiwanese origin vs. Vietnamese origin.) The test involves an analysis of the isotope patterns found in tea leaves. Each country has its own “fingerprint.” Currently attempts are underway to extend this procedure to distinguish among different place names within Taiwan.

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