Taiwan is one of the world's premier Oolong Tea producing regions. As such, tea makers in Taiwan are producing some of the best oolong tea in the world.
Taiwan is also the home to tea competitions that makers from all over the island enter their best teas into. First prize at at the largest competitions goes for up to $10,000 USD for 600 grams. One of the most well known tea regions in Taiwan is the Alishan Mountain Range, and Alishan Tea Competitions recognize the best teas from the area.
Each tea competition in Taiwan is judged by slightly different criteria based on the type of tea produced in that region. What makes a good Merlot is different from what makes a good Shiraz, and you would not judge the two by the same criteria —the same goes for premium oolong tea.
Although the general criteria are the same from competition to competition—tea is judged by the dried leaves, aroma, appearance, and of course taste—in this article, we'll examine how an Alishan Oolong Tea competition is judged.
Let's dive in.
Basic Tea Judging Guidelines
Appearance of Dried Tea Leaves
When judging the quality of competition tea, the first thing assessed is the appearance of the dried tea leaves.
Non-uniform shape and size
The teas entered into Alishan competitions are minimally roasted and maintain a lustrous marbled, deep green quality.
Appearance of Brewed Tea Liquor
The next step is judging the appearance of the brewed tea liquor. The criteria used determine the level of proper processing. A light greenish golden color, with a density that refracts light while still being transparent is what the judges are looking for. Lack of transparency or unevenness of color indicates the leaf was not dried properly.
Aroma of Brewed Tea Leaves
After cooling down for several minutes, the judges will then note the aroma of the brewed tea leaves. They will examine the quality of aroma that continues to exude from the leaves even after they've been brewed and begin to cool down.
Burnt or stale notes
Too many stems
Appearance of Brewed Tea Leaves
Assessing the appearance of the leaves after brewing tells a lot about the nature and quality of the tea leaf. Are the leaves uniform in their coloration and consistency? Is there a noticeable yet subtle coloration of stems and leaf edges indicating the level and consistency of oxidation? A gradation of color is ok but blotchy is not. Judges will hold leaves up to the light to see if the oxidation/dehydration of the leaf is uniform. The brewed leaves should be supple yet substantial.
Uniform gradation from center (green) to red (edges) to show the partial oxidation of an Alishan Oolong.
Suppleness (no hard or ridged texture)
Flavor: Taste of The Brewed Tea
Now for the big ticket item, the flavor. The flavor will confirm or deny the visual assessment. If the flavor is not lacking or deviant from the standard of a fresh, clean, balanced and smooth composition, the tea qualifies and makes it to the next round of judging.
If the tea meets the all the criteria described in this article, it represents that the tea was well-cultivated and processed with skill and care.
Having said this, know that competition standards are necessary to have an impartial assessment, but what makes a special tea is also subjective, and we have tasted incredible teas that don't fit the mold. There is a large spectrum of subtle differences that result from growing, harvesting, and processing conditions—many teas of extraordinary quality may not be suitable by competition standards. Differences can also be regional and cultivar based.
We encourage you to assess any given tea by your own experience as much as by these professional guidelines. In the end, tea should be enjoyed and enhance our lives via its health benefits, cultural richness, and infinite variety of character.
In short...if you like it, drink it!
What do you think? Is competition tea better than non? What's your favorite thing about tea? Aroma, appearance, flavor, or just the feeling you get when settling in with a good cup? Post your comments, photos and videos here or share with the community on Facebook or Instagram @ecochateas.
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These leaves were harvested by hand from the residential farm that is our ongoing source of Dong Ding Oolong Tea. They were also de-stemmed by hand and roasted extensively to meet the competition standard. The brewed tea has a bold roasted character that is balanced out by a rich, smooth textured and complex flavor profile. It is reminiscent of fire-roasted yams and butternut squash.
This month's edition of the Eco-Cha Tea Club is from the same day's harvest of spring tea that our source received the Top 2% Award out of 750 odd participants in the spring 2019 competition. This month's batch of tea was prepared the same way as the award winning tea — removing the stems by hand and undergoing repeated roastings to meet the standard of quality set by this local competition. Only residents of this small community of traditional tea makers are eligible to enter this competition. But this is the heart of Dong Ding Oolong Country, and this community boasts the densest population of traditional Oolong Tea artisans in Taiwan, and probably in the world!
The complex aroma of the brewed tea leaves has subtle hints of a bug bitten character, but not very obvious. The sufficient oxidation offers a fresh scone scent, with a touch of honey, making us think that there is some influence from the Green Leafhopper. It is very likely that this note is subtle due to the fact that it had rained very near harvest time, which is said to dilute or dissipate the chemical compounds that are responsible for this character of flavor. The texture is smooth and balanced, with delicate complexity.