Many tea lovers are familiar with the gong fu style of brewing, which often praised as being the “truest” in bringing out a tea’s character. But when we evaluate tea and when judge tea during competitions, different methods are used based on the same principles of brewing.
When we brew tea to enjoy, we want to bring the best out of a tea. One of the principles of brewing is: use higher temperature to bring out the complexity of tea, and lower temperature to dilute the flaws. This is why, we see the highest quality teas demand boiling temperature flash brewing at full size (yes, there are standard water to tea ratios for Chinese tea), while inferior teas usually use half size (greater water to tea ratio) and are steeped at lower temperature. A seasoned brewer should be able to manipulate flavor, and even perceived quality of tea by adjusting temperature, water to tea ratio, and steeping time.
This creates human variables of a tea’s performance. One can argue that a tea did not perform as well in a competition because the person brewing the tea ruined it. This is why, based on the same principle, a different brewing method is devised for competition to ensure fairness.
Opposite to the objective of bringing out the best of a tea for enjoyment, tea evaluation brewing methods aim to force brew all teas, eliminating the human factor, bring the worst out of a tea, and the least horrible tea is the winner. This calls for standardization of water to tea ratio, boiling water and prolonged steeping time. Depending on the competition, there are different rules and below are some popular examples.
- 3g tea/100ml water, boiling water, 1 steeping: 5 minutes (popular for green tea)
- 3g tea/100ml water, boiling water, 2 steeping: 3 minutes, 5 minutes (popular for red tea)
- 5g tea/100ml water, boiling water, 3 steeping: 1 min, 3 min and 5 min (popular for wu long)
How a competition is structured usually has to do with the type of tea as well as the number of teas in competition and number of judges, so logistics. Imagine 5 - 10 judges evaluating 100 teas, doing three steeping means tripling the time of one steeping. Most tea competitions are just a couple of hours to half a day, faster methods are usually adopted to accommodate the timing.
But some very ambitious and intense tea competition like famed Yan Cha competition of Tian Xin Cun Dou Cha Sai 天心村斗茶赛, it starts with a thousand teas from rough competition that takes days to a week to complete. Then the elimination round for 2-3 days with 100 teas being evaluated each day, and culminating in a day of 30 teas in the final round.
But no matter how a tea competition is structured, as we can see, just timing alone, we are bound to get lots of flaws out of a tea, in a way, no tea would taste THAT good. But, we do get to examine a tea’s quality thoroughly. And yes, lot of spitting buckets are used.
For industry evaluation, for example, when larger factories and exporters to grade teas, or a producer to evaluate different batches or rough tea for blending formulation, variation of these forced brewing methods are also used, depends on what factors each is looking for.
I personally have an unique method of evaluating tea. I want to know a tea’s good side and its bad side. So I usually brew the tea normally for the rinse brew and 1st brew to assess its aroma, upper notes and more pleasant traits. Then I start to give the tea pressure gradually, accelerating the extraction rate that goes from double to triple the normal exhaustion of a tea’s flavor inventory. This ensures that I don’t miss anything interesting from the tea in its middle range and have a rounded assessment of its texture. Lastly, finish the tea with a kill brew, this is the force brew similar to the last round of tea competition. But I like to “open the liquor/soup” 开汤 (jargon for pouring the tea liquor out for evaluation) while the tea is still hot so I don’t miss essential aromatic qualities of a tea while still getting to know all its faults.
The brew ware used for tea competition and evaluation are often the toothed cups, bowls and spoons, all white porcelain. The toothed cup is to accommodate varied skill levels of brewers, there’s almost no learning curve to use it and can ensure quick separation of liquor and water. I have some unpopular thoughts on that, for another time.
The bowls are to receive the liquor, easy to see its color and assess the bitsy level of tea leaves. The spoon makes the process of “pouring” tea easier with self-serving. Judges can go around the table, scoop tea into their cup as they want to. One can also smell the back of a spoon to assess the aroma of tea.
But the forementioned Dou Cha Sai uses gai wan, as pretty much everyone in wu long region knows how to use a gai wan so no additional training is needed.
Now evaluating tea is not just by tasting it, though this is a big part of a tea’s score. The evaluation starts by examining the appearance and consistency of dry leaves, and once we “opened the liquor”, we still need to trace as much details as we can about a tea’s aroma, taste, mouthfeel, and aftertaste, to get a comprehensive review of a tea’s total profile.
The color of the liquor also matters, so does the appearance of spent leaves. In close competition, this could become the last contentious point. I have personally partook in a heated debate during a Shui Xian competition where the judges are divided on the 1st place and 2nd place of two teas, both are excellent. And it’s the examination of spent leaves that eventually had all judges agree on the winning tea.
Recently I did an Instagram Live video on me evaluating Yan Cha and have seen lots of interests in people wanting to know more about it. So, we’ll be hosting some of these sessions at our office in the coming weeks. The first one is on red tea and starts tomorrow at 5pm. We still have a couple of seats left, come join us if you are interested.
Note that these are distinctly different from our guided tastings where we get together and appreciate the best of a tea. Tea evaluation is designed to find faults with a tea, so pleasantness is not guaranteed. But, you do learn a lot about a tea and also factors that make up a quality tea.
Feel free to bring your own tea to these sessions too and we can assess them together.
Sip with you soon.