The art of judging award-winning tea

How are award-winning teas selected? Surprisingly for most people, tea competitions are fun and exciting. Judges typically consist of tea farmers, tea shop owners, and tea scholars. These experts are known for refraining from drinking alcohol and coffee, smoking, eating spicy food, or anything else which could taint their palate. Gathered around a large table, with tasting spoons in hand, the group obnoxiously slurps down countless sips of the same type of tea, crafted by different artisans.

Traditionally these teas are oolongs. With greater expertise and experience required for production, oolongs are said to be the “connoisseur’s tea,” containing the most complexity and fragrance. Judges debate taste, aroma, appearances of leaf, and quality of infusions. After several hours of heated debate, with judges literally shouting and screaming at one another, a consensus on which teas deserve which grades is finally reached.

Judges award 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place honors. Unlike traditional competitions, the same honors can be awarded several times. For example, two farms could have their teas graded as a 2nd place winner. Or no award could be given at all.

The winning farmer donates a portion of their batch to the judges, a portion to the communist government, and the little that’s left, they are allowed to sell —etching an exponentially higher price.

Award-winning teas have complex character. The layered flavor profiles are nuanced yet pronounced. Aromas are intoxicating. The appearance of the leaf is that of extreme precision, comparable to a master carpenter or painter. In each sip, the perfected techniques of the artisan is known. If fortunate enough to get your hands on one of these award-winning, artisan teas, you can be certain, they are a grade above the rest.

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