Again this past August I was honored to be asked to lecture at the Hong Kong International Tea Festival and to serve as a judge for the International Tea Competition. It is always a tea_triogreat pleasure to work with distinguished tea people from around the world, learning and sharing knowledge about tea. Of course, tasting and critiquing over 100 excellent teas is not such a bad job, either. 

Despite a delay caused by a level 8 typhoon, all entries were judged by the team of seven judges. The judges first discussed and agreed on the tasting method for each category and on the weight each factor had on the overall score. For some teas, such as CTC black teas, more importance is given to flavor and aroma than shape. For oolongs, appearance and aroma may weight more than liquor color. For the most part, standard professional tea tasting procedures were implemented. The resultant infusions are usually quite strong and not the way consumers would prepare the same tea. For tea tasters, this is the norm and tongues have been attuned to the stronger brew over years of training.

There were post-fermented teas; Pu Er and Dark teas were divided into their own categories. Greens and oolongs were represented. Black teas were entered into orthodox or CTC manufacture categories. It is quite a task to prepare so many teas in an efficient and effective way and the staff are to be commended for their attention to detail and for accommodating the requests of the judges. I can only say that I’m glad I didn’t have to wash all the dishes after the tasting sessions. 

The lead judge for a category was the first to put down a mark. The other judges would follow and add or subtract from the starting score according to their evaluations. Samples were marked with codes to ensure anonymity of the samples. On a few occasions however, it was quite obvious that there were entries that didn’t seem to fit the category in which they were entered. Some were obviously entered in the wrong category and were summarily disqualified. But, a few others didn’t seem to fit any of the established categories. This was both a confounding as well as inspiring challenge. 

The well-experienced judges scratched their heads more than once. “How do we evaluate this one?”

“But this is not a Pu Er tea!”

“Is it an oolong or a black tea?” These were some of the questions that rattled through the rows of tasting cups and sample trays. A well-made cake of compressed golden buds and dark whole leaves was entered in the Pu Er category. An unsuspecting consumer might not tumble right away to the fact that this tea was not fermented. “A black tea cake that looks just like a nice Shu Pu Er cake?” Another example, which was as tasty as it was curious, was a black tea entry which, to the trained nose and eye – as well as palate – was obviously made with and in the style of a favorite oolong tea. “Is this just an excessively oxidized oolong or in fact some kind of combination process?”

In this day and age, we are getting accustomed to hearing the terms Hybrid and cross-over. Traditional models are being challenged, and new combinations are popping up all the time. I suppose it should be of no surprise that this is going on in the tea industry as well. India is making “Chinese” style green and white teas. China’s domestic thirst for green tea is waning in the face of the new, insatiable demand for black teas. Bud-only Silver tip teas are coming from Sri Lanka. These days one’s cup of tea may not be from the same place it was developed and produced for centuries. Or, perhaps it is not made in the same way it has been for generations. I myself have to confess a bit of guilt here, having worked with a garden in Darjeeling to produce a tea that is indeed hard to classify in a traditional way, but is altogether wonderful in its own right.

So then, as a judge, how does one fairly and objectively evaluate such teas? Without benchmarks for comparison, are we left with ultimately only subjective impressions? As a judge, “I like it” is usually not a sufficient evaluation. We can comment on technical features like the degree to which a tea was withered or fired; whether it has a bright appearance in the cup. But with so many possible variations, how can teas be grouped into reasonable categories or classified for evaluation? If every tea is different, how can we compare them? Isn’t this kind of the point of a competition? It is already a challenge for one individual to be versed in all the traditional tea types and categories. How then to accommodate the spontaneous, the new, the “out of the box”? What is to be the fate of the traditional, old favorites? Do they get shelved for lack of novelty? Will an offering have to be “tea-chique” to be viable in the market? Who can say. But it is a certainty that competitions, and the expectations of judges are going to blossom into something more than they are now.

And by the way, I really liked the oolong/black tea or whatever it was.