Recently I’ve had the recurring thought that part of my personal mission related to tea is to let the world know that Taiwan is the heart of specialty Oolong Tea in the 21st century. This is not a new idea, but it somehow it has felt particularly poignant lately. So I chose the topic of tea competitions to represent an aspect of tea culture and the tea industry here in Taiwan.

Following are answers to some general questions we came up with to provide an overview of the competition tea industry. These competitions are a main aspect of product promotion for all of the tea growing regions in Taiwan.  Given that Taiwan is not a very big island, the number of competitions alone is an impressive indication of the specialty tea market here that is unsurpassed in variety, quality and value.

Andy Feb 1What is the most unique tea competition and why is it unique?

We will have to mention a few here in answering this question to be fair and comprehensive in referring to traditional teas of regional origin. Perhaps the most unique tea competition in Taiwan is the Oriental Beauty Oolong Tea competition in Emei, Hsinchu County in northern Taiwan. This is because Oriental Beauty is a traditional Oolong Tea that is made with the help of the Green Leaf Hopper insect that likes to feed on the sap of tea leaf buds. It is a prime example of a fine artisan tea and is produced in very small quantities, and so warrants a high value.

Second to Oriental Beauty is Tieguanyin Oolong – produced in Muzha, Taipei. This is for similar reasons as the Oriental Beauty, minus the help of the Green Leaf Hopper. Tieguanyin is a traditional Oolong Tea that is grown from an heirloom strain of tea plants in extremely small amounts in the hills just outside of Taipei City. It also is a prime example of an artisan tea in that it requires knowledge and skill and an incredible amount of time (in roasting) to produce. Traditionally made Tieguanyin is almost impossible to find in mainland China now, due to a trend that was started by Ten Ren Tea Company to produce “Green Tieguanyin”. This is a wholly different character of tea that was invented for high volume production, consistency, and expedient processing.Andy Feb 2

Finally, Dong Ding Oolong Tea is the third tea type that has preserved a cultural relic in the artisan tea industry. If it weren’t for the promotion of these traditional tea types by local farmers’ associations and artisans dedicated to their inherited trade, these teas would probably no longer exist – as is the case with many varieties of Oolong Tea that used to be produced in China.

 What are the top five tea competitions based on number of entries and/or value of prize-winning teas?

            1. Lugu Farmers’ Association Dong Ding Oolong Tea

2. Emei Farmers’ Association Oriental Beauty Tea

3. Meishan Farmers’ Association High Mountain Tea

4. Yuchi Farmers’ Association Black Tea

5. Heping Farmers’ Association High Mountain Tea

What is the oldest tea competition and/or has been a model/pioneer in developing its business?

The Lugu Farmers’ Association Dong Ding Oolong Tea Competition was the first competition to be established in 1976, and has been the primary model for other competitions to follow.

 What tea competitions are most sought after by foreign markets?

      1. Lugu Farmer’s Association (Dong Ding Oolong Tea)

      2. Alishan Farmers’ Association (Alishan High Mountain Tea)

      3. Emei Farmers’ Association (Oriental Beauty Tea).

 What percentage of Taiwan tea competitions is Oolong Tea?

At least 90% of all competitions in Taiwan feature Oolong Tea.Andy Feb 3

 Has the tea competition industry influenced the development of tea competitions in other countries?

Yes, Taiwan tea competitions have been emulated in mainland China.

 Did Taiwan initially follow the example of other foreign tea competitions?

The basic implements of a porcelain lidded cup and tea bowl for tea assessment and judging were adopted from the tea industry in India.

Andy Feb 4How many tea competitions are there in Taiwan?  

Well, when my tea mentor and I finally had a moment on a Friday evening to sit down and list them from memory, we came up with this list of 25. There are also other competitions that are held less consistently by various enterprises, but these are the standard established competitions that are held on a bi-annual (spring and winter) or annual basis (Oriental Beauty and Black Tea). Most competitions are conducted by local farmers’ associations, so these are listed first. The sizes of these competitions vary greatly – from a hundred or so entries in the smallest to over 6000 entries in the biggest.

Farmers’ Associations (by county, locale, and tea type – from North to South of the island):

Taipei County

Sanxia: Biluochun Green Tea

Wenshan: Baozhong Oolong Tea

Muzha: Tieguanyin Oolong Tea

Hsinchu County

Emei: Oriental Beauty Oolong Tea

Taichung County

Heping: High Mountain Oolong Tea (Lishan; Dayuling)

Nantou CountyAndy Feb 6

Renai: High Mountain Oolong Tea (Tsuifeng; Qilaishan, etc.)

Yuchi: Black Tea (Taicha #18; Assam; Mountain/wild strain)

Xinyi: High Mountain Oolong Tea (Yushan)

Nantou City: Green Mountain Oolong Tea

Mingjian: Jin Xuan Oolong Tea,

                    Tsui Yu Oolong Tea,

                    Qing XinOolong Tea,                      

                    Four Seasons Spring Oolong Tea

Zhushan:    Oolong Tea, (Shanlinxi)

                    Jin Xuan Oolong Tea

Lugu: Dong Ding Oolong Tea

Andy Feb 5Chiayi County

Meishan: High Mountain Oolong Tea (Alishan; Rueli, Zhangshuhu)

Alishan: High Mountain Oolong Tea

There are also other associations that have been established to promote their local specialty teas through education and marketing – mainly in the form of tea competitions, such as:

Nantou Tea Trade Organization:

                    Jin Xuan Oolong Tea

                    Tsui Yu Oolong Tea

                    Qing Xin Oolong Tea

                    Four Seasons Spring Oolong Tea

Zhushan Jin Pai Zhang (private company): High Mountain Oolong Tea

Dong Ding Tea Cooperative:             Dong Ding Oolong

                                                             New Varietal (Jin Xuan Oolong)

Yonglong/Fenghuang District Dong Ding Oolong Tea

These competitions are not only a marketing strategy. They also preserve tea culture and local pride in traditional products of regional origin. In some cases, there are competition fairs held by the host facility after the results are publicized where the public can come learn about tea production and quality assessment from professionals. Consumers can also sit down and drink tea with the artisans that produce it and buy directly from the source. This is a modern manifestation of tea culture that Taiwan has developed. In certain regions, it preserves an artisan tradition that would probably not survive the commercial trends in the industry.

We have learned a great deal from both our professional tea judge and our tea artisan friends who participate in tea competitions about determining quality and the reasons for various characteristics of tea. While there is controversy among tea makers as to the validity of various aspects of competition methodology, there can be no denying that these competitions have sustained the quality and value of specialty teas as well as traditional teas of regional origin.

Andy Kincart is the sourcing director for Eco-Cha teas. Images courtesy of Andy Kincart.