May 25, 2010

Competition Grades of Taiwan Oolong

Taiwan has great oolong tea competitions. The competitions are organized by local tea associations and endorsed by local governments to guarantee their credibility. The participants are mostly oolong farmers. Each candidate tea is submit by a total of 20 tai jin (12kg, or about 27 lb.). Winners of the competitions win honor, and their competition tea can be sold for a good price. Most competitions hold evaluation events twice a year, spring and winter. Although in current market, many Taiwan oolong products are not labeled with their cultivar names (Qing Xin/Green Heart; Jin Xuan/Golden Lily; Cui Yu/Green Jade; Si Ji Chun/Four Season Spring), in most competitions, different cultivars are put in different groups. The products called Oolong are all from Green Heart (the original Taiwan oolong cultivar). The other three cultivars are put in the same competition group called "New Cultivars Group" in some competitions and in some other competitions, they are put in three individual groups.

The competitions select teas very strictly. Only teas of the best quality can enter the final competition, and the rest will be rejected. Teas from some competitions are very hard to get. Most competition teas are sold out before or soon after the awards are publicized. And for most competitions, it's extremely hard to get the top award teas. Generally speaking, I am most interested in competition teas that are relatively accessible with affordable prices.

Taiwan Oolong Competitions have unique culture, and in my eyes it's an admirable culture that can be adopted by other agricultural fields and other production regions. I think the advantages of Taiwan Oolong Competitions include:

1. All teas are submitted by farmers or tea merchants who are directly related to tea farmers. The honor goes to the farmers and local factories, the real producers. 

2. Each award title is restricted to the specific 27 lb. tea submitted to the competition. The same farmer may submit multiple entries to a competition and may win multiple awards of various levels. But a farmer may produce hundreds of pounds of tea each year, and winning awards doesn't mean all this farmer's tea is award-winning tea. When you buy a competition tea, what you get is just the tea accepted and strictly inspected by the competition committee. Taiwan Oolong Competitions' solid credibility is established on this strict rule.

So far we have been dealing with award-winning teas from two competitions.

1. Mei Shan Village Farmers' Association (梅山鄉農會) Competition (Mei Shan is a high mountain region of Ali Shan Moutain range). It's one of the highly reputable competition of light roast high mountain oolong. Candidate teas are from tea plantations of 1200m (3600 ft.) elevation. There are five evaluation events every year in this competition. We focus on Spring and Winter competitions, products from which are the most popular. The award levels are (from the highest): Superior Grade (特等獎), Grade I (頭等獎), Grade II (二等獎), Grade III (三等獎), three-plum-flower (三朵梅) - we label this as Grade IV, two-plum-flower (二朵梅) - we label this as Grade V.

2. Nan Tou County Tea Commerce Association (南投縣茶商同業公會) Competition (Nan Tou is the home county of Dong Ding Oolong). This competition is featured with medium to high roasted tea products. It is one of the most inexpensive competitions in terms of the final prices of award-winning teas - this is compared with other competitions, but the teas are still generally more expensive then non-competition tea products in the market. There are two competition events every year, in spring and in winter.

The award levels used to be titled: Superior Grade (特等獎), Grade I (頭等獎), Grade II (二等獎), Grade III (三等獎), Excellence Award (優良獎) - we label this as Grade IV

But starting from this spring, the award titles are changed to: Superior Grade (特等獎), Grade I (頭等獎), Gold Medal (金牌獎), Silver Medal (銀牌獎), Excellence Award (優良獎). I guess the changes are because people simply prefer Gold or Silver Medal to Grade II or  III. But the competition is still the same. In fact, all competition teas are of solid quality, and generally have better quality than teas of grand titles given by many commercial companies.


Alex Zorach said...

I like the emphasis on crediting the actual producer / farmer.

Do you think that this system of competitions and their rules and culture lead to an environment that encourages the development of high-quality tea, and empowers small producers?

I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on this.

Gingko said...

I think the system is perfect for agricultural products that can be finished locally, especially in hands of farmers. Such as tea and wine, probably coffee as well, but maybe hard for cocoa.

There are some small scale production teas in Fujian, such as Zhang Ping Shui Xian, that have started their tea competitions now. But it seems that the Fujian tea competitions are not as influential yet as Taiwan tea competition.

I think a systematic competition is good for spreading the reputation of the tea, and guarantees a good channel of buying high quality tea (however it's only small amount). But it requires cooperation of tea associations, local government and farmers. Sometimes there may be problems on how to get it done. And some people believe commercial advertisement is more powerful in promoting tea and bringing in profits, which may not be wrong, because after all we are in a commercial society.

Nowadays in Fujian (and other provinces but mostly in Fujian), there are more and more tea competition/evaluation events. But usually when you see an events, you have to figure out first who are behind it and if there are big companies paying money for it to give themselves awards. And many of such events are not annual but rather one-shot. I feel the competitions would mean much more to tea drinkers if they are organized annually with credibility, and if there are easy ways for people to buy the competition tea.

Rich said...

I'm impressed by the variety of competition-grade Dong Ding that you carry, as well the prices you are able to acquire them for. I understand that aside from 特等獎, the other categories have multiple winners. Do you know how that is broken down (e.g. how many winners there are in each of those other categories)?

Also, I've heard that in the past, award-winning Dong Ding teas could be differentiated by the number of "flowers" they had on their packages (3 being a high-honor tea). However, I know these bags are easy to obtain and judging from pricing at some Taiwan markets that have cheap "award-winning" tea, it's probably not a very reliable system anymore. Do you know anything about this system?

I've also noticed that - at least with the competition DD's that I have - their nice flavor profiles don't tend to last very long before they change quite dramatically. This seems to be a relatively recent difference as the teas entered into competitions aren't so highly-oxidized to stabilize the flavors for longer times. What has your experience been with the storage of these teas?


Gingko said...

Hi RTea, those are good questions that worth a lot of discussions!

First of all, prices of teas from different competitions are very much different. The two competitions we are currently interested are two relatively easily accessible ones. Teas from some other competitions can be more expensive and for some teas I just don't have a way to get it. Such differences between competitions can potentially be a problem, since in both US and mainland China, I rarely see a vendor name the competition source of a competition tea product, yet the Grade II award from one competition can possibly be several times as expensive as that from another competition. In Taiwan market, it's almost a must that a competition tea should come with the name of competition where it's from.

The authenticity is not a challenging problem because all the well-established competitions have very transparent system and procedures. For example, when I buy competition tea from a farmer enrolled in Mei Shan Farmer Association, I can go to their website to see the most updated information ( Then a quick look on the posted winners list can give me an idea where this farmer stands in the competition and other information.

I just took another look at the above website and then can answer your next question. In the past winter competition, there is one Superior Grade, 24 Grade I (the first 5 of them are ranked in sequence), 30 something Grade II, 50 something Grade III, 160 something 3-plum-flowers, and 160 something 2-plum-flowers. These are numbers of submitted packages. One farmer can submit multiple packages and can win multiple awards. For example, the farmer I bought from won a Grade III, a 3-plum and a 2-plum. There is another farmer who won four 3-plum-flower awards with 4 packages enrolled.

The Nan Tou Tea Commerce Association competition has fewer awards, partially because it's for medium/heavy roasted style, not the trendy green style.

Gingko said...

As for storage, I believe it largely depends on the style of the tea. For greener style, I would store it in fridge and keep the package completely sealed. But overall it's a good idea not to store too much for too long.

If it's more traditional style, then I leave it in room temperature. It won't go bad after a very long time, but the higher grade tea may lose some floral aroma and have some character change which may not be bad.

Rich said...

Hi Gingko, very interesting and informative, thanks for sharing your experiences!

Have you noticed if some of the competition DD teas that you've tried have changed a lot in terms of flavor? Also, do you/do you intend to carry spring competition DD, and if so, what do you think the differences between the spring and winter teas are? There is, as you've suggested, such great variation between even the award-winning teas (even at the same level!) and I've been quite curious to understand how the judging of the teas change between seasons (since winter and spring have such uniquely different flavor characteristics).

Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge!

Gingko said...

Hi RTea, my experience on competition tea is still quite limited. And your questions make me think I should do some side by side tasting and comparisons! Generally I think the differences between seasons for greener style high mountain oolong is relatively small. Seasonal differences for medium roast oolong in these competitions are not big either but probably bigger than greener oolong. It's also largely due to the standards of each competition. For example, the Mei Shan competition is for greener style, and the farmer I know didn't win awards for the past winter but for the past spring, but he wins awards almost every time in the medium roast competition. I think, probably the selection procedure in the competitions largely rule out large fluctuations in taste.

The medium roast competition Dong Ding can be kept for a long time in room temperature (while the greener style high mountain oolong can't last well for more than 1 year unless completely sealed and stored in low temperature without being opened). But I think I should do more comparison tasting when the winter tea of this year comes!

Rich said...

Hi Gingko, thanks again for your great information. I haven't had an award-winning Spring Dong Ding before. I still have some 2008 (or 2007?) winter Grade II (二等獎) tea that was pretty good when it was fresh, but has degraded fairly quickly because of the relatively light oxidation and roast. I would be happy to share with you if you're interested (pls email me at superrich8 at gmail dot com). That way, you may be able to compare how the taste has changed over the past several years and among different producers? I also have a little of a 3rd place competition DD from this past winter's contest that I think has degraded in taste even faster than the 2007/8 one that I have. My limited experience has been that these teas don't store well, and I don't have the quantity or skill level to "revive" these teas.


Gingko said...

Thanks Rich! I will email you!