Saturday, August 3, 2013

Guest Post: Assessing the Assessor? A Tale of a Tea Competition

Photo: Wikipedia
I'm always excited to share a guest post from +Derek Chew. This one in particular was a very interesting story and not one that I have heard before.

In China, especially Southern China, tea competitions are always an exciting period. Producers will bring out their best teas and vie for the prestige and pride that comes along with being crowned the “King of Tea” for that year.

Sometimes, it is not just the teas that are assessed.

Our story takes place in 1989, during the spring period to be more precise, in Xiping Village, Anxi. Xiping Village of course is said to be the very first place that the world famous Tieguanyin aka Iron Goddess of Mercy was produced.

A migrant Chinese Mr. Wei decided to fund the first village level “King of Teas Competition” in his hometown. With much publicity and fanfare, he managed to drum up considerable interest in the competition.
Producers begin to label different batches of teas which were later assigned codes to maintain the anonymity. Different batches of Tieguanyin were sent in to the judges.

Still, as it was a while since there was a competition on this scale, there were skeptics.

“How are they going to assess so many different teas?”

“How can it be done in an afternoon?”

Murmurs emerged from the crowd.

Still, the main judge of the day was no slouch. He was none other than Zhang Tianfu, one of the most respected tea experts.

At a ripe old age of 80, Zhang was sharper than ever. He quickly blazed through the teas, mercilessly eliminating batch by batch.

The crowd could see that the scores of samples dwindled to a few. It seems inevitable that the top 3 winners would be announced soon.

However things seemed to run into a snag.

The crowd saw Zhang wavering between two samples, continuing smelling the gaiwan lids and drinking the tea.

Zhang’s eyebrows burrowed deeply as he shook his head in bewilderment.

“It cannot be. Even if it came from the same field and processed by the same person, at different dates, because of the prevailing weather condition, there is bound to be even the slightest variation in the characteristics of the tea.

The taste, mouth feel, texture and aroma of these two samples are exactly identical. I am certain that they are the exact same tea.”

You could hear the crescendo in the muttering of the crowd.

“Had the old man lost it? It is impossible! Each batch is labeled with a different set of numbers and sealed completely. No one could possibly tamper with the tea.”

Out of nowhere a loud voice boomed: “I’m convinced! Darn it, I’m convinced”

At that a middle age man that the villagers recognized as one of the most respected producers stepped forward.

“I divided the same tea into 2 batches and submitted them separately. I didn’t think anyone could really tell the difference. Now I’m convinced that Zhang is truly an expert!”

The crowd looked stunned for a moment but eventually applause erupted with cheers both for the teas and for Mr. Zhang Tian Fu.

(This account appeared in Huashuo Anxi Tieguanyin edited by Song Lizhen and published by Fujian Science & Technology Publishing House)

Author’s Note: Derek Chew owns and operates +Peony Tea S. - a tea shop dedicated to helping tea lovers of all levels of experience find their perfect cup.