Taiwan is a very competitive society. From an early age Taiwanese are exposed to the dog-eat-dog nature of the school system which filters out all but the best students for the top universities. It seems that this competitiveness becomes ingrained, and flows over into many other aspects of life.
There are competitions for just about anything you can imagine - drawing, writing, calligraphy, dancing, music, martial arts, flower arranging, cooking, sewing, and even hair cutting!
It's no wonder, then, that tea competitions play a special part in the tea culture of Taiwan.
There are several types of tea competitions - those for tea growers, those for tea processors, and those for tea ceremonies.
Tea competitions for growers started in 1975 as a way for producers to promote their crop. The first competition was organized by the Tea Growers Co-op in Lu Gu township - the home of the famous Dong Ding Oolong tea. The competition was open to all tea growers in Taiwan and offered a fabulous award for first prize - NT$4200 per jin (600 grams).
At the current exchange rate NT$4200 is worth about US$130. The export price for tea leaves at that time was just NT$12 per jin (less than 40 cents American).
The large awards assured the success of the competition and it has now become a standard part of the tea industry in Taiwan. In fact, there are now several competitions held in different areas and at various times of the year.
That first competition back in 1975 set the standard for future events. The rules and judging methods have remained almost the same over the years.
Each producer must submit his tea in 22 lots of 1 jin each. Of these 22 jins, 1 jin is for judging, 1 jin is for consumers to sample, and 20 jins are for auction.
There can be no identifying marks on the packaging - all tea must be judged "blind."
The competition jin is divided into 3 lots of 200 grams each for each stage of the competition. Three grams of tea leaves are used to brew the tea in 150 cc ceramic pots and the tea is allowed to steep for 6 minutes.
As many as 30 different teas can be judged at the same time. After it has steeped for for the required time the judges use 3 criteria to grade it - smell, appearance and taste.
At each stage of the competition there may be 4 or 5 levels of winners. The top levels proceed to the next stage until a winner is finally selected by panel discussion amongst the judges.
Once the winner has been announced a tea auction is held. Bidding starts at NT$30,000 (about US$900) per jin (remember - that's just 600 grams - less than 1 1/2 pounds). Last year (2005) the top tea sold for a record NT$880,000 (US$26,500)!
Who would pay that much for tea and what do they do with it? The winning bidder was a representative of the soft drink company Vitalon. In return for the high bid they get a lot of good publicity and (of course) some wonderful tea. One hopes they don't use the tea in their products - they make bubbly soda drinks as well as packaged milk tea.