01 October 2009

Who's Qualified to be a Tea Expert?

I'm not sure.  I've heard about a lot of different institutes that convey this title and various other degrees of "expertness."  There are several in Taiwan and China, and a few that I know of in North America. 

I remember reading about the exam requirements for a particular certification in Taiwan.  A core requirement for passing is a blind taste test of different teas, which consists of them lining up a bunch of teas for you to determine which is an oolong, red, green....  I thought to myself "Seriously?!?!  Passing this exam would qualify one to be a tea expert?!?"  A run-of-the-mill, once a month tea drinker could probably pass that.

I heard about another certification program that was more difficult, requiring lengthy classes and study.  A part of the final exam required identification of oxidation and roasting levels of oolong based upon one's senses.  A tea acquaintance, who is certified as an expert in Gong Fu tea preparation by the Taiwan Tea Arts Association (台灣茶連會), graduated from this program.  She said it wasn't hard with practice, but then again, her family has grown oolong for 4 generations. 

I met a tea master in North America once.  We sat down for tea and I told him that I had brought some of my own.  I had packaged one of my better Dong Dings in a ziploc bag for convenience (having meant to drink it at the park earlier in the day) and I pulled that out for him to try (I realize my packaging would be akin to putting a nice bottle of decanted Bordeaux into a thermos).  He put my tea in a giant pot that had been seasoned for high-roast tea and proceeded to brew for several minutes.  I anxiously watched the pot, waiting for him to pour out the infusion - but I dared not interrupt the master at work.  The infusion came out dark and rich, but not well-brewed like an infusion from a well-done Chaozhou Gong Fu style brew.  It had smoky and woodsy notes with the characteristic tartness of some kind of cliff tea.  He declared my tea to be bland and too lightly oxidized - but not bad - and proceeded to tell me that he had better Tieguanyin for me to buy.  Oh wait, I forgot to tell him that we were drinking a Taiwanese Dong Ding from 1 season ago.  That tea also won a 2nd place award that season.  [Side note: I don't necessarily think that award teas are "better" or more suitable for my tastes.  The producer of this DD was disappointed because with that tea base, he could have oxidized it more to produce a fuller body and more complete finish - but he played to the tastes of the judges to win.]

I respect people that are willing to share and learn from others.  The bottom line for tea lovers, though, should be enjoying a cup of tea, preferably one that tastes good (if not naturally, then with a lot of milk/sugar/lemons added) and be happy.  We need not be tea masters to know what we like; even tea masters change their taste preferences over time.

It's not wrong to love your Dong (Ding).


  1. That's a very interesting anecdote... thanks for sharing. I am glad to have found your blog!

  2. This struck a chord for me. I write a blog about tea (teafinelybrewed.com) and find that it's very easy as a blogger to feel this need to be an expert. Over time I've learned to just relax and *enjoy* tea for what it is. For me personally, I find that being overly analytical of tea actually doesn't help me appreciate it anymore.

  3. @Veri-Tea, thanks for reading. I saw on your blog that you recently had a Long Feng Shia high mtn oolong, how did you like it?

    @Eric, you're absolutely right. I think tea lovers in America feel like there's a ladder to climb in expertise. My feeling is that tea here is an art and philosophy, and in Asia, it's just a part of life. Drink it, if it's good, drink more of it, if it's bad, give it to your neighbor! I am often reminded of the time one of my tea teachers mocked me for asking too many inane tea-fact questions. He pointedly asked if the tea I was drinking was good (yes) and if it was, then who cares how high it was grown, what cultivar/degree of oxidation...since I wasn't going to make it anyway!

  4. @ Jack...so does Kaini.

    How's the 1 a day blog? Did you stop? How about a 1 cup of tea a day - it's good for you.

    Piro is a monster.

  5. I can agree that award-winning teas aren't necessarily the best. The reason is that tastes differ. And American awards often don't give smaller tea producers and companies the same chance in competition. I've found that I often disagree with others as to what's the best tea. I don't mind talking about what I prefer but I realize I can't ever intend to enforce my own favorites on anyone when it comes to taste. --Teaternity

  6. @Jason, I don't know much about the tea judging competitions in America. Who gets invited, and what teas are selected for grading? I can def see that the playing field is not exactly transparent or open to all, though.

    In Taiwan and China, with specific regards to ligher oolongs (which could include contemporary Dong Ding and Tieguanyin, too) the judgement of the judges have changed over time to reflect the tastes of consumers. Shiuwen at Floating Leaves Tea did a phone interview with one of the Taiwan oolong judges - who was careful with what he revealed about the judging process - but did say that the winners weren't necessarily (but maybe were?!?) representative of what he personally liked. He did say that the judging criteria have changed a lot over the years. Long-time oolong drinkers can usually remember a few "vintages" of a type of tea that they really enjoyed, which would very likely be quite different from contemporary flavor profiles. Not bad, just different.