Last week I found myself wandering the halls of the Shanghai New International Expo Center. The smell of steak sizzling on a grill wafted past, and I picked up little cup of a Korean ginseng energy drink to wash down the Polish chocolate truffle I munched on. Anyone in or related to the food industry gathers once a year here at the world’s largest food show: SIAL CHINA. I was there on my way to view the 2016 World Tea Brewer’s Cup, a competition organized by the World Tea Championship, SIAL China, and Cafe Culture.
When thinking of a tea-brewing competition taking place in China, one may conjure up images of a tea culture spanning thousands of years. Something slow and meditative comes to mind, or a parade of ancient style tea ware. We have been programmed to think of Chinese tea as a mindful ceremony, or as a health tonic. These things are very true, but tea is also more than that. It is a vehicle for craft, expression, and creativity. Despite it’s very ancient roots, it is very much a modern beverage. The Tea Brewer’s Cup is the stage to bring tea’s past and future into the spotlight. It is a three day competition, where competitors test their tea-brewing skills and show their innovations through brewing technique and tea blending.
On the first day, competitors are all given the same mystery tea. They have 10 minutes to identify it and prepare their brewing technique for the judges. The best tea brewers pass into the next round, where they brew a pure tea, and then use it to make a signature blend.
Tea is usually a calming affair. Something that is supposed to take the edge off and help you relax. Standing in front of a bunch of cameras and being judged on your performance, knowledge, creativity all while being timed, is not an easy thing to do.
The judges were looking for perfection. Precision and attention to details won marks. On the other hand, following the same old rule book for tea brewing, without thinking of how each individual type of tea could be brewed to its best, did not win marks.
Traditional tea brewing can be quite poetic. The first steep is often a quick rinse of hot water which is thrown out, and is described poetically as “waking up the leaves.” Water temperature is often described with images such as “a string of pearls,” which means water just under boiling, with little bubbles that are just starting to float up and break the surface. The term “dragon eyes” refers to full-on boiling hot water, with the rolling water representing a powerful dragon. So much of tea has been about the romance behind it. This competition respects the poetic license of tea, but the main objective is to get the technique of brewing down in order to fully express the leaf in the most balanced way. This can not come from broad brush strokes and strings of pearls, it needs to come from precise details. Borrowing from coffee culture, the contestants used temperature specific kettles and timers. The brews tasted and judged are not sold by stories of dragons in wells or leaves plucked by moonlight. They are judged on aroma, clarity, color, and most importantly: taste. No amount of romance is going to influence the truth in the cup.
The signature blends were interesting and quite culinary. More than just peach or lemon iced tea, the complexities of oolong were mixed in with herbs and spices.
This year’s winner presented a Rosemary Rougui Oolong, with lemon and sangria fruits. It was fresh and as delicious as it sounds! As tea inevitably meshes with other cultures and develops in to new territory, I will be watching and partaking.