July 21, 2011

It's Not A Competition

As far as I can tell, a tea competition is an event designed to increase the amount of packaging and price of the teas involved.  Joking apart, the actual role of tea competitions seems to be a little unclear.  Though they do give public recognition and exposure to the tea farmers and make attempts to judge the best teas of a particular season, many believe that the tasting preferences of the judges can play too large a role in deciding the direction tea processing fashion is headed--as traditional processing methods fail to impress judges, they fall out of practice for their decrease in marketability.  I've also heard from a number of Chinese and Taiwanese people that expensive competition-winning teas often end up purchased as gifts by and/or for people who don't actually like tea all that much and the tea ends up languishing on the shelf with no one to appreciate it.  And yet, if it performed well in a competition, a tea's got to at least be good, right?

Tennis balls?  Nope, just tea.
I've tried a handful of different competition teas in my time and have genuinely liked a few.  When I saw Hou De carrying a competition awarded Muzha Tieguanyin I decided to take the plunge and buy a can, partly just so I could say I bought a can of competition tea at least once in my life, and partly because a good Muzha Tieguanyin is one of my favorite oolong types.  The competition tea experience is one with a lot of bright packaging designed to make the tea feel more special than your average tea, including a cardboard box with special seal stickers, a can inside the box with a plastic lid and aluminum pop top, and finally a vacuum-sealed polyfoil bag (how we're used to having our tea packaged).  Naturally, the can is mostly for show, but I've been keeping the bag of tea inside it, at least until the bag gets disproportionately small for the container.

On to the tea.  A few of the competition teas I've had were de-stemmed, supposedly in order to maintain consistency for the competition.  Not the case for this tea, which appears pretty standard for Muzha Tieguanyin--dark, with a few deep green and red notes with stems that take on a somewhat golden hue.  What I was most interested about with this tea is the roasting level--how it would compare to the other Muzha Tieguanyin I've had, which at best seem to balance a dryness with lasting high notes and a solid roasted bottom.  Maybe it's not a surprise, but this competition tea, though well-roasted, doesn't have a strong roasting flavor--that would probably be deemed a flaw by most judges.  Interestingly, the most noticeably excellent trait I notice is the mouthfeel, which is thick and mouth-coating, much heavier than the dryness I usually associate with this tea.  The flavor, likewise, displays only hints of (what has been, to me) the region's particular high note, instead existing in more of a juicy realm of fruity/flowery with a bitter streak that can get out of control without timely brewing attention.  While the tea's profile is striking in the early infusions, I'd say it doesn't last quite as long as some similar dong ding or gaoshan oolong I've had recently.  The tea's creamy body, though unexpected, is really enjoyable and pairs best with one of my red clay pots--the porous ones mute the aroma and somehow promote the bitterness, plus the body's already smooth enough as it is!  Interestingly, pretty much all the Muzha Tieguanyin I've purchased does better in zhuni or hongni.

This tea has disappeared and reappeared on Hou De a few times, and there are only a few ounces left at present.  Since I've got quantity I'll be happy to share a sample with the first whoever leaves the first two comments--international people included!  You'll have to email me your address once you see you've made it.


Ender P. said...

I would love to try some! I've been dabbling in tea for awhile now but I have not gone much past the widely available stuff (Adagio, etc.). Big oolong fan.

Ender P. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elliot Knapp said...

They both came through, comment moderation is on to prevent spam. Shoot me your mailing address and I'll get you some tea in the mail!

Eugenius Smith said...

Hi Elliot, if there's still an open slot for a second sample, I'm game to give it a try. I'm not a big fan of the green TGY that's flooding the market nowadays, and I think it'd be interesting to see the interaction between traditional processing technique (my personal preference) and a less traditional terroir.

If not, thanks for sharing your experience with this tea as well as your thoughts on the drawbacks of tea competitions. I always find it a little saddening to see a more mainstream culture chipping away at the more artisanal and less profitable side of tea, although it is heartening to see examples of innovation while holding onto some more orthodox influences such as this one.


Rayuela said...

I live in Denmark, but if that's not too far or the sample to fly, I should very much like to try a competition Muzha.

Elliot Knapp said...

That does 'er--Eugenius and Rayuela, please email me (the link is in my profile section on the blog) your mailing addresses and I'll get some tea in the mail for you! Great to hear from a Danish reader--according to Google's stats it's my #4 country of readership. Excited to meet some new tea friends!

RTea said...

cool, competition Muzha. If you're willing to share another sample, we can meet at FLT sometime. I'll trade a 3rd place Muzha from 2009 and a 2nd place from 2007 or 2008. Can't guarantee they'll be as delicious as yours (per my latest blog post) but it'll give you some more ideas about the variation of the competition winners from Muzha. Unfortunately for roasty lovers like us, the trend for winners is going greener, with more moderate roasting and lower oxidation (it gives it more of that floral quality at the expense of the rich body).