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May 26, 2014

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Tea contrast — Song Dynasty tradition comes back

COMPETITION to determine the best of something has been common throughout Chinese history, but perhaps no product has been the object of more such contests than tea.

Comparing and contrasting teas even has a specific name — dou cha (¶·²è).

Making and appreciating tea with a number of participants at a tea party and naming a winner who offered the best one was a popular form of entertainment among Chinese scholars in ancient times. Today, the trend is finding its way back to some Chinese amateur tea tasters.

David Wang, a 50-year-old financial investor who has been a tea amateur for more than 30 years, always gets excited about the tea party at a nearby tea house every weekend. There tea amateurs make and appreciate different teas in the name of dou cha. Of course, most participants will bring their most valued tea in an effort to win the game.

“It is always a great pleasure to taste good tea, but it is not that easy to just purchase good tea, which only comes by accident,” says Wang. “But on tea contrast, I can enjoy other people’s treasure as well. And of course, making friends.”

Wang says he keeps good relationships with some of the frequent visitors to the tea contrast, and enjoys sharing some of their favorite teas.

The history of tea contrast originates from the custom of cha yan (tea feast) in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). Top-flight teas were served at the feast for celebrities to taste and evaluate. The feast was usually held by regional governors, and most of the teas served were tribute tea candidates.

Refined scholars yearned for seats at tea feast, and well-known Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi even wrote a poem to express his regret for missing a tea feast because he was sick.

The custom reached its peak in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) with the emperors’ special preference for tea. Emperor Huizong, known for his talent in art, often held tea feasts at the imperial court where he made tea for the officials. Many scholars and ordinary people also organized tea parties.

The popularity of tea tastings triggered the birth of dou cha, where tea amateurs compete for their techniques in making tea.

Tea making in the Song Dynasty involved pouring tea powders into a tea bowl with hot water, then whipping it with a teaspoon skillfully to produce foam on the surface. The tea maker who produced white, thick foam that stayed at the internal wall of the container for the longest time won the game.

“The tea contrast participants in ancient times competed for their tea-making skills and related etiquette, while modern tea contrast focuses more on the tea and beverage, or in other words, they compete for which one is the best tea rather than which one is the best tea maker,” says Qiao Yong, a tea specialist at Da Ming Lu Teahouse, who holds regular tea contrasts.

An ordinary, modern tea contrast usually consists of five to eight participants who bring a favorite tea, a set of suitable tea tools and even their own water. Ideally, the participants should bring different teas of the same category — green, white, yellow, Oolong, black or dark — to make sure they are comparable.

To bring out the best flavor, water quality and temperature, tea tools, as well as the length of time tea remains in the water, all matter. Every tea beverage will be served to each participant for appreciating, evaluating and scoring, and a winner is finally named.

Teas compete in four categories — color, aroma, flavor and tea dregs. A clean beverage that presents the right color usually wins high score. That may include yellow green beverage for green tea, and golden beverage for Oolong.

Teas that send off pleasant aromas of natural plant without traces of artificial additives are more appreciated.

There isn’t a particular standard for taste, as people may have different opinions. Some enjoy sweet and sour tastes, while others prefer a bitter taste followed by a sweet aftertaste. But the tea that makes people comfortable when it travels from the mouth to throat is always valued.

The tea dregs, which present the true nature of the tea, will be examined after they finish their job in the teapot. Neat and complete tea leaves always defeat the broken ones. And the tea leaves with good ductility and luster also win higher scores, as they help reveal the vitality of the tea tree where they came from.

Some tea experts can even figure out the tea tree’s age from observing the tea dregs. Trees five to 10 years old usually provide the best tea leaves for green tea, which features a fresh taste. The best Oolong leaves usually come from a 40- to 50-year-old tree, while only ancient trees — 700 to 800 years old — are valued to produce the best Pu’er leaves in Yunnan Province.

Wang won the first prize at a Pu’er tea contrast last year, which motivated him to search for more good tea. “It is not simply about winning or losing, but sharing your favorite with those who appreciate it as well,” says Wang.


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