This is the story of how I ended up attending the final round of the most prestigious tea competition in Taiwan , how I prepared myself, how I came last, and how I still won more awards than I could’ve imagined. And I took with me an important life lesson.
Opening up to life often means doing things that intimidate us, taking little steps outside our safety zone to “make it bigger”. At the end of July 2019, following the recommendation of a Taiwanese friend (who likes to tease me), I decided to join the “National Taiwan Twin Cup Tasting Competition 2019” 全國雙杯品茗泡茶比賽 which would take place the next September 7th. I’m not sure why I did it, it would be a lot of work but I thought I would feel happy having had the experience. It would be challenging due to the nerves, but why not?
What a foreigner does in a tea competition in Taiwan
Perhaps because of the political circumstances of Taiwan or the very nature of the mixture of Chinese and Japanese cultures, Taiwanese are very open and welcoming. This is reflected in many aspects of life here and any foreigner visiting Taiwan will notice. In this competition, foreigners are allowed to join the finals directly without passing the previous qualifier. It also gives publicity and exoticism to the event. From my experience, if there is something that anyone in the world appreciates, it is a foreigner who is interested and appreciates their culture. Now I better understand my admiration for my friend Yosi, a Japanese whose a flamenco teacher. These are activities that need a lot of perseverance and must compete with the “culture of immediacy”, mobile phones and other technologies and influences. But somehow attract us.
Returning to the topic, if you are interested in joining one of these competitions, you need a local contact who can help you to sign up, get the exam materials, etc. But if you are interested, it is quite simple and I have done so in the past with other competitions such as WeiQi 圍棋 (Go) and Kungfu (GongFu 功夫).
If we are talking about tea, this competition is the main one in Taiwan with a lot of prestige for the effort and preparation involved. It consists of 3 parts: written exam, preparation of tea and questions.
To have a first contact I attended a preliminary qualifying round as an audience. I did not participate, it was just to see how it was the actual competition which I’ve never been involved with. Very professional tea masters, nerves and much more complex than I had imagined. After seeing the seriousness and proficiency of all the participants, I couldn’t help but think “what have I done!”. But there was no going back and I wanted to go for it, I felt like the climber at the base of the mountain ready to take the first step.
How I trained for the competition
Although a friend introduced me to the competition, it was her teacher who “pulled the strings” to be able to sign me up and surprisingly offered to teach me. Free of charge and in exchange for dedication, a luxury that always makes me feel grateful for my lucky star. The event allows creative freedom but within strict rules and very well defined parts. The preparation would require a lot of effort because only with a great control of what you want to do will you be ready to improvise facing any setbacks.
The rules and parts of the competition are well defined:
- In the morning before the event they offer to taste the tea that will be used in the competition in a controlled way.
- There is a written exam of 1 hour.
- In on stage, couples have 5 minutes to set up their tea table, tea stage or chaxi 茶席.
- The performance lasts 20 minutes in which you must prepare 3 infusions of the same tea. Going beyond the established time penalizes, and finishing too soon doesn’t look good. The organization provides both the tea and the water that all participants will use.
- After the performance you must explain the topic of your chaxi.
- Oral exam based on a random question out of 30 topics.
- There are a total of 12 judges, 4 scoring the quality of the infusions and 8 for the rest of the details: performance, ChaLü 茶侶 (tea assistant) , composition of the chaxi , etc.
My teacher for the competition
LinYin’s family is not related to the tea tradition, which speaks volumes about her character, dedication, and being a strong, self-made woman. During the month or so that she helped me, I went to her house several times a week with another Taiwanese student who qualified in a preliminary round. Classes of 3-4 hours that flew between seriousness, laughter and lots of tea. And learning a lot!
I would like to say that I have and always will have many teachers, from each I get a little bit and put it into my own. But a good teacher is not enough as whoever prepares you must have experience in this specific competition. She must know what works and what doesn’t and know what the referees want. Linyin has been around Taiwanese Tea World for a long time and she knows all the teachers, eminences, and tea people in Taiwan.
The worst part was having to carry all the teawares and other chaxi items (including the decorations such as paintings, etc) almost daily to her house in order to get used with everything. From home to work and from work to class by subway with the suitcase full of things that can break easily. I would leave things at her place but I had to practice at home as well.
The composition, the chaxi 茶席
The ChaXi 茶席 is the first thing to decide once you sign up, the composition you want to create. It is the setting for the play you are going to represent and includes all its elements, including you and your companion. You must create a unique and warm environment where your guests feel comfortable. You even have to give it a name and have a clear theme, using together expensive items is not enough.
My chaxi was simple but very elaborate for how I usually drink tea. Most of my items were borrowed or gifts. I only bought the matching scent cups and cups which are cheap and a lot of fun to use. To see how I usually drink tea and hopefully add a little joy to your day you can follow me on Instagram or Facebook .
Creating unique and high profile Chaxi is also something where you can feel the expertise of the tea master. Most of the participants represent families with long traditions in the world of tea or are teachers, even owners of tea houses. As this is the final round of the most important tea competition in Taiwan, the participants who have arrived here are usually related to tea in a professional way .
As we hopefully realize in life little by little, some with more suffering than others, money helps but shouldn’t be the core. From my experience in the competition there were two types of Chaxi:
- You have an idea in mind and you acquire all the necessary elements to complete it. Expensive way.
- You use the elements you already have to create something with meaning. Meaningful way.
The chaxi of the competition as you can imagine were incredible. Silver teapots and kettles, authentic and antique yixing teapots worth hundreds or thousands of dollars, matching mugs and collectibles from renowned Taiwanese artists. Elaborate compositions of flowers and other arrangements, personalized clothing for the occasion, etc. I even saw a smoke machine to create a fog effect.
My partner, chalü 茶侶 💘
My secret weapon where I knew I would have no rival. During the competition you are not alone (thanks God) because a very important part of the whole process is your “tea assistant” , ChaLü 茶侶. The tasks of the chalü are:
- Help you to mount the composition and put it back when finished.
- Serve the tea to the referees with elegance and correct movements.
- Be by your side while you prepare the tea, taste the tea with you and help you ground.
Such an important role has a dedicated member of the jury and its own big prize. A chalü can be of any condition and age: friend, relative, male, female, etc. It doesn’t matter, it must be someone you feel comfortable with as well as having practiced a lot. The rapport between the two is evaluated, the grace and the movements, the manners and above all “that something” that makes the team work. Being my assistant the person I would marry a month later and having been together for years, let’s say I cheated a bit. And you’ll see that I was right.
How does a “tea person” Charen 茶人 dress?
I don’t want to fall into stereotypes, but as a simple person who doesn’t care much about these details, one of the most difficult things for me was having to spend a day and a good sum of money shopping looking for “tea clothes”. Luckily plenty of experts in the matter helped me.
In the West, wearing a Chinese-style shirt and pants bought anywhere would be very impressive and more than enough, but we are in Taiwan. It would be like buying a cheap ballet costume in a weekend market to participate in a performance at a National Theater.
Made from organic materials in artisan studies, I learned that clothing for a ChaRen 茶人 “tea person” or maybe “tea master” is a well-defined niche sector. Quality fabrics, organic, natural and expensive. And not only for me, but also for my chalü, of course. I won’t be precise… but what you can see in the picture above exceeded several hundred euros.
The National Twin Cup Tasting Competition, Taiwan 2019
On Friday the 6th we arrived in 台南 Tainan, the “southern capital” of Taiwan. A welcoming city with a more relaxed atmosphere than the more frenetic Taipei.
On Saturday during the registration we met the guys from Global Tea Hut whom I didn’t know personally. In 2019 I was hesitant to do a 7-day course with them but in the end I chose a 10 day Vipassana retreat. If I had more holidays… If you don’t know them, Global Tea Hut are a group of people passing on a tea tradition. WuDe is an ordained Zen monk and uses ChaDao 茶道, the Way of Tea, tea as a way of service, not just as a beverage. Their way of understanding tea may be for you or not, but it is nice to know that there are such projects and I love diversity. I was very excited to meet and chat with them. They issue a monthly magazine with tea samples, also available in electronic format for free (in English). Two couples from Global Tea Hut joined the competition.
And so we started, after a draw we received number 9 out of a total of 21. With 3 pairs per round means that we would go out on the third shift just after lunch. Which seems like a very good place, even referees are happy after lunch, right?
The tea for the competition
I heard that the tea chosen for the competition is usually similar, a DongDing oolong, tightly rolled with medium roast, not outstanding. This is on purpose, being a fairly common tea, it is up to the participant to prepare it well. Excellent teas no matter what you do with them, in general they will always give good results. They gave it to us to taste in the morning but they didn’t provide us with the portion for the competition until just before we left.
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The exam consists of 1 hour and 50 multiple-choice questions about history, production and tea processing. The temary to study is 300 questions. Of course everything is in Chinese which gives foreigners a hard time. But this is Taiwan, as a deference they allow us to have a translator on the exam, nevertheless this makes time run against you. The Global Tea Hut couples who also participated had a native translator, I prepared it myself and as such I went alone.
The questions range from some very simple ones such as where the puer tea comes from, giving as choices: China, USA, New Zealand, etc. Going through the names and characteristics of Taiwanese tea varieties, order of the processing steps of all types of tea, questions about the temperature of the water in the preparation, teaware materials or long questions to choose the correct phrase order.
For me, more than the complexity of the questions that I had studied well, the problem came from the length. My written Chinese is quite limited and I read slowly. It gave me the impression that they chose the longest questions from the 300 :P. I thought I had prepared it well but I only got 62 points out of 100.
Assemble the Chaxi
I took a deep breath and got on stage. It was not the same as doing it at home, but thanks to the practice and the simplicity of the elements, mounting the chaxi was not a problem. We finished earlier than usual even having added a couple of extra items: the calligraphy I made with the tripod and the flowers in front and on the table. I counted 35 different elements in my chaxi. The most difficult thing is to pin the tablecloth to the table and leave everything ready, including the water starting to boil. You have to be very careful with all the details.
My teacher gave me access to 2 floral compositions prepared by a ChaHua 茶花 teacher, “tea flowers”.
Brewing of the tea
Here is where you could feel the seriousness of the competition. Sitting in a theater and performing in front of more than 300 people and a line with 12 professional referees with notebook, pencil and ready to take note of every detail.
For the performance, the organization provides a table with measurements made public a week before, 2 stools and the stove to put the kettle on top and heat the water. The latter confused me because each couple brings their own kettle that they are familiar with. I reached a point when, due to the nervous I was, I did not know if the heat was on or off. At some point my mind went blank and I just thought about finishing, I was not able to enjoy being there and the experience. While sitting from the audience I could see Charen (tea master) with such confidence and experience that made me want to come down and sit with them.
We had 20 minutes to prepare 3 infusions with the same leaves, remember that one of the pleasures of good tea is see how each infusion changes. The referees assess that the 3 infusions are of quality and as similar as possible. There should be no hesitation in the movements and everything should be very natural, even the mistakes. Instead, I was trembling like jelly! There came a time when I couldn’t control the shaking of my hands and the clinking of the cups. When I filled the gaiwan with the dry leaves, they jumped and scattered across the table. But I took a deep breath and kind of laughed at the absurdity of the situation. The calm gaze of my Chalü helped me.
My worst mistake is that I sped up the performance a lot. During practice with my teacher I had learnt to control the timing of the brews with the rhythm of the movements. But by going faster than it should, everything was shortened, including the times of the infusions. And the 3 came out very uneven, the first one almost tasteless, the leaf hardly opened and the others were somewhat better, but not enough. My assistant tried to slow me down by lengthening her times. Unsurprisingly, with tea making being the centerpiece of a tea competition, having done so badly all hope was lost. When the final scores came out I saw that having brewed just an average tea, I would have ended up in the middle of the table. Added to a rather bad exam.
Introduction of the Chaxi and oral question
I think one of my strengths was the naturalness with which I came up with the idea of my composition. Without expensive or forced elements, this is something that many participants were criticized for, putting a lot of emphasis on an “empty chaxi”, little more than expensive pieces put together.
My chaxi was the story of why I came to Taiwan and named it “The Harmony of the Arts” 藝術和諧. I used a simple gaiwan, which it’s uncommon, technically it is more difficult to control and being porcelain it does not refine the tea like an old yixing teapot nor does it keep the temperature easily. But I did it because I didn’t want to influence the tea with materials, just with my brewing skills. The most important thing about your chaxi is who makes the tea, not the elements used. The predominant blue is my color, and the tablecloth and I used many borrowed items. The Chinese calligraphy is the first that I made myself while taking classes and that, modesty aside, was gladly appreciated. If you buy tea in the online store or you join the TasteaTaiwan Club I always write something by hand on small postcards made with a calligraphy, very special to me. I also used some Weiqi (Go, Baduk) stones, the thousands-year-old board game that made me interested in Asia and, in the end, brought me here. And although you may not see it, there was also my kungfu martial practice, the same gongfu from the tea ceremony that I always carry with me everywhere.
I had prepared well what I wanted to say in Chinese and it turned out fine. I’m a bit proud to be the only non-Taiwanese who didn’t use translators to speak, a small consolation.
The oral question I got was to explain the “characteristics of Tieguanyin tea“. The answer they provided to help you study was very short so I had to improvise. I talked about the processing differences between China’s Tieguanyin and Taiwan’s. The characteristics of this variety, the expected color, aroma and flavor. History of how it got to Taiwan and growing areas. My reply was on the short side.
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The awards ceremony. Who won?
After concluding all the rounds and appreciating how participants’ faces relaxed, the jury left to deliberate the result. Meanwhile, several games took place with the hosts entertaining the public and several giveaways.
The awards ceremony was longer and more elaborate than I imagined, each of the 12 referees commented on their general impressions, and specifically pointed to participants according to the area they were judging. I particularly did not come off very badly but in the quality of the infusions (the most important thing) and expressed how they fell in love with my partner. Many chaxi were criticized as “too much”, referring to the emphasis placed on showing expensive pieces without cohesion within a loose theme. And some Charen, who by the way impressed me very much, were said to act mechanically. Sharp and fast movements, one thousand times done, but that looked unnatural, very choreographed. I was impressed, but I suppose that is not what you want in these events. They preferred softer and warmer performances.
The prizes were generous and voluminous: pottery pieces, a lot of tea and money:
- 10,000 New Taiwan Dollar (300 euros, 330 usd) for the third prize.
- 30,000 ntd (900 euros, 1,000 usd) for second place.
- 50,000 ntd (1,500 euros, 1,700 usd) for the first place.
And the big surprise of the day was that a couple from the first round won, table 1, a Japanese tea master! It was funny to see everybody’s faces. One thing is to invite foreigners to participate in your tea competition and another is that they win. But it was proof of the fairness of the competition. as other anecdotes there was a confusing tie for 3rd place and the prestigious mention of the “best infusion” was taken by a woman from mainland China, which talks in favor of the organization. Tea bet political differences (although it seems that she went through some difficulties to sign up).
And as expected, my chalü won the award for “Best Tea Assistant 2019”. No money but with a cart full of tea and wares!
And about the Japanese winner, she did very well as you can imagine, above all her simplicity and her smile stood out. The most commented about of her were her warmth and simplicity, that being a guest at her tea table would have been a pleasure. This is the spirit of competition, serve the best tea experience, all elements combined.
Although I was sad and down for a few hours after all the effort put into it, I took home a great lesson: that if I relax and settle down, I can laugh at the adversity and the situation. Also how difficult it is to control your body and emotions in a difficult situation. You may want to be calm, but it cannot be forced, there are “knots” to untie little by little with conscious work, recognizing your shortages and exposing yourself without running away. I was also very happy for my now wife who has a natural talent, nerves of steel and from whom I have a lot to learn.
99% of the problems we face in life are so tiny that we should laugh: a traffic maneuver, a negative opinion, a misunderstanding and above all our imagination of the future and our memory of past experiences. We are the two extremes, insignificant beings that live in a tiny sphere of stellar dust that travels at full speed in an infinite ocean of 100 billion galaxies and at the same time miracles of life. We must celebrate every moment that we are here. Because Carpe Diem does not mean you should do crazy things, but appreciate every moment no matter how small it is.
And although I certainly prefer Mr. Zhou’s style, an event as demanding as this allows you to improve on many levels. Maybe I’ll sign up again in a few years when I have more confidence serving tea on stage. For any question about the competition, don’t hesitate to leave me a comment!