I’m new to the world of Tea Competitions. Conceptually, I wasn’t even sure how one would work, but I knew that there were many out there to chose from, in multiple countries. When I started talking to my tea folks about them, it was suggested that a fun place to start (and one not previously covered on World of Tea) was the Dutch Tea Championship, a competition run by the International Tea & Coffee Academy in the Netherlands. And it begins in just over a week.
Started in 2015, it’s a fairly new event that grew out of smaller events the ITC used to run. The ITC specialize in coffee and tea industry training and support. The Championship takes place at the very reputable Amsterdam Coffee Festival (… in Amsterdam), and aims to further the awareness and knowledge of tea, to support tea businesses locally and around the world, and of course, to support ITC Academy’s training programs in coffee and tea development. Whosoever should be skilled enough to win the competition receives a paid-for trip to a tea producing country, master classes provided by the ITC, a certificate, a subscription to koffieTcacao (an industry magazine), and serves as a brand ambassador for the ITC and the Championship itself.
So, how does it work?
What exactly do participants do to compete and ultimately win? I was most curious about the nuts and bolts of the competition itself, as I’m not sure how one would design such a process. I’m actually pleasantly surprised!
First, to be considered, you need to choose a tea to compete with in the preliminaries. It can pretty much be anything you want it to be, from a classic Assam, to matcha, to White2Tea’s ‘Tuhao as F*ck’, a raw Puer that 2016’s winner Anja Schukkink chose for her preliminaries. This process can play mind games with you. Put yourself there; how do you pick a tea that best sums up your knowledge, skill, and love for the plant itself? Something simple, poetic, elegant? Or something bold, mold-shattering, daring?
Then, you have to submit a video describing yourself and the competition tea you’ve selected for the judges. It should be clear, informative, creative, and should contain information about who you are, the tasting profile of the selected tea, and your preparation method. The ITC only selected 14 participants to compete in the preliminaries this year.
The 14 chosen participants for 2017 submitted their teas to the ITC for evaluation. Then, the participants competed in the preliminaries this last November, which consisted of three parts:
The Theoretical Knowledge portion, which was a mere 20 question multiple-choice quiz. They claim that the questions relate generally to knowledge that any true tea connoisseur would know, but I find this a bit lacking? Perhaps it’s just me, but 20 multiple choice questions? Let’s throw the hammer down people!
The Preparation portion. Here, the participants prepared the tea they selected and demoed in their application video. They have 5 minutes to setup, and 8 minutes to prepare and serve the tea to the judges. Even though grace, tradition, and a bit of showmanship are obviously encouraged, it’s made clear that the quality of the tea and the preparation are what’s being judged, in terms of taste, aroma, and color, and no points go toward performance. The judges for this portion are presumably ITC officials, but this wasn’t made clear. Once again, your performance here could be simple, or elaborate. Which way do you go?
Finally, a Blind Cupping portion. Participants are presented with 20 black cups of tea from around the world. All participants taste, smell, and evaluate at the same time and fill out their answers. It’s not quite clear how specific the participants have to be in their evaluation, for instance, is the region or province of origin an acceptable answer? Do you need the proper name of the tea, or even the cultivar? No matter the criteria, I would find this portion extremely challenging. Traditionally, tea industry and even most “tea sommelier” courses I’ve seen spend little to no time at all in blind cupping practice. And believe me, after the interviews I’ve done with sommeliers and wine professionals, it takes intense practice. With the black cups, they’ve even taken away an essential clue sommeliers use in their blind tastings: the color and texture of the liquor itself! To do well here takes considerable skill.
Of the 14 participants selected for the preliminaries, only four were selected to compete in the Finals! The Finals are performed live at the Amsterdam Coffee Festival for a new panel of judges and an audience. This section also comes in three parts:
A kind of ‘Blind Preparation’ portion will begin the day. The finalists will be presented with two mystery teas an hour before the competition begins and will have to figure out the best preparation for those teas within that time. Then, once the competition begins, they’ll have 8 minutes to prepare the teas, simultaneously to each other, and the judges will taste and select a winner of the round.
Next, is an Elimination Blind Tasting, wherein the finalists will be presented with three teas in black cups, similar to the preliminary blind tasting, but there’s a catch: two of the teas are the same. The third will be a tea that is very similar in flavor and aroma. For instance, the third tea could be from the same growing region, but a different farm, or perhaps a different flush from the same farm. Once again, considerable skill involved.
Lastly, after a panel discussing tea, tea trends, and other business, the Tea and Food Pairing event will conclude the show. Prior to the event, the finalists will be provided with the ingredients of a prepared dish that will be served at the event. They have to select and prepare a tea to compliment. It’s not clear how creative they could be with this. For instance, could they prepare a stiff British ‘proper cuppa’ as an ironic compliment to a classic shortbread? Or does the tea need to be pure and balanced entirely by complimentary flavors? Whatever the options, the finalists will prepare their selected tea live and serve it with the food to the judges. It seems this final part of the competition might also be graded for presence, showmanship, and elegance.
And that’s it! The scores are tallied and the winner announced. As this competition grows in popularity, the title of having won the Dutch Tea Championship may well be prestigious within certain tea circles.
The 2017 Finalists have already been chosen. They are:
Owner of the tearoom Zoet with Love and the tea brand Charlotte’s Choice, Charlotte van de Ven. Her preliminary competition tea was a matcha from Hoshino in Yame, Japan, prepared traditionally in a chawan with a bamboo whisk.
Leading Lady and Tea Sommelier at Be Your Tea, Jozefien Muylle. Her preliminary competition tea was a Tie Guan Yin from Master Xie, prepared gong fu style in a clay teapot.
Owner and Developer of TwisTea, a restaurant and hotel tea brand, Mark van den Bogaart. His preliminary competition tea was a Jin Jun Mei from the historic Wuyi Mountains in Fujian, China, prepared in a porcelain gaiwan.
Owner and Tea Sommelier of Simply in Bliss, Pieter Bas Prins. His preliminary competition tea seems to be an oolong of some sort, perhaps a Bai Hao oolong? (Sorry, I don’t speak Dutch) He’s preparing it in a porcelain gaiwan as well.
You can see their submittal videos here.
The judges for the Finals have been chosen too, and they are:
Viral Sheth, Global Sourcing Manager for Pickwick Tea, a mass-market Dutch tea company.
Jan Smink, Chef at De Librije, an elegant hotel/restaurant.
Anja Schukkink, 2016 Dutch Tea Championship Winner, Owner of Tea in Motion. Part of her winning prize was a trip to Malawi to visit Satemwa Tea Estate, presented to her by the Malawian Ambassador to the Netherlands.
Overall, I find the organization of this competition fascinating. I’m sure a part of many true tea lovers’ hearts wants to get in there and attempt something of this nature. For now, I’ll leave it to professionals.
The Dutch Tea Championship takes place on March 12th in Amsterdam. They’ll be live streaming the event on their Facebook page beginning at 2:00pm CET (Central European Time, so check your clocks). Check back after the event to see what happened!
** UPDATE: The Competition is over! And there is a winner… see who won.
*Photos from ITC Academy and the Amsterdam Coffee Festival