Friday, June 22, 2012

Contemplating Gold-Medal Tea at the Olympic Trials: Go for the Gold

Five cups of tea

On my recent trip, I learned about a new gold-medal tea coming out of Taiwan—just in time for the commencement of the Track and Field Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, aptly known as “Track Town USA.” Does tea really make you run faster, jump higher, or throw further? It just might.

Competitive theories aside, the release of this new tea is due in large part to China's demand for Taiwan's competition-winning tea. China's economy is strong and China has a gift giving culture; tea is one of the most common gifts given in China. Taiwan has revolutionized its relationship with China, creating direct flights, postal service and new shipping routes between Taiwan and the mainland. With China's new found wealth, the trend in gifting is that it should be big and it should be the best, making Taiwanese competition winning tea an ideal choice. But this recent trend has people in Taiwan's tea industry talking.

They don't want toudeng first through tenth, they want regular toudeng,” said He Lao, an artist and tea culture expert. He and many other Taiwan tea industry insiders are surprised by this because everyone in Taiwan's tea world knows that tedeng is first place. Toudeng first through tenth come next (ranking second through eleventh) and then comes toudeng, the remaining teas in the first-tier. “In the mainland, they don't like 1-10 because it implies that there is something else, or there could be something better. They just want the one that says 'the best',” he explained. Toudeng is still considered excellent tea by tea experts in Taiwan and throughout the world.

Traditionally, teas ranking below toudeng are categorized as erdeng, or second-tier. Second-tier is by no means inferior tea. It is still considered to be some of the best, and ranked in the top three. Such high quality tea rarely makes it to the U.S. and is only handled by very specialized vendors. Due to the overwhelming demand for tea that is considered “the best” some competitive ranking organizations have taken the leap, changing what was formerly known as second-tier ranked tea, to “jing pai” or gold- medal winning tea. Let's face it, “gold medal winner” sounds a lot better than “second-tier.”

The organizations that oversee and hold the competitions to rank teas are fighting it out—for sales. And, this is not the first time the organizations have changed the naming system. Two well respected organizations based in Nan Tou, known as He Zuo Shi and Lugu Nong Hui, battled it out years ago—in plum flowers. One organization boasted three plum flowers on their packaging, as an indicator of high quality; not be outdone in floral decorations, the other added five plum flowers to their packaging. Thus, we dissolve into the minutia of Taiwan's Olympic rings of tea. This all reminds me of what my amazing grandmother, Lisl Waechter, used to say, “I just don't understand...why everyone is trying to be the best?” In fact, these teas are quite spectacular on their own, gold medals and plum flowers aside.

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