Many teas across all categories are marketed with the phrase “Competition Grade”, a moniker meant to indicate exceptional quality. In a post-imperial age, tea competitions are thought to be the ultimate authority on quality. But as with so many other naming conventions, the regulations surrounding this terminology are lax. While Competition Grade tea may indeed be high quality, the name is no guarantee. In fact, the concept of a competition inherently implies at least two distinct grades.
1. Tea that has won a competition.
Tea competitions pit local examples of specialty styles against one another to determine an objective ‘best’ to sell at a higher price. Farmers and roasters pay to enter their best harvests of the year in hopes of bolstering their reputation. They must enter a minimum volume quantity, and in the case that they should win, that batch is divided and packaged for sale by the competition organizers. These “true” competition teas will be clearly labeled and carry an identifying serial code. Sales will be regulated by the competition body, and prices will be extremely high.
2. Tea that has been eliminated from the competition.
The teas eliminated from the competition are returned to their entrants, who still want to find a buyer for the batch they prepared. Despite the fact that this tea was not judged to be the best in the competition, the farmer or roaster still believes it to be the best of the year’s harvest. This might be indicated with the name “Competition Grade”, a convincing term that may earn a higher price, but is not regulated by any overseeing organization. Examples of this type of “Competition Grade” tea are clearly more common.
Notably, none of the farms we work with enter their teas directly into competitions. While some sell batches of unfinished maocha to independent roasters who do make these entries, these farmers build their reputation on ideal terroir and consistent flavor quality, rather than awards won by fleeting harvests. Most of them have sold their crops before they are ever picked.
It is the long term relationships we build with these growers that allows us to pick the batch that we think will best suit the palates of our customers. Rather than depend on the opinions of judges we don’t know, selecting for subjective flavor quality based on a single brewing method, we prefer to taste our own samples in a variety of brewing contexts to determine the one we think is best. In this way, we are able to curate a collection we are confident in every harvest year.
Have you tried any “Competition Grade” teas that didn’t live up to the hype? Tell us about it in the comments below!
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