Five hours, 122 cups of tea and a dimly lit room. That might sound like the beginning of a bad joke or a fraternity hazing ritual.
The reason I’m here, pencil in one hand and a matcha brew in the other, may be nearly as ill-advised. I’m judging iced tea at the North American Tea Championship, a competition that draws entries from vending-machine regulars such as Snapple as well as smaller boutique brands such as Mellow Monk.
Most of what I know about the beverage — which is not much — I learned from my father. The man drinks it all day long. He feels for a good oolong the kind of passion guys usually reserve for football and Kate Upton.
But he has nothing on my three fellow judges, who among them have 40 years of tea experience. Imbibing with such a crew is like trying to discuss art with Rothko, Rembrandt and Renoir when you can barely sketch a smiley face.
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I try not to peek when Tony Tellin scribbles scores after noisily sucking tea into his mouth, thoughtfully mulling the flavor profile and then spitting the liquid into a white plastic bucket. The exercise is rote to him. He’s sampled as many as 2,000 teas a day in the past.
Scott Svihula finishes a round of eight black teas before anyone else. To pass the time, he begins guessing — correctly, it turns out — the country of origin, the added flavoring and the manufacturer of several of the entrants.
Victor Jara talks reverentially about that time in China he sampled a 35-year-old pu-erh fermented tea. Later, during a round of flavored black teas, the others nod when Jara grimaces and says that “No. 2 tastes like ChapStick.”
I take a sip of the tea, and swirl it over my tongue. It tastes just like the last one and the five before that. I’m getting a vaguely medicinal undertone, but no ChapStick. Hmmm.
Most of the tea I consume is mixed with lemonade in an Arnold Palmer or served at a Chinese restaurant. Sometimes I’ll have herbal tea on my sickbed. Cool sweet tea — the house wine of the South, to quote Dolly Parton — got me through one stifling summer in Richmond, Va.
My ignorance of tea helped land me on the judging panel. I was to represent the average consumer, using instinct and first impressions to balance the studied expertise of the other judges.
“Assuming you have taste buds and a heartbeat, you’ll do great,” competition overseer George Jage assured me.
His company, World Tea Media, organizes the events that make up the North American Tea Championship. The iced tea contest takes place in May. Two hot tea challenges are scheduled for July and February. Packaged single-service teas are evaluated in November.
As a child, Jage drank volumes of soda. Later, he was a beer brew master in Milwaukee, his hometown.
Jage, 43, is now aiming to broaden tea’s appeal and consumption in North America, hoping to imbue the beverage with the kind of pedigree and range that helped grow the popularity of wine, then coffee and now craft beers.
His for-profit company doesn’t sell tea — instead, it produces trade shows, competitions and educational efforts to help people who sell tea sell more.
Last year, World Tea Media launched an online certification process through its World Tea Academy. The goal is to mint new tea experts through a standardized training program like the one used to certify wine sommeliers.
Jage envisions tea being sold at grocery stores under a ratings system similar to the 100-point Parker gauge popular in the wine industry. He’d like to see black tea on a shelf, for example, with a placard that reads “Score: 95, hint of cherry, from an excellent year.”
“The tea industry is really at an exploding point right now,” Jage said.
That’s especially true of iced teas, which make up 70 percent of tea sales in the U.S. Tea lore pegs the cold beverage as originating during the scorching hot World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904 — the same event credited with giving us the hot dog and hamburger. But historians say iced tea was mentioned earlier in military journals.
25 types of tea
Whatever its origin, we’re about to have a lot of it at the Wilbur Curtis Co. headquarters in Montebello. The company, which makes coffee and tea-brewing machines, has offered up its Gemini Showroom to host the competition.
The tasting is not an exuberant affair — the lights are dim and no spectators egg us on.
There’s just the relentless succession of teas: 25 types of iced tea, with 18 options in some categories, a single contender in others.
Jage and two helpers bring out the tea in 9-ounce clear plastic cups, carefully balanced on platters large enough to hold an extra-large pizza. They place the cups on white paper to show the beverages’ color and clarity.
One green tea entrant is cloudy with aloe pellets, sparking a debate over whether the murkiness is a selling point or a shortcoming. Other green teas that emerge are so dark they look like black teas or coffee. Herbal teas are arranged in a kaleidoscope of golden amber, burnished copper and blushing pink.
We each have a thick sheaf of ballots to evaluate the teas on color, clarity, taste and body. Depending on the judge, “body” can mean the drink’s viscosity or the amount of energy required to draw the liquid into the mouth. Each tea is rated on a 10-point scale, with strong candidates earning a 7 or an 8. Tens are rare.
Near each judge is a plate of crackers and bananas. The crackers cleanse the palate between entries and the fruit helps absorb the tannins — chemical compounds in tea leaves similar to the ones found in wine grapes. Too much can lead to dry heaving, teasmiths say.
Tellin, 37, who heads up operations at Steven Smith Teamaker in Portland, Ore., said he ate steak and eggs for breakfast to shield his stomach lining from the tannins.
Svihula is mostly unimpressed with the selections. The 39-year-old-teasmith, who works for China Mist Tea in Scottsdale, Ariz., explains that the iced-tea category “usually doesn’t have super-high-end-premium options.”
Tea purists tend to gravitate toward hot, loose-leaf teas for their unadulterated flavors; iced teas are generally engineered to be crowd pleasers, he said.
For the most part, the judges steer clear of the tea industry’s more contemptuous insults — such as “this would be OK if mixed with alcohol and juice” or “my grandma used to serve something like this.” The most vicious way to malign a tea, according to the judges, would be to say it “seems like potpourri.”
But that doesn’t mean they’re kind all the time.
“This tastes like canned apples when you drink the syrup at the bottom,” says Jara, 30, who handles purchasing, quality assurance and regulatory affairs for Sungarden Tea in Alhambra, Calif.
“I’m getting pencil shavings from this,” Tellin says of another tea.
He’s also not pleased with the way the tea is chilled.
“God, I hate ice,” he mutters, complaining that the cubes dilute flavor and mask color.
Surge in sales
But the recent surge of American interest in tea? That he likes just fine.
Domestic sales surged from $5.7 billion in 2003 to $15.7 billion last year, with $18 billion projected this year. In 2010, the U.S. passed Britain as the world’s second-largest importer of tea behind Russia.
The United States has long been a nation of black tea drinkers; now consumers are welcoming more green teas such as yerba mate, rooibos red teas, herbal teas such as dandelion root, teas infused with chocolate, teas mixed with marshmallows, teas in single-serve portions.
Passing time between tea-tasting flights, the judges dish about their tea collections. Svihula, who has more than 100 types, said a white peony oolong is his “ultimate favorite.” But keeping a stash of pu-erh is like investing in gold bullion — the value of the stockpile tends to increase over time, he said.
We swap nuggets of tea arcana: According to Chinese legend, the emperor who popularized tea 5,000 years ago also discovered the medicinal properties of cannabis.
Mostly, though, we’re busy slurping or sipping. My compatriots tease out hints of pear, smoke and sunscreen. I stuff crackers into my mouth in the vain hope that I’ll be able to discern one entrant from the next.
Sometime in the early afternoon, after 60 or 70 teas, I start to discover textures and flavors I usually miss when I gulp down tumblers of iced tea on hot days.
Some teas remind me of my mother’s perfume or of a gusty wind. A few taste sharp and astringent — the effect of phosphoric acid used to make them last longer on shelves. One is overripe and lingering on the edge of rancid, while another is tepid and lifeless.
There’s a green tea, though, that’s lovely: fresh, satisfying, light. And is that possibly a hint of ginger?
I start to think I might just be a natural at this judging gig.
But before I can share my observations, Svihula pipes up, having just tasted the same tea.
“Oh my god, I shouldn’t have swallowed that,” he says.
On second thought, maybe I should just stick to water.