Lydia Kung owns VeriLeaf Fine Teas. As a tea importer, she samples teas on a daily basis. She has a passion for tea’s traditions and surprises. Tea can still astonish and reveal new characteristics and this is what makes tea special to Lydia. She will apply her diverse tea knowledge as a judge in the Spring Hot (Loose Leaf) Tea Competition this September.
How did you learn about tea?
Visits to tea gardens and tea research institutes made for the best learning moments. Watching the process from plucking to finishing, watching methods of sorting and inspection, and tasting alongside tea-makers formed the basis of my tea knowledge. Reading texts about firing temperatures or rolling pressure provides a framework, but actually watching the crafting process gives a greater understanding of the tea-maker’s intent, which I think is key in evaluating any tea.
What are your criteria for judging hot tea?
From many years as an importer, I am well-acquainted with standard tea grades. In China, for instance, the numbers assigned to certain teas have not changed for decades, and I rely on my visual and palate memory when seeing new teas. There is a relatively well-defined expectation of what certain teas should look and taste like; this yardstick, of course, continues to be honed. The key criterion is how well a tea fits the character, as defined in the competition guidelines.
For how many years have you been judging this competition?
What do you hope to see in the competition this year?
With a much expanded field, we may see hybrids or teas that are new in the sense that a cultivar once used to produce one type of tea is now being made into another altogether. With growers now able to submit entries, we will probably see more exceptional single plucking teas.
What do you hope competitors and those who follow the competition will take away from it?
Reliable assessment must take place in a comparative context. Growers and producers have access to many products. For tea retailers, their access to several samples of one grade of one tea may be more limited. The feedback, therefore, from such a competition is critical in elevating what they consider to be benchmark teas.
What kinds of teas do you usually drink and why?
My favorite category is oolong because of the wide range of flavors. The tea is fussy and complicated to make, and the results are complex and layered. This category demonstrates in the best way the features inherent in the leaf—with nothing added except craftsmanship to elicit myriad flavors.
What is your favorite tea memory?
A morning visit to a tea garden in a remote part of Jiangxi (China) was timed to see workers returning with an early spring pluck. Processing was all done by hand in a modest brick facility: there were six wood stoves with women firing the leaves as they simultaneously began forming the shapes, hand rolling—which filled the small room with a memorable “fresh green” aroma— and basket drying in small batches over charcoal. The green tea was ready to drink by lunchtime.
What makes this scene stand out was the presence of security guards: the single-bud-and-leaf green tea was destined for delivery to government headquarters in Beijing.
The Spring Hot (Loose Leaf) Tea Competition will take place Sept. 16-17, 2017, in Boulder, Colorado. Entry deadline is Sept. 1.