“Make tea not war,” was Monty Python’s famous proclamation that has since become a catchcry for peace-loving tea enthusiasts. But where does that leave the ancient, venerable sport of tea fighting?
I’ve never been a great competitor. Running races, arm wrestles and even staring competitions were simply contests I could not win. Don’t get me wrong, I was good at things. When I was young I could play the violin and I could swim and I could write stories that people loved to read. I just never reached the great heights of #1. I had to make do with faint praise, commendations and second place.
So when I found out there were not one but two international tea contests (that’s the World Tea Brewing Championship and the Tea Masters Cup International that pitted tea makers against one another, I must admit my feelings were mixed. After all, tea is a peaceful beverage, one that promotes calm enjoyment, not a beverage over which tea makers might stress to produce the ‘perfect’ brew—whatever that meant.
It turns out that tea competitions aren’t such a strange thing after all. For starters, we subject tea to all sorts of judgement already, from growers and producers vying for top tea in specific categories for as long as China has had a tea industry, to the prices set at English auction houses during the height of its tea trade with China.
And then there’s tea fighting. Tea fighting began, ironically, during one of China’s most peaceful times: the Song Dynasty. Tea was on the rise as a beverage to enjoy rather than a medicine to endure and tea houses began to spring up as meeting places where people could do business, philosophise and partake of entertainment.
Early records suggest that tea fighting began in Jian’an, a county in the province of Fujian where white tea originates. At first the ‘fight’—really better described as brewing games featuring new harvest tea—was a contest between farmers to see who would win the honour of presenting his tea to the Emperor as tribute. As teahouse culture evolved, however, these contests were about who could make the best tea, and the competitors were teahouse customers, officials and even Emperors.
According to reports and artwork that remains from the time, the tea fight comprised five elements:
- Choice of tea
- Skill at grinding the tea (at the time, tea came in compressed cakes)
- Heating the water (the right temperature was crucial)
- Skill at whisking (at the time, participants used a bamboo brush to create froth)
- Infusing the tea (adding the tea while whisking to create the best flavour)
Judges used a set of criteria to decide on the best tea based on its colour, taste and the duration of the foam, where the longer the froth stayed, the better.
Although many intellectuals shunned tea fighting as a fickle game unbecoming of the status of tea as a philosopher’s drink, the fights did promote innovation in two areas: tea-making technique (Japanese chado is the result of this period) and teaware, including the introduction of various shapes and glazes to improve frothing and/or infusion.
Today the industry still hosts tea fights to decide on a winning tea, but judges have standardised the technique to brew the tea so the focus is on the leaves, not the tea maker.
For tea makers, those two world championships await. And while I’m content to sit and sip, I’d be interested to see what these tea fights uncover about brewing techniques and flavour combinations. Maybe Monty Python was wrong, maybe we need to make war in order to make tea.