Okay, so I'm clearly joking here, but these competition tasting sets are really useful. I'm kicking myself for not buying a few earlier. I ordered these from Adagio, for the modest price of $9 each ($54 for 6 so you save $5). I received them the other day but there were some minor chips on the cups (the packaging was so poor that it was asking to be broken). But they're shipping me a new set of cups, and I'm glad they were so prompt it getting back to me. However, the replacements are being shipped from the East Coast, and they won't be here until next Tuesday. No biggie, since I'm not actually drinking directly from the cups.
But before I get to singing praises about the usefulness of a tasting set, how the hell does one use it? For those who are familiar with using these, you may scroll down at your leisure or feel free to correct my technique.
I have heard there are different standards, but what I've heard is either 3 grams for 5 minutes or 5 grams for three minutes. Granted, you can go longer or shorter depending on the type of tea at hand, but at the very least make sure that you have consistency across the board. Have someone else put the samples into the lidded cup so it's a blind tasting, and please have the person write down what sample they put in what lidded cup, as to ease any confusion.
Pour the water into the lidded cups, and I believe the temperature should correspond with what tea you're dealing with. Greener teas will need cooler water while roasted teas can deal with hotter water. Of course, things like this are highly subjective so do what you normally do. Now put the timer on. Than wait, but don't wander too far; 3 or 5 minutes can go by faster than you would think.
Decant the lidded cup into the bowl, starting with the lidded cup in which you poured the water into first. The lidded cup is position in such a way that it lies perfectly balanced on the bowl, as shown below. So you don't need to hold the cup while decanting. Continue as necessary until all the cups are decanted. Please be quick when decanting, because there isn't a spout, so the tea can "dribble" down the cup if you're not quick enough. Put the lidded cups aside for now. See the following:
Place a porcelain spoon into the bowl. Ladle some of the tea into a separate cup using the spoon, and after doing so smell the spoon to catch the aroma, both wet and dry. Taste the tea and make notes, either mentally or physically. If you're tasting with someone else, talk about it. Two heads are better than one, and more ideas are created by the interaction of opinions. Continue this with how many different tasting cups you have, and feel free to go back to a particular one if you need a double-take.
So What's the Point of All This?
There are several advantages to using the tasting set, and these are just off the top of my head. First, this is how many competitions are judged, and this method allows for more consistency in preparing the tea. However, judging a tea competition style is only one way of judging a tea, because some teas don't perform well under competition brewing standards. Or you have a tea that does well brewed competition style that doesn't perform well when brewed regularly. Tasting a tea brewed competition style is one aspect of judging a tea, IMO. The other aspect is judging a tea brewed normally. So it's important to do both.
If the tasting is done blind, it frees you from much of the bias that may happen if you knew what the teas were. Of course, there is still some bias because you're frantically trying to guess from previous knowledge/expectations, but it still allows you to taste tea(s) "as they are." I'm surprised at how accurate I am about my preferences, and at other times I'm horrendously wrong. Some of the teas that I love perform well under competition standards, while others perform abysmally. It's also a way to notice similarities or differences within the same type of tea, i.e. if you're competition brewing all Shui Jin Gui, or Bu Lang, etc.
Finally, it offers a very good way of comparing teas. You can brew several teas over the course of a day or a few days, but because you're not brewing it at the same time, it's more difficult to make comparisons. So brewing something competition style gives you the chance to compare a whole slew of teas at the same time. Of course, you don't have to use competition sets...similarly sized gaiwan or even bowls/cups would work just fine too. I think that brewing competition style could definitely be a good way to narrow down a list of potential purchases, and thus saving a lot of money.
Luckily for me, brewing my favorite sheng competition style has only confirmed how much I like them, so my short list of what to buy hasn't changed at all. I think I'm going to have a fun time competition brewing the same single-estate teas, just to notice the similarities/differences between them, if any, and maybe even see which ones are "better" examples of said region.