There is a common protocol used by tea professionals to judge teas which is called “cupping”. When visiting a tea farmer or wholesaler in Asia, for example, the person who is selling tea will put out several white porcelain cups and several plates of tea. They will then weigh four to five grams of tea, and put it into each of the cups. They then pour near boiling water at the same temperature into each of the cups, which contain the same amount of tea. A timer will be set for five minutes, and when the five minutes is up, the buyer then begins sampling the teas, using a white porcelain spoon to dip into the cups, smell the aroma, and also serve him/herself some tea into the sampling cup.
By using the same weight, water temperature and steeping duration, all of the teas are treated exactly alike. While teas are naturally grossly over-steeped with near boiling water, (which is counter intuitive to making a great cup of tea), this method of employing extremes brings out the characteristics of the teas to the highest degree, allowing the tea professional to quickly assess both the strengths and weaknesses of the tea.
Generally the buyer will be sampling one kind of tea and therefore judging many different options of the same tea. For example, (s)he will be tasting five or six different Lishan teas or Asian Beauty teas (if in Taiwan). From time to time, a seller will also include a sample that is a different kind of tea to the others.
If you want to learn the ins and outs of cupping, hop on over to Seattle this weekend to check out the tea cupping workshops offered by Suzette Hammond at the Northwest Tea Festival.