A year ago, I had the opportunity to attend a tea presentation at San Francisco's Imperial Tea Court. During the presentation, I was formally introduced to a variety of different Chinese teas, brewing techniques, and briefly introduced to some of the interesting customs that revolve around tea drinking. Ever since that event, I've wanted to learn more about tea.
In September 2007, the owners of Cooks Shop Here in Northampton, Massachusetts published The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide. This book turned out to be an amazing resource that would be a great read for novices interested in tea as well as long time tea aficionados.
The Story of Tea begins with an excellent chapter documenting the history of tea starting with its discovery and cultivation in China. The chapter continues through the introduction of tea to other Asian cultures, rapid adoption by the Western world, role in the United States Revolution, and, finally, its place in the modern world. This was my favorite chapter of the book, answering a lot of questions that I had about the progression of tea drinking and some of the different habits around the world such as why the British drink tea with milk or cream. (When the Dutch first brought tea to Europe, the emperor was a Manchurian. The Manchu, unlike the majority of the Chinese population, at the time drank a coarse dark tea that they tempered with fermented milk. Hearing that the emperor of China drank his tea with milk, the Dutch did the same. When the English adopted tea drinking they continued the Dutch tradition of adding milk to tea.)
The book continues with a readable description of the different varieties of Camellia sinensis - the tea plant and an in depth look at how the leaves of these plants are converted into white, green, black, oolong, pu-erh, and scented teas. In green teas alone, the process for manufacturing sun-dried, basket-fired, pan-fired, tumble-dried, oven-dried, and steamed teas are covered.
Veteran tea traders, Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss devote 142 pages to a chapter entitled "Journeying Along the Tea Trail" where they dive into the details of each tea growing region and how the traditions, culture, and land affect the tea plants as well as the tea products. It's not a boring encyclopedic listing of places and facts, but instead a tea focused travel guide filled with interesting sidebars, history lessons, and more information about tea varieties than can be fully digested in one reading.
The whole book is filled with full color photography, but a highlight for me was the tea encyclopedia chapter where over thirty varieties of tea are shown along with photographs of the tea after brewing as well as the dried tea leaves. For some reason, I really enjoyed seeing the different shades of tea and the shapes of the rolled, crushed, and crumbed leaves.
The Story of Tea then progresses onto clear instructions for the proper way to brew the various types of tea, an in depth look at the customs and cultures of diverse tea drinking populations, a brief examination of the recent medical findings about tea drinking, and the ethics of the tea trade. To top off this fairly exhaustive examination of tea, Heiss and Heiss devote a final chapter to recipes where tea is used in the meal.
The book is printed on smooth, heavy stock, bright white paper in full color and is very nicely laid out. Although a few of the photographs are lower resolution than I'd like, overall the photography is beautiful and enticing. This is not only the most informative book on tea that I've read, but it is also the most visually pleasing. The only thing really lacking in the book is a look at the underlying chemical changes that occur in the tea leaves during manufacture as well as steeping. Perhaps this information isn't available, but there is an opportunity to make what is probably the best tea book available even better.
The Story of Tea is available in the following formats:
The Story of Tea by Mary Lou and Robert Heiss
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