The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide

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Ten Speed Press

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Whether it's a delicate green tea from China or a bracing Assam black, a seemingly mild-mannered cup of tea represents a turbulent history of intrigue and conquest, tradition and revolution, East and West. In this sweeping tour through the history, culture, and lore of this 2,000-year-old beverage, veteran tea professionals Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss provide an in-depth resource for tea lovers, covering all aspects of production and consumption--from the terroir in which a tea bush is cultivated to the time-honored rituals of brewing and drinking. At once passionate and carefully researched, this weighty tome will infuse readers with a deep appreciation for the illustrious, invigorating, and elusive leaf.


Robert J. Heiss
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Ten Speed Press
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Ten Speed Press
Ten Speed Press
The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide
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The title of this accomplished celebration of the history, practices, and tastes of one of the world's most popular beverages is both accurate and a little misleading.  The Story of Tea suggests a rather grandiose project, suitable only for those who already consider themselves aficionados.  After all, even the one-cup-a-day Tetley tea-bag drinker knows this would be a rather long and perhaps rather dry (no pun intended) story.  And the first part of the secondary title-A Cultural History-seems to confirm that recreational drinkers might be in over their heads with its suggestion of a scholarly approach complete with bibliography.  Yet there's that last little bit of title-Drinking Guide.  This sounds thoroughly practical, suitable for interested beginners as well as experienced tea drinkers who want to expand their repertoire as well as satisfy their curiosity.  And that is precisely what it does.

The book is divided into chapters that cover the story as well as the experience of tea, beginning with a condensed but very informative history, concentrating on China and Japan, and then on to the West's entrance into the tea trade.  This is followed by some technical, though very readable, chapters on the tea plant itself and a really fascinating section on the many different and complex approaches to the production and manufacture of tea that, honestly, changed how I look at tea.  I had no idea how many steps were involved or how many variations on those steps there were. 

For example, one of the various artisanal methods of drying the leaves for green tea is called "basket-firing."  The leaves, already partially dried by the sun, are placed into a broad bamboo or reed basket and set over charcoal embers.  After a minute, the basket is taken off the heat, and then two masters on either side perform a kind of mirror dance as they "tap" the bamboo to toss the leaves, essentially "fluffing" them.  This process of heating and fluffing is repeated for about fifteen to twenty minutes and then the leaves are spread out for a second air-drying. 

The photographs of the manufacturing methods are informative enough enouth. But some of the most beautiful images accompany the chapter that describes the finer tea customs in the world and how the styles of tea-making influenced the shapes of the bowls and the styles of the glaze. 

The section on tea brewing is solidly practical and makes the process completely accessible to even the most cavalier of tea-drinkers.  The authors provide advice on how to store different classes of tea, measuring, and brewing temperatures. Not surprisingly, the merchant-authors also discuss the importance of buying good quality tea and how to choose a reliable purveyor.  Their concern for their subject, for accuracy as well as fairness, continues on in the chapter on health benefits, and it really surprised me with its sophistication.  For instance, the authors demonstrate that blanket statements about the amount of caffeine in tea are simplistic.  The sources and brewing techniques offer too many variables.  For instance, past a certain point-five minutes or so for most black teas--the longer you brew, the less caffeine will be available to the body because other extracts will be released and will bond to the caffeine and prevent it from being absorbed

The "encyclopedia of tea" section is brief but especially helpful.  It very cleverly provides overhead photos of what the perfect brewing of a specific tea should look like in a white cup along with a scattering of the tea leaves alongside for each entry.  They list the six classes of tea covered in the book-White, Yellow, Green, Oolong, Black, and Pu-erh--with a few examples of the different leaf styles in each class.  The brevity is necessary since there are, in China alone, more than 3,000 varieties of artisan level green tea.    The entries include region, style of manufacture, type of leaf, flavor, aroma, "liquor" (appearance of the brewed tea), and brewing instructions that include water temperature, infusion timing and how to drink (plain or with sweetener and/or milk).  Each tea is also given a paragraph or two of a more detailed description of the leaf, how it is appreciated locally, and more subtleties of taste.

There are a few (though very few) disappointments.  For a book that repeatedly emphasizes the importance of terroir, there are surprisingly few detailed maps.  The expected emphasis on China makes this especially difficult for those of us not well-versed in Chinese geography.  The authors make the subject of place so interesting that one would really wish for more (many more) cartographic aides. 

The majority of the book is written in a kind of gentle though confident information-conveying style of the friendly professional offering a seriously detailed course in the wheres and hows of tea.  But the personal does come to the surface from time to time and it's almost jarring.  Suddenly the reader is told that the authors met someone who gave them a tour and shared his teas with them and they turn into enthusiastic tourists.  It's not that this segue is objectionable it's just so occasional.  Clearly the Heisses are passionate about what they do and what they continue to learn, and frankly I would have liked a little more in the way of subjective travel narrative and a little less chalkboard.  It feels like an overzealous editor (or perhaps some authorial self-consciousness about being taken seriously?) reigned them in too often.  And, make no mistake, this is personal for them.  On the other hand, some of the softer, more awe-struck moments do produce some unfortunate phrases such as "In the veiled dawn of prehistory" that opens the chapter "A Brief History of Tea" and references to China's "enigmatic culture" with its "whispering walls" and its "colorful legends of gods, sages, and the natural world."  With all that the authors know about and with as many trips as they've taken to China, it's a little confusing to come across these naà¯ve comments that tend to emphasize an older Western view of the East as quaint and mysterious.  However the practical details and serious approach of the rest of the book overrides such odd lapses.

This is a serious book for anyone interested in learning a little or a lot more about tea.  But it also is an enjoyable instruction.  With all the references to terroir, nose, first flush, and even vintages, you'd swear you were reading a book on wine.  And that's exactly their approach.  The tea merchant authors assert that learning about the birth and growth of tea drinking in different cultures as well as understanding the tea-making process from plant to cup is "essential" for a fuller appreciation and enjoyment of the beverage.  As with wine-making, tea manufacture is both a science and an art that has both hand-made traditions which have changed little over time and modern developments to cope with demand.  Respect for the tea-grower is, for these authors, on a par with respect for the most venerable of wine growers.  And again, as with wine education, the more you know, the more you taste. 


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