Book Review: Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties
About 2 months ago, I wrote a post about how much I enjoyed drinking tea. I framed it then as a lark, a bit of humour. But it’s surprising how complex this topic is once you learn to break out of the world of supermarket bags. Saying you like white tea is similar to saying you like white wine: a good start, but nowhere near specific enough. Riesling or Chardonnay? Bai Mu Dan or Bai Hao Yin Zhen? And even a question like that only skims the surface – the manner and location of the harvest matters just as much as the cultivar.
This is something that Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties covers in depth. Written by members of the Camellia Sinensis Tea House, this book is a guide to understanding tea in all its variety, from type to location to tasting methods.
Interestingly, rather than giving a breakdown of teas according to type, book instead divides the topic up by history and region. Chapters talking about the history of tea cultivation lead into ones about tea tasting, production, and culture according to region. This is then followed up by a brief section about the art of tea tasting and a (rather disposable) chapter containing haute-cuisine recipes. A look at the science and nutrition of tea closes out the book. Overall, it’s a well-rounded discussion of the topic.
However, I feel ambivalent about this book. It tries to split the difference between discussing tea as a product and tea as a status object, which are wildly divergent approaches. I wanted to learn more about the various cultivars of tea, and which flavours are associated with each cultivar. But the writing often reads like it was meant for the kind of lifestyle magazine you’d find tucked into the back pocket of an airplane seat. This is especially true in the one-on-one interviews with various tea testers and growers that are sprinkled throughout the book. The questions are softballs (“What is your favourite tea?”) and the answers sound calculated to offend as few people as possible (“In each family of teas there are varieties of a superior quality. They are the ones I prefer.”).
This feeling is reinforced by Tea‘s coffee-table aesthetic. The photography, layout, and production quality are all lovely, and I recognize that a book like this needs a strong aesthetic impact. However, I think it would have been a more satisfying reference guide if it included the following:
- A glossary of tea terms separate from the main body of the text – the book contains a “tasting lexicon” of terms that are often used to describe the taste of tea, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg compared to all of the specialized language this book contains
- A more comprehensive index (eg: a gaiwan and a zhong are the same thing, but the index only lists zhong and doesn’t include any sort of cross-reference between both terms)
- A list of popular/common cultivars
There are some fascinating tidbits in the corners of the text that I’d love to read entire books about, like the speculative bubble surrounding sheng pu’er and the colonial background behind Indian tea production. There is an awful lot to learn about tea, and I’m just getting started. But I really wanted some more meat than what I actually got.