Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

Book Review: Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties

Tea: History, Terroirs, VarietiesTitle: Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties
Authors: Kevin Gascoyne, Francois Marchand, Jasmin Desharnais, and Hugo Americi
Publisher: Firefly Books
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

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.

Dear tea, I love you.

Varieties of tea from Bonsai HillLately, I’ve been feeling pretty burnt out on reading books. Magazine articles are no problem, and neither are short stories, but I haven’t read a full book in about 2 weeks. I’m going to have to do something soon if I don’t want to get too behind on my reviewing. The Summer Prince is there by my desk, waiting for me to get past the first 20 pages, but it’s just not grabbing my interest.

So instead, I’m going to talk about something else I love besides books: tea.

It’s only been in the past 2 years or so that I’ve been drinking loose-leaf teas instead of bagged ones. Before that, I only had access to the generic kinds found in the grocery store, which always tasted kind of gross.

I learned early on that green teas were my favourite. White varieties were okay, but I didn’t want to try black teas at all after years of Orange Pekoe and hibiscus and chamomile. Slowly, my collection grew – a tin from Teaopia (now Teavana) here, a bag from David’s there, a stop-off at the Sloane pop-up shop on Toronto’s Path after that…..

And that was just the beginning. A few months back I found Steepster, the tea community’s equivalent to Goodreads. I started reading the reviews on there to know which ones were good and which ones to avoid. About a month ago I went one step further and opened my own account. When I mentioned this on Twitter, my friend Jessica asked whether I was going to the Toronto Tea Festival.

Having never heard of it, I did some googling, found the site for the festival, and rubbed my hands in glee. Jessica and I made arrangements soon afterwards to attend the festival together, which happened a few weeks ago.

It was glorious.

The Appel Salon was packed full of tea vendors and drinkers. Tables and tables full of different types – greens, whites, blacks, oolongs, herbals, rooibos, pu’erhs, everything! – to sip and sample. This was an amazing opportunity to try teas I’d never had before, and to buy from independent stores instead of the big chains. I ended up buying 5 different kinds – 2 greens, 2 whites, and an oolong.

Five varieties of tea purchased from the Toronto Tea Festival.

My haul from the Toronto Tea Festival.

The two white teas were kind of hit and miss – the fruit-flavoured white tea I got from Majesteas was a huge disappointment in particular – but the oolong was a nice introduction to that variety, and the two greens from Capital Teas were absolutely lovely. In fact, I liked them so much that I almost don’t want to drink them, since I don’t want to run out. (Seriously, their Jasmine Dragon Pearls are something else.)

Since then, I’ve gone on a bit of a tea-buying spree, getting stuff from David’s and TeaVivre, and making wishlists of other teas from other vendors. Steepster is now a huge source of temptation, because posting reviews of new teas is one of the built-in mechanics to gaining a wider following on the site. Seeing all the reviews of other teas on that site and figuring out which ones I want to try is my current replacement for window shopping. I’ve got about 30 teas of various amounts in the dining room now, and even have a few free samples on the way in the mail. The pressure is on to go through the smaller amounts faster – that way I can buy some more!

Anyways, yes. Tea. It’s lovely, it’s delicious, and it’s gotten to the point where on some days I’m not even drinking water anymore.

What about you? I’d love to get some more recommendations in the comments.