Monday, February 27, 2012

Mary Lou & Robert J. Heiss' "The Story of Tea": Book Review

Like the tango and ta-chi, tea brewing is practiced but never perfected. So the authors opine. They combine a "cultural history" with "drinking guide," though much more of the former than the latter in regards to particular varietals. The Heisses have sold tea since 1974, and this narrative shines with their travel accounts to Asia on the tea trail. Not only China and India, but descriptions of Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal gain color and verve when these regions enter their survey. Types are told of, and the many varietals of yellow, pu-erh, and white teas add comprehensive coverage along with the venerable black, green, and oolong categories.

This six-tea strategy affords the Heiss's book more expansion, and part of the inherent interest in reading this handsomely designed, large-format volume is its attention to sidebars with highlights from their visits, and notes on tea culture and particular sights or events associated with tea's globalized impacts. This is a fit companion for those who liked Beatrice Hohenegger's historical account (see my review) of Eastern heritage, Western trends, and ethical and ecological concerns, "Liquid Jade," as the Heisses explore similar terrain, if much more the Asian cultural legacy than the European continuity and transformation of tea. Still, both books research the fair trade, organic, and moral considerations well, and compliment each other.

Similarly, John Blofeld's assured if more reflective "The Chinese Art of Tea" (see my review) makes a suitable match, although writing two decades later, the Heisses possess the advantage of up-to-date chapters on places such as Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, and African nations where the manufacture of tea has boomed recently, or is trying to make a comeback after political unrest or war has interfered with progress. As skilled observers and merchants, they pay attention to the ups and downs of tea quality in various lands, and remind us of tea's variability as in wine, depending on "terroir" and year and climate and happenstance.

The health benefits of tea are less trumpeted due to recent and conflicting reports about antioxidents and catechins and often inflated, apparently, claims made. The authors reason it's better for now to take tea as a "tonic" and not regard it as a "curative." If any side effects boost health, all the better.

Naturally, CTC is downgraded and orthodox methods boosted, as this book means to inform you about the quality an affordable--if not dirt-cheap in nearly the literal sense of the term for "dust" and many teabags--loose-leaf tea offers. Tea-balls, we find, are discouraged, and a list of providers in cities and online steers consumers to better outlets for wiser purchases. The authors make a convincing case for buying better tea that promotes worker and ecological sustainability, and which ensures the hard work of its humble producers finds moral and financial recompense in a market that keeps pushing down prices even as consumers in the West begin to demand, here and there, more attention to how tea is made morally and not only as a bargain.

It's readable, leisurely in parts if somewhat uneven. Overall, an efficiently presented overview and in-depth guide, depending on the topic. One chapter's too-brief an encyclopedia with photos of cups filled with thirty-two or so brews and a list of their qualities. One problem is that the ratings used for Ceylon and India teas, with their strings of letters appended, get a chart, but not real elaboration. They are included in the sampler chapter under black teas, but this is not enough to show how they differ, and how they taste different.

While I wanted much more of the encyclopedia's sampler of a few types, I understand a subsequent book "The Tea Enthusiast's Handbook") by the couple has appeared, so this may answer my expectation for more choices. (However, I am unsure if this newer handbook boils down what's elaborated here, or refines or builds on it; at two-hundred pages it's half the length, much smaller than this elegant, cookbook-sized reference work.) [Posted at Amazon US 2-10-12]

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