The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide

4.0 out of 5 stars The College Textbook on Tea

I used to live about twenty minutes by train outside of Uji, the heart of Japan’s tea culture. Whenever I had out-of-country visitors, I would always take them to Uji, not only because it is one of the most beautiful and well-preserved of Japan’s old merchant towns, but the experience of walking down Byodo-in Omotesando street and stepping into century-old tea houses and getting a tea tasting from some of Japan’s highest ranked tea masters is something that can be had no where else.

So imagine my delight when I was flipping through “The Story of Tea,” and there was one of those places I used to visit, the 370-year old tea trader’s house of Furon Izumi-en! Seeing that picture assured me that “The Story of Tea” had got it right, and that Mary and Robert Heiss were people I could trust as tour guides through the various worlds and cultures of teas.

Considerably more than just a book on tea, “The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide” is like a college textbook on tea. It is a large and heavy and dense tome that starts in the farthest known or speculated past of tea’s history, from the initial chewing of wild-growing leaves as a stimulant, the modern and efficient factory farming of the plant people once fought wars over. There is almost no aspect of tea that is not touched in this book, including the often overlooked tea cultures of Vietnam, Korea and Africa. It feels like if there is a tea plant growing in someone’s backyard in some part of the world, the Heisses have been up there and had a taste.

Some of the information is general enough to be found in any tea book, but the details of manufacturing, of the region-specific elements known as terrior, and even a scientific look into levels of caffeine in various types of tea were new to me. There is some repetition to be found between chapters, which I appreciated because so many of the Chinese names were unfamiliar that I needed them to be explained again. Although I have experience and knowledge of Japan and Japanese tea, there was much of the tea world I did not know, and “The Story of Tea” provided that in spades. (I am especially obliged for introducing me to Lapsang Souchong, a new favorite that I had never tried before.)

Aside from the main chapters of A Brief History of Tea,” “Manufacturing: From Fresh Leaves to Distinctive Tea,” and “Journeying Along the Tea Trail,” there are several smaller chapters that work almost like an appendix, covering such topics as “Cooking with Tea,” “Brewing the Perfect Cup,” and “The Health Benefits of Tea.” I appreciated these smaller chapters as much as the large ones, and I especially appreciated how the Heisses were quick to point out that most of the perceived health benefits of tea are unproven. All we really know for sure is that tea is not bad for you.

Like many books of this type, however, “The Story of Tea” is definitely a book with an agenda and that was the only place I had a problem with it. The Heisses own an import tea business dealing in specialty teas, and they are definitely not without bias. They constantly promote the quality of “Orthodox tea” which has been prepared by traditional methods over “CTC (Cut-Tear-Curl) tea” which is machine processed for bulk production. There are even a few appeals giving cost break-downs of price per cup of tea when buying twenty dollar quarter pounds versus the price per cup of buying a twenty dollar bottle of wine.

And like many books of this type, by promoting more expensive teas they are also selling the romance of tea, of misty mountain tops with century-old tea trees picked by local villagers who have had no other life for generations. While these aspects of tea are fun and enjoyable, I find it does not paint a real picture of how tea is enjoyed worldwide.

Even with the delights of Uji just twenty minutes away, most of the Japanese people I know brewed their tea from a pack just like everyone else. The austere rituals of the tea ceremony may be fascinating, but they are practiced nowadays by only a few and then only on rare occasions. As much fun as it is to let words like Green Dragon Pearl Tea and Tie Guan Yin Oolong Tea slip through your mouth, the truth is they are completely outsold by Stash Premium Green Tea.

So “The Story of Tea” is really the story of expensive handmade teas, and not the story of the tea that 99% of tea drinkers imbibe daily. No Lipton’s here, nor Bigelow nor Tazo nor Snapple. Nothing that doesn’t carry that twinge of romance.

That aside, I don’t mind drifting into the romance of tea for awhile, and sipping thoughtfully from my Aritayaki tea set. Even though it is only a peephole into the worldwide tea industry, I would probably have gotten bored if the Heisses had taken me on a tour of a modern processing facility and doled out figures of profits and margins.

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