Friday's Top 5 Tea Book Picks July 27 2021 1 Comment
The early stages of every tea lover’s journey will face a crisis of direction. It’s inevitable, that moment your eyes go wide at the sheer vastness of the world of tea and all its possible avenues of exploration and you find yourself paralyzed with no idea which road to set foot upon first. Every day of my professional life, people ask “how did you learn so much about tea?” and “what books do you recommend for a new tea enthusiast?”.
Don’t fret, we’ve got you covered. While tea is a lifelong education and, the sad fact is, that you will never be able to learn it all (sorry, it bums me out too), we can at least get you started. Below are the top five books I’ve encountered in my 17 years of tea study and industry experience:
5. Tea: Aromas & Flavors Around the World by Lydia Gautier
For a lovely browsable coffee (or tea) table book full of bite-sized tea facts, clever educational tables, and gorgeous photo sets of tea practices and culture from all over the world. There are informative passages on major historical events in the journey of tea and the evolution of tea brewing styles throughout a wide variety of regions.
Excerpt: “A fine-quality jasmine tea is necessarily very expensive, given the quantity of flowers needed to perfume the tea. Originally it was medium-quality teas that were improved this way but it later became a veritable art form, particularly in the case of jasmine, with grand cru tea leaves being used to produce delicately perfumed teas.”
4. The Ultimate Tea Lover's Treasury by James Norwood Pratt
Norwood is the tea industry's kindly grandfather. He is our storyteller heart and keeper of international tea culture joy (be sure also to check out his Tea Dictionary, a fantastic reference for technical knowledge as you move through your personal lifelong tea journey). Rarely have I encountered another writer or speaker who educates with the level of warmth and playfulness that causes even the most potentially dry material to feel like a weighted blanket and a perfectly-brewed cuppa. This book is strictly tea history with no focus on science or brewing technique. The history ranges worldwide and is framed as smaller vignettes of personal tea stories with enough big-picture information to provide a frame of reference.
Excerpt: “It was an industry off and running by the time George Williamson retired from Assam in 1859. Scores of private entrepreneurs had had learned the best tea to plant and the right way to grow and harvest it. The Honorable East India Company had surrendered its Indian perquisites to the Crown the year before, forcing all manner of subalterns and junior officials to look for something better than poverty or an office job back in England. Many decided tea planting would be the simplest, pleasantest, most lucrative and gentlemanly possible alternative.”
3. A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage
While this book is not solely on the subject of tea, I will never pass up an opportunity to recommend a Tom Standage piece. A History of the World in Six Glasses is about many beverages, only one of which is tea, but I love literally every Standage I've read. He's so engaging and knowledgeable, always a treat to read. This is a fantastic collection of knowledge in the form of delightful stories from the perspective of an economist with the voice of a gossip columnist. Standage is the master of presenting fascinating factoids in a way that feels somehow like throwing shade while landing squarely on the field of simple retelling and canny observation. If all this appeals to you (bonus if you’re an agriculture nerd), also check out his book An Edible History of Humanity.
Excerpt: “Once tea had established itself as Britain’s national drink, the desire to maintain the tea supply had far-reaching effects on British foreign policy, contributing to the independence of the United States, the undermining of China’s ancient civilization, and the establishment of tea production in India on an industrial scale.”
2. Tea: A Nerd's Eye View by Virginia Utermohlen Lovelace MD
This elegant lil book is a totally new take on tea books as it comes from a chemist and medical doctor with a passionate appreciation for tea, rather than an agricultural scientist or tea industry professional. Virginia presents an playfully-arranged data set on the sensory, sensual side of tea, and the science behind your enjoyment thereof. If you’re a botany and/or chem nerd with a love of the leaf, this is a must-read.
Excerpt unavailable as I have misplaced my copy temporarily, but check back soon and this will be updated!
1. The Essence of Tea by Dr. Shan-Tung Hsu
If I could pick only one book to share with tea lovers at any point of their tea journey, it would be this one. The Essence of Tea is a charming and heartful exploration of historical and contemporary Chinese tea knowledge. Dr. Hsu presents a wealth of technical knowledge phrased comprehensively for the layman, as well as a look into China’s rich mythology as told by tea. Science meets storytelling in this gorgeous book full of detailed photographs, charts, and in-depth leaf processing information.
Excerpt: “There are over a couple of hundred varieties of tea in China and there are many ways to classify them: by locality, by harvest season, by processing method, by the form of the finished product. In modern China, people often try to classify tea into six categories based on physical characteristics: green tea, white tea, yellow tea, oolong tea, red tea and black tea. Many tea books list well over a hundred varieties of green tea, dozens of types of oolong tea, and more than a dozen types of black tea, but only a few varieties of white tea and yellow tea."
Bonus points for Dr. Hsu: he's a Seattle local who I met at Seattle's Best Tea down in the International District years ago. We shared an afternoon drinking tea and chatting on the beauty of the leaf. His main area of expertise is in Feng Shui, which really shows in the way he speaks on tea processing, science, and culture.
Consider this list a jumping-off point. By no means is this a complete education (as I’ve said, that’s unfortunately not a real thing), but I believe you’ll find it a valuable reading list to soak your brain and further fuel your love of tea.
Do you have a favorite tea book not mentioned on my list? Drop your recs in the comments and let us know. The more we share, the more we all get to enjoy!