Monday, June 28, 2010

Reader's Corner: DougH on The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss

Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss. THE STORY OF TEA: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press 2007. xiv + 418 pages. ISBN 978-1580087452.

The book reviewed here is another of the “recent inundation of English-language books on tea” that I mentioned in my previous review. Judging by the number (and percentage) of positive reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, the number of online tea vendors who carry this book (even though the authors are actually competitors, having their own online tea store, and its high placing in various food book award competitions), this book has made something of a splash in the tea-book world.

Unlike the Mair/Hoh book, this book is in the mold of James Norwood Pratt’s The New Tea Lover’s Treasury (1999): it includes some account of the history of tea, something about the “culture” of tea, and something about tea itself – the types, the tastes, the steeping. But this book has twice as many pages as Pratt’s, is physically larger, and feels about twice the weight. A lot of work, time and research obviously went into this book.

There is a brief Preface and an equally brief Introduction; both of these are for the most part so general as to provide very little of use. There is no overview of the book’s chapters or structure (as, for example, the Mair/Hoh book’s prologue did nicely). However, this Preface does give us the authors’ statement of the book’s purpose (p. x):
This book is our attempt to transmit the information and knowledge that we have garnered trekking along the tea trail to our interested readers. We hope to cut through the sometimes confusing prattle about tea by providing in-depth information and understanding about processes that many people have written about but few have actually witnessed .... [W]e have attempted to provide in this book material that appeals to beginning tea enthusiasts as well as to seasoned tea professionals. Our goal is to give readers the behind-the-scenes information about the life rhythms and works cycles in a tea village or factory.
Chapter 1, “A Brief History of Tea,” is indeed brief, covering the entire world history of tea in around twenty-seven pages. For illustration, there are around sixteen pages or so for China, at most two pages for Japan (almost half of it devoted to the development of the tea ceremony), perhaps two and a half pages on tea in Europe, two pages on the Boston Tea Party and events leading up to it, two or three pages on the British in India, one paragraph on the British and Sri Lanka, a paragraph or so on the Dutch in Indonesia, one paragraph on Africa. As was unfortunately true in the Mair/Hoh book as well, there is no coverage of Korean tea history, which is as long or nearly as long as Japanese tea history, though there is the obligatory material here on the tea clippers, as a nearly page-long sidebar (p. 27). There is essentially nothing – maybe a couple of sentences – on any developments since World War II.

Chapter 2, “The Life of a Tea Bush,” discusses aspects of the tea plant itself. The authors give some history of the plant. They then introduce three varieties of tea bush – sinensis, assamica, cambodi (which they call “Java bush”) – and their respective characteristics. The authors discuss the concept of the tea-bush “table” – the managed plucking height of the tea bush. There are also sections on “The Terroir of Tea” and “The Yearly Cycle of a Tea Bush.”

Chapter 3, “Manufacture: From Fresh Leaves to Distinctive Tea,” is about the processing of different types of tea. The authors introduce “The Six Classes of Leaf Manufacture” and “The Eight Elements of Tea Production,” then go on to cover, each in its own section, the processing for each of the categories they name. These processing descriptions are quite interesting, and go into often great detail, apparently much of it directly observed by the authors. For example, they have sections not just on green tea but on “Sun-dried Green Tea,” “Basket-Fired Green Tea,” “Pan-Fired Green Tea,” “Tumble-Dried Green Tea,” “Oven-Dried Green Tea,” and “Steamed Green Tea.”

In the section on “Black Tea” (p. 84), the authors are thankfully quite clear on the distinction between and correct use of the terms “oxidized” and “fermented.” Interestingly, the authors also express doubt (p. 83) that much will come of “South Asian” efforts to produce oolongs.

One questionable section is the somewhat confusing “outline” of pu’er types and characteristics on page 96. For example, maocha is purported to be associated only with sheng pu’er. Also, “wet storage, quickly aged” processing is supposedly associated only with shu pu’er manufacture. Both implications are incorrect. Maocha is the initial raw material for both kinds of pu’er, and “wet storage” is mostly or entirely a means for speeding up the aging of sheng pu’er, not shu (for which it would typically be considered irrelevant).

Chapter 4, “Journeying Along the Tea Trail,” is the longest chapter in the book (around 142 pages). It examines the teas of various countries, often by province or state. Some teas are covered at substantial length, others simply mentioned by name, or in a single sentence. The chapter covers China (with individual sections on various provinces and tea types), Japan, Korea, India – with sections on Assam, Darjeeling and Nilgiri, Russia, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Nepal, Africa - concentrating on Kenya and Tanzania, Vietnam and Thailand, plus mentions for quite a few newer small producing areas. Kenya, astoundingly, in 2004 was the third-largest producer of black tea in the world, and the largest exporter of tea in the world, figures reached in only 50 years or less of tea production. Kenya also is one of the few, if not the only, tea-producing area outside of East Asia where the majority of production is on family (or “smallholder” as the book calls them) farms – over 60% of the country’s tea is produced on 400,000 such farms (p. 240), with the rest produced on large (presumably plantation-style) estates (p. 241).

In this chapter, the authors mention many teas by name, singling out various ones here and there for further discussion. Curiously, they spend four pages (131-135) on a tea known in the West as “Lapsang Souchong” and in China as Zhengshan xiaozhong, considerably more print than they spend on any other Chinese tea, though this tea is not as popular – at least in the USA – as some others. The authors spend considerable effort trying to establish that there are actually two teas here: a lower-grade one known (including in China) as “Lapsang Souchong,” and a much higher-grade one known in China as Zhengshan xiaozhong. However, my understanding from tea-knowledgeable native Chinese friends is that in China and Taiwan, the usual view is instead that these are different grades (varying considerably in rarity and price) of a single tea, both of which are known by the name Zhengshan xiaozhong. And, despite their efforts, the authors did not get to see how these teas are made.

Chapter 5, “An Encyclopedia of Tea,” presents a series of half-page entries on thirty-one specific teas, including a couple of white teas, some Chinese and Japanese greens, a few oolongs and black teas (i.e. hongcha), a shu and a sheng pu’er, some scented teas, and a few others. The information provided for each tea includes origin, brewing recommendations, short descriptions, an even shorter indication of the flavor, etc., along with a picture of both the steeped liquor and dry leaf. This chapter, despite being pretty short and sketchy for something termed an “encyclopedia,” will probably be useful to people unfamiliar with the teas presented.

Chapter 6, “Brewing the Perfect Cup,” provides pretty detailed instructions and suggestions for buying and storing tea, for choosing water and for steeping. The chapter ends with a couple of pages describing professional tea tasting. While one might have quibbles with certain details, and the steeping descriptions are only for Western-style brewing (e.g., nothing here on gongfu steeping), there is a lot of useful information here. (For the authors’ description of gongfu steeping, see Chapter 7, p. 308.)

Chapter 7, “Tea Customs and Culture,” is the third longest chapter (around 56 pages). The chapter presents aspects of the tea culture of China, Japan, Europe (without Russia), the USA, the Russian Federation, Tibet and Morocco. Much of this chapter is actually bits and pieces of history. The longest sections by far are, not surprisingly, those on China and Japan. The chapter covers not only practices (styles of tea making, tea ceremonies, etc.), but also items like teapots, cups and other tea ware, samovars, and even sweets such as Japanese wagashi.

Chapter 8, “The Health Benefits of Tea,” is the mandatory contribution to the “tea and health” literature. Fortunately, and somewhat unexpectedly, given that the authors are also tea vendors, this chapter is for the most part a cautious – and cautionary – handling of the subject, emphasizing how tentative the current state of knowledge is about this subject. They conclude one section in this chapter with:
So, when it comes to tea, think tonic not curative, healthful collaborator not redeemer .... Drink tea to relax and connect with the spiritual nature of life’s simple pleasures. Enjoy the flavors and the subtle and not so subtle differences waiting to be discovered in the world of tea offerings, and should the rich doses of flavanoids [sic] in each cup of tea be determined to cure what ails you, you will be ahead of the curve. [p. 357]
One blot on an otherwise respectable chapter, in the section “Caffeine in Tea,” is the sidebar on p. 360, where the authors repeat (as always, with no citation) the usual Western tea industry myth regarding do-it-yourself caffeine reduction: “After thirty seconds of extraction, it is reasonable to expect a reduction in the caffeine content of black leaf tea by 50 to 70 percent.” Though the “50 to 70 percent” hedge may, charitably, be somewhat less wrong than the usual 80% claim, it is still wrong. See Nigel Melican's now-famous essay in CHA DAO on this subject for state-of-the-art information on this subject.

In Chapter 9, “Ethics in the Tea Trade,” the authors “explore several of the social and political aspects of tea production and marketing.” Not only is this rarely discussed in English-language tea books, in my experience: this book's is also by far the most extensive and detailed treatment of the subject I’ve seen. The chapter is divided into sections “Organically Grown Tea,” “Fair Trade,” and the “Ethical Tea Partnership.” Each section includes descriptions of the concepts, background, relevant regulations, agencies, and so on. If this chapter has a flaw, it is a perhaps too-rosy view of the actual situation of many tea estate workers; there is perhaps also a lack of discrimination between the situation of workers in former Euro/British “possessions” – who work on plantations, except in Kenya – and that of workers in most of East Asia, where tea is grown largely on family or “tribal” farms. Otherwise, this chapter is definitely a contribution to popular English-language tea literature.

Chapter 10: “Cooking with Tea,” is the authors’ – also now apparently obligatory – contribution to tea cuisine, providing ten or so recipes. If this kind of thing is of particular interest to you, you may find something useful here. In my opinion, it is the least significant chapter of the book; but it occupies only fifteen pages or so out of over 400.

The book ends with three appendix-like sections, plus an approximately eleven-page Index (which I didn’t use much, but had inconsistent results with when I did). “Buyer's Resources” lists a handful of online tea dealers (all USA dealers except Ten Ren), including the authors’ own two shops (Cooks Shop Here and Tea Trekker), but also excluding a number of well-known vendors. The “Glossary” is seven pages of “descriptive and explanatory terms associated with tea” (p. 396); this is somewhat idiosyncratically organized, but may be useful to some. The “Bibliography” lists two and a half pages of English-language print resources. There are no endnotes or footnotes.

The book is very nicely designed and laid out, with lots of sidebars, very nice typography, and a nice color picture on the dust jacket. This book is an exception to my observation that, in English-language tea books at least, there seems to be an inverse relation between many nice pictures and good information. There are lots of high-quality pictures – all or virtually all in color – throughout the book, many of them taken by the authors. In short, it’s a beautiful book.

The authors try hard to provide both wide and reasonably deep coverage of their subject. They’ve made extensive visits to tea areas in Asia, apparently multiple times (p. ix). The book has probably the most detailed information on the production process for various teas that I’ve seen (with the exception of Mike Petro’s pu’er site). There are various charts and tables and other figures scattered throughout, though there is no page-listing or index of these.

If the above is all you require from a tea book, stop here. Go out and buy it now, and you will probably be very happy.

However, if you want more from a tea book, especially one with the aspirations this one so evidently has, you may want to read on.


(To keep this part of the review from becoming too tedious, I’ve furnished -- on a separate page, provided by Our Gracious Host -- a list of 'Addenda et Corrigenda,' with additional information for those who share my concerns over this sort of thing.)

My criticisms of the book mostly fall into the following categories:
• To use the authors’ own word: sensibilities
• Poor organization and editing of the material
• Grossly inadequate historical coverage
• Romanization, translation and other terminological issues
• Miscellaneous

The text virtually never cites any source, however informally, so it’s usually impossible to know where questionable information has come from.


The authors say in the Preface, “We also offer our sensibilities regarding the complexity and intrigue of an ancient beverage in today’s fast-paced, modern world” (p. x). Unfortunately, my own sensibilities are daggers-drawn at odds with theirs.

One example epitomizes the problem (as well as some editing issues): “Had the Song stayed in power, or had the coarse Mongols not been their predecessors [sic], China mostly likely would have seen their evolving tea culture culminate into a glorious, formal, stylized tea ceremony” (p. 15). First, the Mongol Yuan dynasty was the successor to the Song. Second, there is no way to begin to know what would have happened if the Mongols hadn’t successfully invaded, and the Song dynasty had continued. Further, the Song did have formal tea ceremonies or rituals, as the authors themselves say on the same page: “... the elaborate tea rituals of the Song dynasty came to a swift and unfortunate halt....” Fourth, to call the Mongols “coarse” seems both extreme and ignorant. Worst of all, the core of this statement – that a “formal, stylized tea ceremony” is “glorious” – epitomizes a pretty extreme sort of orientalist, Asian-romanticizing viewpoint.

An even better example – which also illustrates the authors’ ignorance of Chinese characters (hanzi) – is the sidebar on the opening page of Chapter 8 (p. 351). This sidebar purports to deconstruct the Chinese character for tea, cha (茶), into three individually meaningful parts. For brevity, I will quote only the concluding sentence: “The sum of this character's elements creates the Chinese pictorial for tea as, 'The revered plant that sustains man in his situation on earth.’” This is both wrong and a kind of trap, a trap the authors dove headfirst into precisely because of their orientalist sensibility: they want this to be true. This kind of thing drives Chinese language experts (and many knowledgeable native speakers) up the wall. Relatively few modern Chinese characters are constructed in anything like the way this sidebar describes, and cha is definitely not one of them. The authors evince no knowledge of the usage-history of the character tu (荼) as distinct from that of the character cha (茶). The latter didn’t even exist until the Tang (perhaps mid-eighth century), and was clearly created by a slight modification to the tu character, possibly even by Lu Yu himself. See, in my review of Mair/Hoh, the paragraphs on “Chapter 2”, and especially see Appendix “C” in Mair/Hoh, particularly the section entitled “Writing” (p. 264).

This orientalist sensibility pops up throughout the book. And it was completely unnecessary: the authors’ information on tea is generally good and plentiful, and the book is beautiful. Trying to make tea and Asian tea culture and tea history into something romantic and exotic is a serious – and typically Western – misrepresentation of both. (For more, see "Addenda et Corrigenda" under "Sensibilities.")


While the appearance and layout of the book are beautiful, the actual editing leaves something to be desired. While there are errors of the type one would hope a copy-editor would catch, a few of these will usually sneak through even in the most carefully and rigorously edited book, at least in its first printing. But, while some of these are fairly blatant, there is a worse problem. The book’s organization is rather ... disorganized.

Though there is a chapter on history, there is historical material scattered over multiple other chapters, especially in Chapters 4 and 7.There is no history of Korea in Chapter 1, but some 3.5 pages of Korean history in Chapter 4 (p. 187). There are almost half as many pages of Chinese history in Chapter 7 as there are in the 'history' chapter (Chapter 1), and more pages of Japanese history in Chapter 7 than in Chapter 1.

One could adduce many more examples (see "Addenda et Corrigenda" under "Organization and Editing"), but that’s enough for the moment. The overall impression one draws from this lack of sensible organization is that the book is rambling and repetitive. Yet if there had been a decent editing phase, it would have been reasonably easy to consolidate the wide-flung material into a much tighter, more cohesive whole.


The authors’ historical coverage in this book is unacceptably cursory, given the book’s size, and given that it has the word “history” in its subtitle. Chapter 1 barely qualifies as even an overview of the history of tea. Even if you add in the perhaps roughly-equal number of pages of history scattered throughout the other chapters of the book, the result is an inadequate body of material, much of it driven by the same orientalist, romantic view discussed earlier.

While the authors shouldn’t be criticized for not doing something they didn’t intend to do, we can evaluate how useful what they did do is. The history coverage in this book is not worthy of it, and does not compare with the breadth and depth of coverage the authors give to other areas of tea. (For more, see "Addenda et Corrigenda" under "History.")

Language and terminology

There is no evidence in the book -- or on the authors' website -- that either of them speaks any version of Chinese, or any other East Asian (or South Asian) language. They list no Asian language sources in the bibliography. As with many English-only tea writers (and tea vendors), the author’s Chinese romanization is often faulty and/or inconsistent. The translations they provide, usually of names, are often “iffy” if not flat-out wrong.

One of the most blatant translation mistakes is in the title of the “Black Tea” section (p. 84), where the Chinese term “qi hong” is used as the translation for “Red Tea”; the correct pinyin for “red tea” is hongcha, whereas qihong refers specifically to the Keemun/Qimen variety of hongcha. The authors repeat this error in another section title on page 127 (where they use the spelling “Qihong” [no space]), yet they themselves provide the correct pinyin for “red tea” in the same section at the bottom of p. 127.

Another example of faulty translation: they repeatedly translate the name of the Wuyi oolong dahongpao (which they spell as Da Hong Pao) as “Royal Red Robe” (see e.g. pp. 144, 146, 263). This, again, is simply wrong. In this context, da (大) means (and in this context is almost always translated as) “big,” or possibly “great” -- thus: “Big Red Robe.” There is no way to get anything like “royal” from it. Just because a few other tea vendors also make such a mistake doesn’t mean it should be repeated in a reference work like this. And many tea vendors do correctly translate this tea name. (For more, see "Addenda et Corrigenda" under "Romanization, Translation, Terminology.")

Book Dedication

The book is dedicated to William H. Ukers: “You blazed the trail and in your footsteps we all follow.” Ukers’ 1935 All About Tea was apparently long considered by some (at least in the USA) to be a sort of standard reference or “bible” for tea, and especially for the American tea industry; though why an “industry” whose business for many decades was to serve up the lowest-quality tea fannings and dust, in the cheapest possible tea bags, to a small minority of the American population, needed a standard reference is a mystery to me. The obvious questions, on seeing this dedication, are: a) what “trail,” and b) who is “we all”? This dedication is typically overreaching, unless by “trail” the authors simply mean “writing tea books,” and by “we” they mean only “American laowai.” I doubt if even Europeans would want to be included in that “we all,” and I imagine the East Asian tea industry would laugh at the whole idea. One could also be forgiven for thinking this dedication might indicate greater ambitions than the authors openly indicate.

Tea Categories

One last issue that struck me as problematic is the initial section of Chapter 3, on the “six classes” of tea. The authors first describe supposedly existing classification schemes, then propose one of their own, which I believe is somewhat faulty (though better than the straw-man system they claim is “still popular today”). For fuller discussion, see "Addenda et Corrigenda" under "Tea Categories."


To sum up, let’s first consider the book on the authors' own terms, as presented in the citation at the beginning of this review. Do the authors achieve the goals they set out for themselves? I would answer with a rather qualified “yes.” The book contains a mass of information, which the authors gathered in part through research and in part through multiple visits to tea farms, plantations and factories in East and South Asia, talking extensively with relevant personnel to learn tea growing and production processes. Thus, they do present “information and knowledge that we have garnered trekking along the tea trail to our interested readers,” and they do provide "in-depth information and understanding about processes that many people have written about.” Whether they successfully “give readers the behind-the-scenes information about the life rhythms and works cycles in a tea village or factory” is less clear, but they do try. And they do all this in a beautiful, easy-to-read package.

Then why the “qualified yes”? Because we ought also to consider how effectively and efficiently the authors go about their business. Here the authors do not score nearly as well. The book is poorly organized and would have benefitted a lot from much more thorough editing. As mentioned earlier, this makes the book seem rambling and repetitive, which among other things makes it harder than it should be to find things you want, or that you remember reading somewhere, thus harming its usability, thus reducing its usefulness.

Further, I couldn’t avoid the occasional impression that the authors were showing off a little, with their constant presentation of foreign language names – mostly Chinese – as well as the kind of foreign-language terms that few people except certified tea heads are going to care about or remember. However, I am one of those certified tea heads, I do care, and I think that if you are going to show off your knowledge, you’d best get it right. And here the authors also fall down on the job. Their romanization of Chinese is often wrong or inconsistent, and their translations of names and terms are often either wrong or at best dubious. The authors would have been better leaving this kind of thing out if they couldn’t do it better than they did.

Finally, their inadequate, sanitized history of tea does a disservice, both to the book as a reference, and to their readers; and their pervasive – and so typically Western – tendency to view Asian tea and tea culture in an exotic light distorts and undermines their presentation.

So, do I recommend the book? If you have the money and inclination to buy more than one tea book, I would say “yes.” There is plenty of good stuff here. But when you buy this book, also get as many of those I’ve mentioned (or others) as you can. If you really only want one book, I would have a hard time giving The Story of Tea more than a very half-hearted recommendation.

~~~~~ · ~~~~~

Acknowledgements: I would again like to thank – with the usual admonition that all errors, misinterpretations, etc. are most definitely mine alone – the following for their help while I was writing this review: corax and MarshalN. As before, either of these worthies would be far more qualified to review this book than I am, but again, they left it to me. I would also like to thank K. Dodgson, V. H. Mair, and Lew Perin for their time and help – also with the usual “the bad stuff is all mine” admonition. Finally, special extra thanks to Lew Perin for the ever-valuable labor of love that is BABELCARP – what would we monoglot laowai do without it?