Pros: lots of detailed information about the world of high-end, premium tea
Cons: A rather dry read which sometimes expects the reader to know more than they do
As a young cook I learned, early on, that as much as I knew about the food world there was always much more to learn. Today, 20 plus years later, I have found the same to hold true. No matter how much I know, or learn, there will always be lots more that I don't know about, lots more to learn. So when I get a chance to review a book about a subject that I don't know much about I usually jump at the chance. Luckily, "The Tea Enthusiast's Handbook" came across my desk a few weeks ago, allowing me to educate myself, somewhat, on tea, a subject which I know very little about.
Tea is one of those mysterious beverages, at once simple and yet also seemingly infinitely complex. It is the second most consumed beverage, behind water, in the world, and yet, outside of Asia, very few people really understand the intricacies of premium tea and just what goes into the making of tea, from farm to table. Fortunately for me, and the rest of us, Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss have agreed to share their deep knowledge of the subject and have written this wonderful little guide, packed with tons of information.
The book starts in general terms with how to go about purchasing premium tea; what to look for and what to stay away from. And just like with wine (a comparison that I will likely make again) one of the most important aspects to purchasing high-end, premium teas is finding a purveyor that you trust. One that will help guide you in your journey and that you can trust will sell you quality product that has been shipped and stored properly so that you can enjoy the tea at its finest. The authors then go on to describe, again in general terms, the best way to steep tea; how much to use, for how long, the temperature of the water, etc.
After Mary Lou and Robert set the stage, they delve into the main body of the book in which they describe the 6 major classes of premium tea; green, yellow, white, black and Pu-erh. Each class is given its own section that describes the major regions each type of tea comes from, how it is grown, picked, and processed, and more detailed information about steeping and drinking the tea and whether it should be drunk plain or with additions. Each section also contains a gallery, highlighting anywhere from 2-13 specific examples of the tea talked about in the chapter. These galleries contain a picture of what the tea leaf looks like, what the tea liquor looks like as well as notes on place of production, steeping method and tasting notes.
The book finishes up with a section on storing tea. Seeing as these premium teas can fetch rather significant prices this chapter is extremely valuable to ensure your investment doesn't go to waste.
Like with wine, there is an endless variety of tea. Not only are there a number of different species of tea bushes, but each area has different manufacturing procedures that result in different flavors. And of course, like wine each and every tea garden has its very own microclimate. With all these variables each tea label has its own, unique "terroir" making it different from every other label. That being said, no one book could ever hope to provide all the information that one needs to navigate the world of premium teas. The Heiss's do a noble job of giving the reader a wonderful guide to start a journey into this world, but it is incomplete. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sure I would have loved to had more examples in each of the galleries, but it could easily grow and grow and grow, turning the book from a simple guide into a giant tome filled with so much information that it becomes useless as a day to day reference guide.
No, "The Tea Enthusiast's Handbook" is not a definitive guide to tea. There is no section on herbal teas or tisanes, barely a mention of flavored teas, except for jasmine and very little discussion about Western style black tea. But again, with a subject as broad and deep as tea is, I think the Heiss's made the right decision to keep the book small, giving the reader just the right amount of information for them to start their own journey into tea and to do it with a bit of knowledge and confidence.