Mary Lou Heiss & Robert J. Heiss, the Tea Enthusiast's Handbook: A Guide to Enjoying the World's Best Teas

By Gump, Steven E. | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Mary Lou Heiss & Robert J. Heiss, the Tea Enthusiast's Handbook: A Guide to Enjoying the World's Best Teas


Gump, Steven E., Southeast Review of Asian Studies


Mary Lou Heiss & Robert J. Heiss, The Tea Enthusiast's Handbook: A Guide to Enjoying the World's Best Teas. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2010. viii + 200 pages.

Helen Saberi, Tea: A Global History. London: Reaktion Books, 2010. 183 pages.

S. Samarasingham, A Complete Book on Black Tea Manufacture. Pannipitiya, Sri Lanka: Stamford Lake, 2009. xviii + 300 pages.

Even though over 80 percent of the tea consumed in the United States is iced (Saberi 2010, 120), interest in tea has been heating up--not cooling down--since I last reviewed a selection of tea-related books for this journal (Gump 2008). In the United States, annual sales of tea have risen from less than $1 billion before 1990 to an estimated $6 billion in 2009. In 2011, according to Helen Saberi, tea sales are expected to exceed $10 billion (121). Following the organic and artisanal booms, much of the "dynamic growth" has been in "specialty teas": organic teas, fair-trade teas, and origin-specific teas (121-22)--teas that Mary Lou Heiss and Robert Heiss call "premium teas." The new generation of tea connoisseurs passionately imbibes not only the world's finest teas but also the story of tea, which, as Saberi writes, "is steeped in ritual and religion, adventure and enterprise, smuggling and revolution, literature and social change" (8). Recent books like Laura Martin's Tea: The Drink That Changed the World (2007) and Sarah Rose's For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History (2010) were aimed at popular readerships and became best-sellers, helping promote tea's "scandalous history and glorious culture" (Heiss and Heiss 2010, 8). (1)

Tea, of course, is an Asian contribution to the world. Processing technique interplays with terroir (inherent characteristics of provenance) to transform leaves of Camellia sinensis varieties--native to northeastern India, southern China, and northern Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand--into teas of enormous variety that are now produced in some fifty tropical and semitropical countries on six continents. This chemical and physical process is also a human process, and tea touches upon numerous disciplines and fields of interest: geography, agronomy, botany, chemistry, nutrition, medicine, engineering, art, architecture, aesthetics, gastronomy, literature, material culture, history, religion, political science, economics, and more. The books reviewed here address tea from different perspectives. They consider tea as a choice beverage; as a historic and cultural commodity imbued with numerous layers of meaning; and as an important economic resource, the production of which deserves detailed description and analysis.

Understanding & Appreciating Tea

In my earlier review, I evaluated Mary Lou Heiss and Robert Heiss's encyclopedic Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide (2007). Their Tea Enthusiast's Handbook: A Guide to Enjoying the World's Best Teas is, on some levels, a condensed version. The reader they have in mind is the North American consumer of tea--but not just any tea. As the subtitle indicates, this book is not about the ordinary; tea bags and most blended or flavored teas have no place (Jasmine tea, however, is afforded three pages). Just so the parameters are crystal clear, the phrase "premium tea" shows up four times on the first page of the introduction alone.

Retailers of premium tea since 1974, the Heisses are also intrepid travelers, food writers, and educators. Here, they are to be lauded for their straightforward presentation of the six classes of tea: green, yellow, white, oolong, black, and Pu-erh [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]. The central chapter that sequentially covers each tea class occupies two-thirds of the book. All teas begin as freshly plucked leaf from Camellia sinensis bushes or trees, with processing largely determining their final character. Depending on the intended class of tea (as well as geography and other considerations), production may be largely mechanized or manual. …

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