TEA READING LIST – Best read with a cup or more of tea!
Tea Horse Road by Michael Freeman and Selena Ahmed – I received this book from my in-laws over Christmas 2017. It is my new favorite tea book. First, the photography in this book is exceptionally beautiful. It stunningly captures modern life along the ancient Tea Horse Road.
Cha Ma Dao, the Tea Horse Road, refers to the network of trails from Yunnan Province in the southwest to Sichuan and more importantly, Tibet. In the 7th Century, Tibet had become a growing power with a passion for tea. They also had some of the best horses in the region. China traded tea for horses, which were needed to defend China from northern threats.
These tea trails snake through valleys, along raging rivers, and through the Himalayan mountains to trade tea. The tea, mostly Puer (Puerh) was compressed into a tea cake (called a bing), for easy transport by horse and donkey.
The author and photographer followed these trails and traveled through some amazing parts of China. They provide a wonderful glimpse into parts of China and Tibet rarely seen by those in the West. The written descriptions are exceptionally accurate and it is apparent to someone like me that these people “were there”. My meaning is sometimes people may pass through and check a box, but don’t really become aware of the people, cultural, and places they visit. The author and photographer gained an intimate understanding of the places they visited and have put it together in a beautiful package to share with us.
It is probably the first book I have seen that talks about the Bulang minority people and how important tea has been to their culture for thousands of years. They have photos of people picking tea from wild, organic tea trees. No, this is not a typo. The wild Puer tea in this area comes from old-growth Puer tea trees, not the tea bushes we commonly associate with tea. At Bamboo Mist Tea, LLC we sell wild, old-growth Sheng (Raw) Puer Tea and Shou (Ripe) Puer Tea from the Bulang Mountain area, so it is exciting to see someone mention it in their book. It is the first time I have seen it featured so prominently.
To the author and photographer, I would simply like to say xie xie (thank you) for your exploration, travel, and producing such a wonderful book.
For All The Tea of China by Sarah Rose – An interesting book about Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist and industrial spy, who snuck into China in the mid-1800s, disguised as a Chinaman to steal tea plants and tea seedlings. At the time, the mighty British empire was beholden to China for their tea purchases. They fought two Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. As the losers, the Chinese had to continue to purchase opium from the British and to sell tea through an increasing number of Chinese trading ports. The British wanted the Chinese to buy opium to help maintain the balance of payments for purchasing tea.
The British did not like being dependent on the Chinese for their growing love affair with tea. Also, the British were the global traders of tea, through the East Indian Company, to Europe and the US (even after we tossed their tea in Boston Harbor) and wanted to increase their margins by lowering the price for wholesale tea. Their new business strategy, steal the tea plants and tea seeds from China and begin growing it in British India. Tea did not grow natively in India or in any other countries the British took it too (e.g. Sri Lanka, Kenya). Tea was native to China and still to this day, China is where tea grows best.
Robert Fortune also learned about how the Chinese made various types of tea. The Chinese had been making tea for thousands of years and the British recognized they needed to steal the tea making techniques, along with the tea. Quoting from page 34, should give you the idea without giving anything away “The Company’s prototype tea lacked refinement, but if the methods and practices of the world’s finest Chinese tea manufactures could be imported to the plantations in India, if true experts out of China could train the Himalayan natives in the art and recipes of tea manufacture, then the deficiencies of Himalayan tea could be most profitably redressed.”
Of course, it is now much easier to get tea out of China, though the best teas continue to be produced for the large, sophisticated domestic Chinese market. Our intent at Bamboo Mist Tea, LLC was to remedy it, by obtaining the best teas for export and sale in the US. In our case, instead of a Scot, we relied on Chinese relationships. Though I lived in Asia for 17 years, including 6 in China, speak a bit of Mandarin and more Japanese, I don’t think I could have purchased these teas without the relationships of my Chinese colleagues. Even for them, it took more than a decade of trips to Yunnan and Fujian to establish relationships to purchase the tea. The tea growers and artisan producers felt “why sell overseas, we can sell everything we want in China and it is too much hassle to think about the rest of the world.” Fortunately, for all of us, the all important relationships prevailed and I didn’t have to go through the experience of Robert Fortune….though I have traveled through many, many parts of China.
The Classic of Tea by Lu Yu – We don’t know for sure when humans first drank tea. In China, there is a legend that one of the first emperors of China, Shennong, discovered tea in 2,737 BC. Whether Shennong is real or imagined, the characters of his name (神農) mean God/Divine Farmer. We do know roughly when the seminal book on the manufacture, equipment, and drinking of tea was written. It was written by Lu Yu, a Tang Dynasty writer (729-804), sometime between 760-762 AD.
Francis Ross Carpenter did an exceptional translation of this ancient text in 1974, which is still regarded as one of the best translations. Francis provides a 60-page introduction that discus the history of tea, the Tang Dynasty, Lu Yu and the arrival of tea in the West. He does a masterful job and the interspersed images of old paintings provided added context.
Wang Wei, a poet and artist was a peer of Lu Yu in the Tang Dynasty. Lu Yu quotes one of his poems in his book and it is worth repeating here:
Silently, silently I steal into my chambers
Deserted and barren is the grand hall.
Waiting for a man who will not return.
Resigned, I go to my tea.
~ Wang Wei
The Classic of Tea, called Cha Ching in Chinese elevated tea to a venerated status in China, and afterwards, in neighboring countries. The first secion of this book discusses the tools and process to manufacture tea. The second section is about the equipage used in preparing tea. The final section is about the preparation and proper drinking of tea.
I haven’t personally checked with all 1.3 billion Chinese, but I can say that nearly every Chinese person I know is familiar with the name Lu Yu. He is revered for elevating tea to a beautiful and elegant beverage and experience. For the Chinese, tea is not just a beverage, it is an experience. The ambiance, the water, the tea, the tea cups and utensils, and even your guests are all intricate parts of tea consumption.
The particular translation shown in the link has become a collector item, with a corresponding price. You can probably find a cheaper version. I was fortunate to receive the collector’s version from a Chinese friend, as a gift for starting Bamboo Mist Tea, LLC.
THE STORY OF TEA – A cultural History and Drinking Guide by Mary Lou and Robert J Heiss – Written in 2007, Mary Lou and Robert do an admirable job of providing insightful tea education. They start with the history of Tea and continue on for nearly 400 pages. They cover all of the major tea topics from growing tea, manufacturing tea, steeping tea, tea customs and culture around the world, and the health benefits of tea. They even close out with a chapter on cooking with tea.
The book covers multiple tea growing regions, but places a lot of emphasis on Chinese teas. For this reason alone, I like the book. Tea evolved to grow natively in China and with their 4,000 year history of making tea, I am convinced the best teas come from China. I lived in Japan for 4 years and in Asia for 17, which provided many opportunities to sample teas from Laos, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, India, and Sri Lanka. The sheer variety of different tea types produced in China is indicative of their rich tea history. Also, I lump Taiwan with China from a geographic perspective and do believe the Taiwanese, like neighboring Fujian Province, produce exceptional Wulong teas.
Of course, I do occasionally drink Japanese teas. Sencha, Gyukuro, and Shincha are all enjoyable and distinctive Japanese green teas. Also, a genmaicha or a hojicha to go with a Japanese meal on a cold winter’s day has infinite appeal. When I lived in Japan, I used to make Matcha for visitors to my office. If you do your research, you are likely to discover that Matcha is the healthiest of all tea types. For those that don’t know, Matcha is a powdered tea of emerald-green color that is whisked into a froth with a bamboo whisk. It is the tea used in Japanese tea ceremonies. Like the Japanese Kanji characters and Japanese tea, powdered tea too was borrowed from China long ago. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), it was common in China to use powdered tea.
Back to the book…Chapter 5 – An Encyclopedia of Tea does an excellent job of describing the common tea types and provides a photo of steeped tea in a cup and the tea leaves used to make it. By their own admission, they don’t cover all of the possible types of tea. I would have liked to have seen more comment about aged teas and how microbial fermentation alters the taste, aroma, and health benefits of the tea. I would say Chapter 5 is a well done overview more than an encyclopedia.
Chapter 7 – Tea Customs and Cultures offers a solid overview of the tea customs in China and Japan. It appears the authors are quite familiar with China and Japan. The discussion on Chinese and Japanese teaware are accurate and informative. The words are supplemented with photos, which will help the reader visualize the discussion. Some of the photos aren’t quite at the same high quality level as other books. Nevertheless, The Story of Tea is worth the money and time invested to read it. I would recommend it for anyone who wants to learn more about tea. Your thoughts?
Tea – History Terroirs Varieties by Kevin Gascoyne, Francoi Marchand, Jasmin Desharnais, and Hugo Americi – This is another terrific book about Tea. The authors own a tea house in Montreal. They discuss tea cultivation and the importance of terroir. As with wine, the terroir has a big influence on subtle aroma and flavors of tea. It is as important as the processing of the picked tea leaves and bud. The authors provide a good high-level overview of the world’s tea growing regions, complemented with attractive photographs. This book is approachable and easy to digest. It gets a +1 from me, because they mention Yellow Teas from China, a style that is too often left out of the literature. If you look hard enough, you can still find it sold in China.
The two areas where the book particularly excels are the chapters on From Cup to Plate and Tea and Health. The provide some interesting recipes on how to cook with tea. Also, their chapters on Tea and Health are the best I have seen in any book on tea. Their biochemical analysis of 35 teas is fascinating. If you want to understand the caffeine levels or antioxidants in various tea, this is a good starting point. I would point out that a few “lengths of infusion” and “tea temperatures” may be a little off or simplistic (e.g. they don’t considered aged tea). However, this is a small, picky point. It’s an excellent book and I would recommend for anyone who wants to learn about tea. What do you think?
Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane: A Novel by Lisa See – OK, this a book I haven’t read. It is a fiction book, but I understand is loosely based on experience in China. I have heard many people rave about this book and would love to hear what you think of it. It is much more than a book about tea.