Friday, April 9, 2010

Book report: The Tea Enthusiast's Handbook

Oh, dear. Another tea book, full of the same history, the same Tea 101 info, the same artfully calming and colorless photography on the cover. Tea books are developing a template, right? Cover photo: Asian tea service. First chapter: The story of those ancient tea leaves that allegedly fell into a pot of hot water. Middle of the book: Careful, just-shy-of-condescending advice on how to make tea. Near the end: Recipes, darlin'!

But that's not at all what The Tea Enthusiast's Handbook is. How could it be? It's written by Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss, who've already broken that mold with their supreme summation of this beverage's backstory in The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide. I've had that book for a couple of years now, and I'm still absorbing it all. No, this new title is a slim, portable companion. It's beautifully printed on fine paper, and it's exactly what it says it is: a handbook.

That's a rare offering, really. So many tea books seem to think they're handy, but they're either actually a coffee-table book (tea-table?) or merely self-indulgent (i.e. look, here — golly do I ever know a lot about tea!). Heiss-squared offers a true guide, a book that's actually nice to keep handy. I have a shelf of tea books in the sunroom, but this one's going into the tea cabinet in the kitchen.

The usefulness comes from the Heisses getting right down to business. They don't waste time with a history of tea; in the first chapter, they're explaining terroir and how it relates to what's about to be poured into your cup. As tea allegedly becomes the new wine (shudder), several tea enthusiasts have dug up that word as it's traditionally applied to the vineyard, but here we get a serious discussion of how it applies to the terraced mountainside. That's the appetizer, along with some basic component information, before getting to the bulk of the book: six chapters detailing "The Six Classes of Tea" — green, yellow, white, oolong, black and pu-erh. Each section discusses styles of the tea, flavor characteristics, a gallery of most common types, and then we get some useful (trust me) historical and cultural information. (And, having enjoyed yellow tea on sadly few rare occasions, I'm thrilled the Heisses maintain its authority in this little book as they did in The Story of Tea.)

At the end, there are storage tips and a helpful glossary. It's a neat, tidy little package, and its utilitarian value cannot be overstated. Highly recommended.

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