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4.5 out of 5 stars
The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide
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103 of 116 people found the following review helpful
on November 8, 2007
I would have so wished to love this book. I am a tea lover and tea is one of my passions. The wonderful pictures looked promising, so did the index and the chapter outline. However, information were repeated over and over again, at some times I felt the authors are rambling on and on without making a point. Often they talk about their tea store, their experiences while traveling, how there are other "bad" tea stores, who do not know anything about tea. A more appropriate title would have been "OUR story of tea".

I would have wished, the authors would have explained better the different steps how the different white, oolongs, black, green and pu-err teas are made. The authors only mentioned the order of how the tea leaves are processed, no explanation for the whys, except "to make the tea more mellow, greener ...". This would have been a great chance to explain a bit about the chemistry, that is going on there.

Although, the context and lay out was so promising, the overall read ended up to be boring and disappointing. With too much repeated information on one side and too little at others, plus the never-ending passages without much point. The fascinating ways of tea with its drinking traditions and production and cultural evolution got lost under all the rambling and was burdened with too many words.
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59 of 68 people found the following review helpful
WOW..... Ever have a book come across your desk that leaves you in awe? This is what happened when The Story of Tea landed in my mailbox. What first catches your eye is the crisp clean design of the book and its cover. A sturdy book that has a sensual soothing feel. If the eyes are the gateway to the stomach, then this book was one that would make me want to drink tea. And I have never been a tea or coffee drinker, so this is an important point.

So I sat and ran my hand over the book and looked at the zen style teapot pouring a hot serving of tea, in the cover photo. Then I opened the book and an hour later when the sun had begun to set and I realized I needed to turn on a light, I realized how mesmerized I had become. To the point I reread areas because I was on the path to becoming a tea lover.

The photos are stunning and informative, which is rare in most books. I was intrigued about all the various cultures where tea is not only drunk, but used as an ingredient in medicine, cooking and baking. The Life of a Tea Bush one reads of the different types of tea bushes, their needs be it water, deeply rich soil, mountains or valleys. On page 51 one learns of the 8 elements of tea productions.

On page 257 one begins to read the encyclopedia of teas, from White, Yellow, Green, Oolong, Black, Pu-erh, Scented, Artisan, Presentation, or Display Tea. And then Brewing The Perfect Cup. No tea bags here thankfully. Then Storing tea, the best water, temperatures etc.

Tea Customs and Culture covers China, Japan, Europe, and other countries like north Africa and Arabia, teapots and cups, as well as Wagashi or what is called sweets that one can serve with various teas.

Like tea itself, this book is soothing and nice. And would make a GREAT gift for anyone who loves history, food, is a teacup or teapot collector, is living in a cabin or on Park Avenue. Have homeschooling friends and family whom I have and will recommend the book to.
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43 of 50 people found the following review helpful
on July 25, 2008
As other reviewers have mentioned, this is a beautiful book to page through. And it's pretty clear, I think, that the authors are real experts on their subject. I was going to buy it from Amazon on the strength of the other reviews here, but frankly I'm glad I borrowed it from the library instead. The writing is really quite poor throughout, and much as I found the subject interesting, I found it tedious to untangle one ill-constructed sentence after another as I made my arduous way through the book. The writers don't seem to be quite sure of who their audience is, or what tone is appropriate for this sort of book. At times, it reads like a textbook; at others, like a reflective essay. But it never reads very smoothly. A thoroughly revised new edition would be nice!
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 2008
Reviewed by Sharon Hudgins, author of "The Other Side of Russia: A Slice of Life in Siberia and the Russian Far East"

The subtitle of this beautiful book ought to be "Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Tea But Were Afraid to Ask." It answers all of your questions--and more--about tea, including the history of tea, where tea is grown, how it is processed, and the cultural factors influencing the production and consumption of tea over the centuries. Both encyclopedic and very readable, it is filled with historical references, details, and anecdotes lacking in lesser books on this subject. And there is even a section on "Cooking with Tea," including recipes for Green Tea Pots de Crème and Green Tea Chiffon Cake with Walnuts and Crystallized Ginger.

The authors own a shop that sells fine teas, coffees, and other food specialties in Massachusetts. Their book's scope is worldwide and their own knowledge considerable. They have traveled to China and Japan to visit the sites of tea plantations and tea processors, and their handsomely designed, well-printed book is full of color photographs taken on location. If you buy only one book on the subject of tea, this should definitely be the one! It also makes a great gift, paired with a pretty teapot and a box of special, aromatic tea. Highly recommended!
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on November 13, 2007
No single book on tea can possibly address the needs or interests of all tea lovers, but this book will unquestionably satisfy the needs and interests of a very, very large and diverse audience. It is also an extremely handsome book with wonderful photographs and intelligent, carefully researched writing. The disappointed reviewer who complained about redundancy seems to have missed the point that the reader can enter any section of this book and get all the relevant information on, say, manufacture, or brewing, or botany without having to jump backward or forward to other sections to fill in the information gaps. The redundancy, what there actually is of it, seems purposeful and useful. (Also, I was not taken aback by the lack of detailed information on tea chemistry, but as I said no single book on tea will satisfy everyone.)

I confess to being something of a tea novice, so for me The Story of Tea answers questions about styles of tea and proper brewing methods that will enhance my enjoyment. That's my primary focus at present. At some point in the future, I'm sure I'll return to the text to learn more about tea history, where tea comes from and how it is harvested, produced and consumed in different regions and cultures. In short, this is a book that I intend to grow into over time and there is no need to hurry. I'll just sip it. One final point: given its elegant design, this book is an incredible bargain! It's on my list of gifts to give.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on March 24, 2009
Given how much I enjoy drinking tea, it's rather a given that over the years I've amassed a collection of books dealing with and about tea. Whenever I see a new book about tea, I know that eventually, it's going to be read by me. And this creates a quandary when I do -- given that there's a rather finite amount of information on the topic, eventually it all starts to sound the same, and it now takes a lot to really engage my interest.

Such was the problem when I picked up The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss. Tracing the origin of tea in ancient China when a leaf from the plant fell into a cup of hot water that the Emperor was drinking from (or so myth would have it), this lavish book takes the reader on a journey from how the tea is cultivated, processed, drunk and ritualized around the world, and focusing mostly on customs in China, Japan, and mostly Asian countries.

The first two chapters, A Brief History of Tea and The Life of a Tea Bush were only mildly interesting to be as they covered topics that nearly every book on tea has included. But the sidebars were interesting, and the photographs wonderfully evocative and at times sensual. It's in the third chapter, Manufacture where the story starts to get interesting. One topic I found very interesting was the history of how tea was classified in Ming China, separating the tea into six categories, depending on the age of the leaves and buds when picked, how the tea was fermented or not, and even how it was distributed. That still has remained the system today, with a few modifications. While black and green teas are known to most tea drinkers in the West, only now are the subtleties of white, yellow, oolongs and pu-erhs beginning to be known. The authors take the reader step by step on how teas are picked, graded, sorted, prepared and shipped, all of which determine how it is going to taste by the time it reaches your cup.

After the first one hundred pages, the story began to catch my full attention. Titled Journeying Along the Tea Trail, takes the reader along on an excursion around the world to all of the various places ? China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Africa and even South Carolina ? where tea is grown. It?s this vital aspect that determines how good ? or bad ? a tea will eventually be. Just like wine, each locale imparts a specific characteristic to the tea?s colour, taste, and aroma, and the terminology can also get just as confusing as when a group of wine fanatics get together to discuss a particular vintage. As the tea drinking public becomes better informed and acquainted with tea, I predict that the terminology and jargon will get just as complicated.

An Encyclopedia of Tea is a brief section, unfortunately. I can understand why this section is kept small ? to have a visual guide to all of the varieties available would be far too large to ever publish. Instead, there are about thirty or so different teas that are given a description, along with a picture of the leaves and a brewed cup of tea. Much more interesting is a brief look at what are known as ?presentation? teas, where teas and blooms are tied and dried together so that when they are brewed ? preferably in a clear teapot or cup ? they transform into fantastical shapes.

Brewing the Perfect Cup is just that. How to select your tea, the pot, how to find a good tea merchant, and all sorts of data on how to get that optimum brew. It?s a very short chapter, and frankly, all information that I had read somewhere else before. Much more intriguing is the next chapter, Tea Culture Around the World. Again, most of the information is focused on China and Japan, but what really works here is on the gong fu tasting ceremony, and the cha-no-yu ceremony in Japan. What sort of equipment is used, where such a ceremony will take place, foods that are eaten, and so on. I found it very interesting to read about, and two Asian cultures that tend to be overlooked got a little bit of space for themselves ? Tibet and Korea. Sadly, Western tea customs were pretty much overlooked here, which is a pity.

Health Benefits of Tea, and the following chapter Ethics in the Tea Trade are bound to upset some readers. While there are certainly benefits to drinking tea ? I do it for sheer enjoyment ? you do have to be careful in sifting out the hyperbole from the reality. So too with the ethics. Tea workers have been exploited for centuries, and sadly, it still goes on. Awareness helps, and more merchants are opting to work with planters and vendors who can guarantee that their workers are being paid a working wage and given decent conditions. What is considered ethical is also a subject for debate as well, and honestly, one I intend to stay out of.

The final chapter, Cooking with Tea is pretty interesting. While I haven?t tried any of the recipes yet, I know it will only be a matter of time before I do. There isn?t very many to choose from here, but they range the gamut from appetizers to desserts and sweets.

The book winds up with a list of buyers resources, a glossary of expressions, a bibliography and index.

Overall, I did like this book. The photographs are beautiful and compelling, at times the text is interesting to read, and I really did like the look at more obscure tea traditions in Korea, Tibet and Morocco. But some of the chapters left me cold. Despite the problems that I had with some sections, this still gets a four star rating from me. Recommended.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on March 5, 2008
I've read quite a few tea books over the years, but never one like this; this one revolutionized the way I buy, brew, and enjoy tea. The extensive information on tea production finally gave me a real understanding of the different types of tea available on the market--plus a greatly enhanced appreciation of the incredibly intricate processes involved in making tea. A book loaded with so much information could be dull to read, but it's not-- in fact, I found it hard to put down. The authors are clearly devoted to their topic and the combination of history, travelogue, fabulous photography, and esoteric tea facts is fascinating. My morning (and afternoon and evening) cuppa tea will never be the same!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on April 19, 2008
This is an amazing and informative book on tea. I am very pleased with the quality of its publication and the amount of information compiled and composed within such a beautiful book. The pages of which allowed me to rediscover one of my favorite drinks. I had forgotten how truly wonderful a good, properly made cup of tea can be. Our society has become super sized and highly caffeinated to the point that we no longer recognize the complexities as well as subtleties of tea. This book will show you how to buy, brew, and appreciate this fascinating beverage. From the first sentence to the last prepare to escape on a wonderful journey back in time when this drink was first presenting itself to humans right up to modern day. From the dynasties of the east to the aristocratic monarchies of the west, tea has traveled a long way to what we know today and the Heiss' will take you on that Journey. Sit back and make a cup of tea and prepare to be filled with the knowledge that The Story of Tea will bring you. Forget what your corporate retailer has taught you about tea and allow yourself to be educated on this historical and healthy drink. After reading the book you will most definitely want good quality tea. There are good teas out there and the book will give you listings of places to get them as well. They are not as hard to get as you might think.
So get yourself a teapot, some good loose tea, and a strainer and enjoy this wonderful drink, not to mention the book itself!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 30, 2008
Mary Lou and Robert Heiss have solved a 20-year problem, with their book "The Story of Tea". Through extensive research, ardous sampling and comparing, learning and listening to the tea growers, processors, exporters, importers, wholesalers, retailers and drinkers, they have composed an incredibly accessible insight into the complexities of one of our most mysterious (but beloved) beverages. I've sampled many, many teas over the years--including many from the Heiss' own Cooksshophere web site retail store--and sit and wonder why I prefer one over the other, why one type of tea makes me feel happy, the other a little jumpy, others that are soothing, still more that are too mellow for me. Now, when I have a question about tea, and want to take a mini-journey somewhere, I know where to travel - to the Story of Tea.
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26 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on December 23, 2011
EDIT: Having discovered Bret Hinsch's book The Ultimate Guide to Chinese Tea, I have lowered my rating of this book from 3 to 2 stars. The third star was previously allotted because this book, while flawed, was among the best I had found in English. Hinsch is a historian of China and lives in Taiwan, and his book is better than this book in virtually every way. Thus I highly recommend that readers choose that book over this one. Unfortunately, Hinsch's book is out of print, but it is still available for the Kindle at a low price. Furthermore, what that book lacks in color photographs it makes up for in reproductions of prints from various points in Chinese history.

Moving on to the original review of The Story of Tea:

The authors of this book are white American professional tea importers, and their integrity in this capacity comes through. If you visit their website, where you can order tea from them online, you'll see that they are very careful to label the harvest year of all tea they sell, as well as the time when that tea was picked (usually the earlier in the season, the fancier the tea). I have bought tea from them, and found it to be perfectly acceptable.

They also clearly know a great deal about tea, tea culture, tea manufacture, etc. Although it becomes quite repetitive at times (chapter 4 repeats much of the information in chapter 3), the book nevertheless contains much valuable information about these topics, as well as advice to would-be tea buyers and connoisseurs.

Having said that, let me move to the book's problems. First, the authors do not speak Chinese. They don't disclose this openly to the reader, but anyone who speaks and reads Chinese that opens this book will immediately be aware of this. Mistakes following from this ignorance abound on nearly every page. To give only a few examples:

1) On p. 128, they write: "Keemun (spelled Qimen in the East)..." This is wrong. In China (let's drop "the East," please), Chinese words are written with Chinese characters. What they meant to say was, "Keemun (spelled Qimen according to the more recent pinyin romanization system)..."

2) On p. 126-127 the authors mistakenly take "kung fu cha" and "gong fu cha" to be different Chinese terms. In fact, "kung fu" and "gong fu" are different romanizations of the same Chinese word (pronounced gongfu in Mandarin).

3) On p. 142: "Today, the tea is known as oolong, but its original name wulong translates into Dark or Black Dragon..." Actually, "oolong" and "wulong" are two different romanizations of the same Chinese word, both of which mean "black dragon." If we want to get chronological, "wulong" is spelled in pinyin, the most recent romanization system for Chinese, while "oolong" is the name under which this tea was popularized a long time ago, and thus is spelled in a correspondingly older romanization system.

4) The same Chinese words are spelled many different ways, often not according to different romanizations but simply because of careless typos. They regularly say Jiangzi province when they mean Jiangxi, for example (there is no Jiangzi province; in Mandarin Jiangzi would be pronounced jee-ahng dzuh, while Jiangxi would be jee-ahng shee). Zheijiang instead of Zhejiang, zen instead of zhen -- you get the idea.

If it sounds like I'm nitpicking, let me be clear that someone who has taken even one semester of Chinese language would be able to avoid these errors (and anyone who knows even a little Chinese will be confused and annoyed by them). We are now well into the twenty-first century, and while twenty years ago it may have seemed acceptable for professionals directly involved with China to declare themselves experts without speaking a word of Chinese, and to march over to China and demand that everyone talk to them in English, this behavior now looks particularly dated and disrespectful. Even on Wikipedia one finds accurate information about the actual Chinese names of Chinese teas. To be honest, I find it mind-boggling that people like this don't simply sit down and learn some Chinese. It's difficult, but not that difficult. There is no need to continue playing these guessing games. (For another example of a white tea importer going to China without learning a word of Chinese in advance, see the documentary All in This Tea.)

The second major problem with the book is the first chapter, entitled "A Brief History of Tea." The chapter is sloppily written and riddled with errors. For example, they say:

"China's three great philosophy religions--Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism--sprouted toward the middle of the Zhou dynasty. Each of these religions embraced tea for its healthful virtues and powers of rejuvenation. As the popularity of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism spread throughout China, so did an awareness of life-enhancing tea." (p. 7).

This is so wrong that I suspect the Heisses simply invented it (for one thing, Buddhism "sprouted" in south Asia [modern-day Nepal], not Zhou-dynasty China). In comparison to Hinsch's book, which gives as thorough an overview as possible based on actual Chinese primary and secondary sources, the Heisses as non-historians fail to understand that a dearth of sources can mean we know very little about tea in the earliest periods in China.

Moving on, we come to the description of tea under the Mongol Yuan dynasty. We are told that "fierce Mongol hordes [!], long held at bay in their harsh lands outside of China's borders, swept down into the more temperate and lush lands of the Chinese empire." It gets worse several paragraphs down: "Aesthetic tea pursuits were thus terminated under Mongol rule. Had the Song stayed in power, or had the coarse Mongols not been their predecessors [sic], China most likely would have seen their evolving tea culture culminate into a glorious, formal, stylized tea ceremony" (p. 15). Of course, they mean "successors" rather than "predecessors," but more importantly this is racist and incorrect. As Hinsch shows, it was not the Mongols who transformed Chinese imperial tea culture, but the first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, who had been a commoner and thus preferred brewing the kind of tea he was used to (loose leaf) over the kind that had previously been favored by emperors (including Mongol emperors).

Again, with the existence of Bret Hinsch's book on tea, there is really no longer a need to steep yourself (excuse the pun) in this book's misinformation and misspellings.
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