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The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide Hardcover – October 1, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Purveyors of fine tea, the Heisses' documentary dexterously weaves through the wars, economic upheavals and embargoes surrounding what was once considered the elixir of immortality. Though tea usage may predate written history, evidence suggests that Camellia sinensis's invigorating leaves were first cultivated centuries ago in the tea gardens of indigenous minorities in Northwestern China and along the Indian, Myanmar and Tibetan borders. Chinese monks recognized the energizing effects and medicinal value of this evergreen plant and, by touting its benefits, ignited a thirst for tea that quickly spread west via oceangoing tea clippers and along the Silk Road. The famed East India Company flourished, teatime became social tradition, and cream and sugar were found to balance tea's astringency. In this guide, the Heisses outline at length the production process from tea bush to tea cup, along with the nuances of regional varietals like China's sweet green tea and India's Darjeeling. An engaging historical and cultural study, this guide is geared toward both novice and consummate consumers intrigued by the world's 2,000-year-old tea habit. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Robert J. Heiss and Mary Lou Heiss are 'The Professors of Tea' (NY Times, October 2007)
The Story of Tea was nominated in 2008 for a prestigious James Beard Book Award and an IACP Cookbook Award. It captured the award for Best Tea Book in the USA from Gourmand Awards, Paris, France, and also won the bronze for Best Tea Book in the World in 2008.
"This husband-and-wife team, with 30 years of experience sourcing teas for their shop, produced a passionate and learned book that is as much a cultural exploration as a practical guide to tea and its full enjoyment." Boulder Weekly, Maricel E. Presilla
"With their first-hand accounts, meticulous research and passion for the subject, The Story of Tea has all the makings of becoming the definitive source for tea. And it's time -- for a tea book of this caliber." The Washington Post "A Mighty Appetite" with Kim O'Donnel, October 22, 2007
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With so much information, I only detected a few errors, which were unfortunate, but perhaps unavoidable. For example, Huang Shan Mao Feng, a famous green tea from China, is listed on page 163 as a yellow tea. On page 219, the book states that Alishan produces oolongs grown at the highest altitudes of any tea in Taiwan, when in fact the highest plantation is located at Da Yu Ling, part of the Lishan range in central Taiwan, with the highest peak located in the Yushan range, adjacent to the Alishan mountain range. Also, the book states that Bai Hao "Oriental Beauty" oolong is oxidized 35 to 40 percent, although it is oxidized closer to 70 percent, a fact that Heiss & Heiss themselves correct in their subsequent "The Tea Enthusiast's Handbook" (2010). Still, these errors are fairly insignificant when compared with everything else that is right about this book. As an Engligh tutor, what actually bothered me the most was the overusage of split infinitives ("to be" verbs separated by an adverb) and the grammatical errors when saying "different than" instead of correctly stating "different from" in sentences using comparisons. Yet again, these are only minor and should not detract too much from the overall quality of this predominately very well-written, beautifully illustrated, highly researched, and extremely informative book. It would be a great addition to the library of any tea connoisseur or enthusiast.
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.