Adding to my infinitesimal tea cred, I used the Amazon Black Friday book coupon to purchase a brand new tea book, the “The World Atlas of Tea” (September 2016, Firefly Books) by Krisi Smith. This review is based on the Hardcover edition. I should point out I am not a tea guru, and it will take a few centuries before I become one, so this is not a tea master level review 🙂
TL;DR = ONE-PARAGRAPH SUMMARY
A very visual book, great for beginners and intermediate level tea fans. It avoids many of the tropes of pop-culture tea books (only one page talking about health benefits, no food recipes). It looks great as a gift or a coffee table or waiting room book. Tea evangelists can use this to lure the general population into the tea cult 🙂
THE PHYSICAL BOOK
This is a sizable book, definitely not a pocket guide, but not too big that makes it inconvenient to carry in backpacks or briefcases or bigger handbags. It measures almost 1 inch thick, and is roughly 8 x 10 inches, it is a “portrait” sized book as you can see below. It weighs roughly 2 lbs and 4.4 ounces.
The sleeve is exactly the same as the actual cover of the book, so you don’t have to worry about losing any content if the sleeve gets damaged or lost. I put a spoiler in the picture below but it looks the same. This was printed in China per the back cover.
WHAT’S TO LIKE ABOUT THIS BOOK
This is a very visual book, there are lots of pictures, both from modern times and throughout the history of tea around the world. Not only that, but there are also drawings and paintings, it’s not just photographs.
The book has a very nice four page diagram (pages 48-51) outlining the stage of processing of the tea leaf. The visual approach makes it easier for the uninitiated to grasp the steps. Another useful reference item, pages 64-65 outline the major tea trade routs from back in the day.
Of practical matters, pages 82-83 have a pros and cons discussion of the material used in most teapots, a handy summary read if you don’t want to read 50-page forum threads 🙂 In that vicinity, the author attempts to explain the whole “Orange Pekoe” confusion of British-style tea grades, including eight pictures of different grades of tea. I am including an out of focus picture below just in case ~ some publishers object to people publishing usable pictures of a book’s reference-material content:
Camellia-sinensis purists will be thrilled that the major focus of the book is Camellia Sinensis (CS) tea. Herbal and other teas are mentioned throughout but they are not given the spotlight or equal footing. Likewise, in the geographies [more on those in the section below], it is overwhelmingly talking CS, while still featuring famous non-tea teas (eg Mate, Yak, etc).
The topics of working conditions for tea workers, and environmental sustainability are mentioned in both the text and the pictures, matters of tea drinker social responsibility 🙂
Two recurring complaints by tea enthusiasts about many of today’s modern pop-tea books is that they dedicate a lot of space to health benefits and have cookbook-level amount of recipes. The good news is that this book avoids both of these pitfalls. The health benefits section is one page of text (page #101) and takes a very grounded approach. Likewise, there are no food recipes. There are a few pages of drink recipes, but these are mostly on-topic, the first two drinks mentioned are Matcha and Chai 🙂
There is also a DIY section on tea blending for beginners, including a seven step graphic to encourage those wishing to experiment 🙂
A brief glossary and an index round out the book.
The Geographies are probably the best section
A sizable chunk is devoted to tea geographies (almost half of the book), broken down by regions, starting with Africa, where we learn that Kenya actually produces more tea (camellia sinensis tea that is) than the rest of the African continent combined. A handful of major and influential tea producers are given more space, not just the blockbuster tea producers (China, India) and the specialty makers (Japan, Taiwan) but others as well, including Kenya, Turkey, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and more. This is perhaps the best section of the book.
For the curious, a number of teas are mentioned by name in each of the major tea producing countries, so if you are looking for ideas what to try next, this is a good collection. In fact it left me wanting more teas to be featured by name and perhaps 1-2 more paragraphs for each featured tea.
Not the intend of the original photographer, but the misty environment, the stillness of the people, and the white outfits of the supervisors in the black and white tea picking picture on page 38 gave me a horror movie type of a feel.
Some of the math in the per-country tables of Productions, Exports, Imports and Consumption doesn’t add up, but I am assuming that is so because not all tea is used, and not all of the tea that is used, is used for tea drinking. Or perhaps the data came from two different sources.
Nitpicks and Complaints
- the flavor wheel (page #98) is too small
- no mention of gaiwan as a brewing method
- barely a mention of puerh and dark teas
- book ends on a “cold close” (the opposite of a cold open), no epilogue or wrap up