This book appeared on my tea-radar when a review of it was featured on the Friday Roundup, a regular article on Nicole Martin’s excellent blog “Tea For Me Please“.
Something made me immediately sit up and pay attention – one of the authors is Timothy d’Offay, owner of London’s highly regarded Postcard Teas, a tea-temple I visited back in February of 2015 when I bought my beloved white porcelain gaiwan. There was no question about it at all – any tea book authored by Timothy was going straight onto my “must buy” list.
A quick visit to Swedish on-line book seller Adlibris followed by a week’s wait saw the book ready and waiting for pickup at a local shop, safely entombed in a monster oversized box, surrounded by a couple of dozen of those newfangled mini-airbag thingies.
The first thing that strikes you about this rather hefty, hardback, 256 page tome is Michael Freeman’s stunning photography – the book opens with 6 sumptuous double page spreads, a real taster for the visual delights ahead.
The world of tea is broken down into three subject areas, the first naturally enough being “From Earth to Cup“, which focuses on the cultivation of the leaf, the techniques involved in turning raw material into finished tea, and the methods used when leaf meets water. This part of the book includes a closer look at the Akha people, and their role in Pu-erh production.
“Tea Mountains and Monasteries” looks at some of the best known tea producing areas around the world. As you might expect, the lion’s share of this part of the book is given over to China (including Taiwan). There’s a good variety here, with everything from the well know heavy-hitters such as Longjing and Wuyishan, to places that are on the whole known mostly to Pu-heads, such as Jingmai or Yiwu.
This section also touches on Japanese, Indian, and Sri Lankan centres of production, while an additional chapter looks at the history of the legendary Tea Horse Road and the tea trade between China and Tibet, which was so important in the development of Pu-erh.
The final part of the book takes a closer look at the culture that has grown up around tea cultivation and consumption, covering such topics as tea history, and a variety of places with a thriving, unique tea culture of their own. This section concludes by showcasing the talents of several contemporary teaware creators.
This book works on several levels. It can be browsed just for the superb photography alone – each turn of the page brings a new treat for the eye.
I think it’s fair to say that although there’s a good deal of information here that might be familiar to more experienced tea drinkers, that doesn’t mean that even veterans won’t unearth previously unknown nuggets of tea lore. Just to give one example – I had no idea that some people in Shanghai add walnut charcoal to their water storage jars to improve the quality of the water.
Perhaps the best way to enjoy this book is to sit down with a cup, and simply dive in. You’re virtually guaranteed of learning something interesting and new, no matter if you’ve been a tea lover 6 months or 6 decades.
In conclusion then, there’s something for everyone here, and every tea library worth its salt should contain a copy. Highly recommended.
The Life of Tea: A Journey to the World’s Finest Teas, by Michael Freeman and Timothy d’Offay
Publisher: Mitchell Beazley, August 2018