November 04, 2016

World Atlas of Tea, a Book Review

An alternate title for this blog post might be "Not Your Typical Book Review". A book review is typically written in essay form and adheres to the following pattern: summarizes the content, analyzes the content, and recommends (or not) the content. I could do this quickly and note that in four parts, Kris Smith provides an overview of Camellia sinensis, its cultivation, harvesting and processing, and history; a guide to steeping tea; a primer on tea blending and mixology; and a tour of tea producing countries, the regions therein, and the tea types common to each region. The content in World Atlas of Tea is what you will find in many other tea books with the possible exception of the tea blending and mixology chapter but what makes Krisi Smith's different is the topic of this blog post which was inspired by the post Elements of an A+ Picture Book written by Bethan Woollvin for This Picture Book Life.

Around the world of tea

Immediately I know that this book will discuss teas grown around the world, and indeed it seems to do so. Tea culture originated in China, and for this reason, China is often the tea producing country first discussed in most books. In World Atlas of Tea, the chapter on tea producing countries begins with Africa followed in order by the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle East, the Far East, and South America. The book's subtitle explicitly lets the reader know the content of the book -- "from leaf to cup". Krisi Smith describes the plant, its varieties, its harvesting and processing methods, and preparation styles. Finally, the photo is evocative of many aspects of tea agriculture. There is a certain fetishizing of hand plucked tea grown on small single farms so I appreciate the cover photograph of a machine harvested garden. The garden does not appear to be a particularly high altitude but there are hills planted with tea as well as mountains in the distance which might also be planted with tea. The fog or rolling mist is also an evocative elements of the photograph. We get a certain sense for the importance of terroir in tea cultivation. Finally, because the cover image is of a landscape and not one depicting high grade loose leaf teas or specialty tea ware, the book appeals to a wider audience.

Related to the atlas concept, the book includes a diagram of historic tea trade over land and by ocean. The trade with the Americas is missing but this visual helps to understand the immensity of the impact of tea.

Visual display of information

As much as I enjoy the printed word, I am a visual learner. Illustrations, diagrams, and maps help me to fix lots of detailed and complex processes. (Have you read Edward Tufte's Envisioning Information or The Visual Display of Quantitative Information?) One of my favorite illustrations is the explanation of tea processing. Another is the regional map; the Africa map is shown in the second image in this post.

[On 8 June 2017, the image of the Maasai woman pouring tea was removed by request of the photographer.]

Deepening engagement with tea culture

Another type of visualization used in this book is photography. Many tea books have excellent photographs. The reason I call out the photographs in this book is the subject matter of the pictures. I don't think I'd ever seen underneath a Japanese green tea shade structure or Masai women serving tea outdoors. For those of us will not have first hand experience of a gyokuro harvest or of preparing milky tea in Kenya, these photographs provide more depth to our engagement with tea.

Beyond rural places and boutique spaces

Do you spend lots of time gazing at photographs that depict modern, minimalist, nonindustrial tea spaces? I do, and I enjoy these photos. What about jaw-dropping mountainous or sloping landscapes with scant evidence of human activity besides the presence of tea plants? I like these types of photographs, too, but variety is healthful. We rarely see photos of industrialized tea production on social media but it's part of the history of our favorite beverage. The caption for the black and white image above is: "The busy packaging hall of an English tea-trading company in 1932. As we can see here, this was work carried out mainly women." I suppose industrial packaging is now done by machine.

One of my favorite photographs in World Atlas of Tea shows a rail line running in the midst of a tea garden with urban residential housing in the near background. Did you know that tea is grown in urban areas in Japan?

World Atlas of Tea could be improved with photographs of tea leaves and liquor. A map of Taiwan and its tea producing regions is noticeably absent. The teas listed in the section of tea types grown in China does not include all the types and understandably does not include all the varieties in each type. Finally, and this particular point might only be applicable if one intends to use this book as a reference, the index could have been better prepared.

Do I recommend World Atlas of Tea by Krisi Smith? Yes. I think it would make a good addition to your tea library.

A review copy of World Atlas of Tea and all images are courtesy of Firefly Books.

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