Every once in a long while the tea community is blessed with a new book that makes a real contribution to our understanding of tea. So we are especially fortunate now to have two new self-published works that are stand out additions to the literature on tea; Tony Gebely’s Tea: A User’s Guide and Will Battle’s The World Tea Encyclopaedia: The world of tea explored and explained from bush to brew. Gebely’s book was released toward the end of 2016 and Battle’s book, which currently is available only from the U.K., appeared in January of this year.

Gebely’s ambitious book eschews the history and culture of tea and the myriad myths surrounding the subject and concentrates on what he calls an “objective tea study.” Battle, on the other hand, is more conventional. He does set his narratives in cultural contexts but he touches on history in a cursory fashion only. He tells us about the here and now of the major (and minor) producing areas of the world. The books’ content overlaps in their discussions on the growing and making of tea, and on the drinking of tea.

Quibbles

Although I do have some disagreement with the conceptual framework in Gebely’s book, these both are standout efforts. So it is best to get the quibbles out of the way right at the start.

Both authors refer to the concept of “terroir” in their books. Battle never really defines what he means by this and employs it fairly loosely. Gebely does define it (p.42) but seems to use “terroir” and “gout de terroir” as synonyms meaning “taste of the earth.”  They do not. “Terroir” is a tricky concept and it should be used with care and understanding. For more on this, see my earlier post, “Tea, Terroir and Taste.”

Another quibble is Battle’s inconsistent transliterations from the Chinese. Frustratingly, he at times uses Pinyin, at others Wade-Giles and at still others, a combination of both. More seriously, in the Taiwan section Battle identifies cultivars using the numbers from the plantings in the TTES research gardens rather than the official TTES numbers that the were assigned as each of the cultivars was released (Jin Xuan is #12, not #27 – or 2027 – and #29 or 2029 – is really TTES #13.) This is unnecessarily confusing. Finally, in discussing Earl Grey tea, Battle suggests that the tea presented to Charles Grey was a Chinese diplomatic gift scented with bergamot when in fact bergamot was unknown to the Chinese at that time. These are simply quibbles, however, and none should really detract from the overall excellence of either book.

Tea: A User’s Guide

Gebely’s impressive effort looks at tea from a popular scientific perspective. The book begins with the “basics:” defining tea,  discussing how it is grown and harvested, detailing the chemical composition of tea leaves, and outlining the steps involved in tea processing . The chapter on processing leads into the section that is by far and away the bulk of the book: tea types. It is in his taxonomy of tea types that Gebely misses the mark.

Gebely states that each of the methods generally used to classify tea types (color of the leaves, color of the tea liquor and oxidation level) falls short. It is better, he claims, to classify teas based on processing method “as nearly all teas can easily lumped together by similarities in the processing steps they undergo.”  Gebely definitely is on the right track here; processing method does seem to be the best way of classifying tea.  And, as he notes, “[n]ew tea styles occasionally arise that threaten tea categories, and at times, differences between tea processing steps should be seen as more of a continuum rather than distinct steps”(p.38.) Unfortunately, Gebely is not entirely true to his own strictures for he expands the wulong category to include tea leaves that are rolled rather than bruised at the outset (chart p. 38). By doing this, he has effectively made his taxonomy one based on oxidation levels rather than on processing method. If these rolled, partially oxidized teas are not to be counted as black teas, which is where I would put them at present, it would be far better to come up with some new category. These “so called” wulongs do not sit at all comfortably into the wulong category (see my earlier blog “Black is Black, I want my Oolong Back”.)

Taxonomy

Gebely identifies seven tea categories, the familiar six of green, yellow, white, wulong, black/red and dark plus a seventh he calls “altered teas.” This latter category, he writes, is home to teas that have been flavored, scented, blended, ground, aged, decaffeinated or roasted (p.40). It unfolds, however, that any given tea can be both a member one of the familiar six categories as well as a member of the altered tea category. For example, roasting, an integral part of the processing of the majority of wulongs from Taiwan and China (as Gebely acknowledges p.169) is considered an alteration. This means that such classics as Scarlet Robe (Dahong Pao p. 91) and Oriental Beauty (Dong Fang Mei Ren p. 102 – although I much prefer the name Bai Hao for this tea) are in the wulong category but also in the “altered” category where it appears all roasted wulongs also go (p. 169) This lack of clarity undermines the power of the taxonomy.

Similarly, placing the well-known and very popular matcha into the category of altered tea simply because it is ground seems odd. Gebely mentions, but does not even discuss matcha in the green tea  section (yes, there is an entry for tencha, from which matcha is ground) yet it is the oldest form of green tea in Japan (as Gebely notes); it also is the form of tea consumed in China during the Tang dynasty which would suggest that in China the movement has been from altered to unaltered tea. However, nothing is added to or removed from the leaf in making matcha; it is merely ground. Is gyokuro to be considered an altered tea because it is shaded (as is tencha) for weeks prior to harvest? No, we all agree this is a green tea.

The category of altered tea, as Gebely has constructed it, does  not serve to discriminate well among different teas. If it is to be useful, it is better reserved only for those teas where something is added (scents or flavorings) or something subtracted (decaffeination.)

Categories

Each of Gebely’s categories is introduced by way of a discussion of the production methods for that type of tea. This is followed by the examples of the various types. Interestingly, in his section on wulong tea, Gebely does not mention rolling. Indeed he explicitly states here that the “distinct step that makes a wulong a wulong is bruising” (p. 83.) But the book shines in the discussions of individual teas. This section is packed with huge amounts of information that may be new to many (e.g. that Dahong Pao is not a cultivar and in fact is often a blend of cultivars.) Not much time here is spent discussing aromas and tastes. This is “just the facts ma’am” and what a mastery of the facts it is.

The final section of the book covers the enjoyment of tea.  But first come some “technical” chapters on the kinetics of steeping (what actually happens to the leaf in the water,) water quality (too often overlooked) steeping variables and then putting all of this into practice. Gebely runs through a course on evaluating tea and includes an extensive list of tasting terms and descriptors. He does not, however, actually guide us through any specific tastings; that is not the purpose of this book.

The World Tea Encyclopaedia: The world of tea explored and explained from bush to brew

Will Battle employs a much more conventional organization for his book. He begins with the growing and making of tea, and the drinking of tea.  He then proceeds to look at tea producing regions in order. But don’t be fooled by the conventional layout; the discussions in all sections are revelatory for even the most experienced tea aficionado.

Like Gebely, Battle begins in the garden then moves to the tea factory. He uses the classic six categories of tea to organize his discussions on tea manufacturing processes. Battle spends most of his effort on the processing of black tea, clearly the type with which he is most familiar. It is noteworthy that in his discussion on the oxidation of black tea Battle explicitly acknowledges that these teas can be oxidized to different levels according to the intentions of the tea master and the desires of the client (p. 22.) In other words, black tea is not “fully oxidized.” And in keeping with the comments above, the characteristic of a wulong (Battle uses the transliteration, oolong) is to be found in the bruising of the leaves (p. 35.) Rolling prior to fixing has no place in wulong tea production. Before leaving part one of the text, Battle notes and discusses some of the very important social and environmental aspects to growing and producing tea.

Part Two of the Encyclopaedia covers the drinking of tea beginning with how to taste and looks at some formal tasting situations. This is followed by a brief section on blending which is in turn followed by a chapter on brewing and drinking tea. Of special interest to those who insist upon loose tea, is Battle’s vigorous defense of the teabag (p.81.)

Encyclopedic indeed

A brief chapter on global tea rituals is followed by Part Three, the real meat of the book. Battle’s coverage here is indeed encyclopedic as he weaves his way through major and minor tea producing areas around the Earth. Battle is clearly more comfortable with India, Sri Lanka and Kenya than he is with China and Taiwan but each chapter nonetheless provides the basics, and usually much, much more. Of particular note are the maps of each region. Although somewhat difficult to read, generally they accurately situate the production zones of each area covered.

These chapters covering tea producing regions are packed full of information and make for required reading for all professing an interest in tea. Battle’s book is the best general overview of tea since William Ukers’s All About Tea which was published in 1935. I can think of no higher praise for this contribution to our understanding of tea.

Summing up

In sum, these are two books that anyone with even a passing interest in tea should own. Each will be a valued reference source and each has contributed substantially to the literature on tea. Gebely boldly sets out a new taxonomy for tea that, though ultimately unsuccessful, sets the standard for future efforts. He gives us a new way to think about tea. Battle breaks little new ground in his book but the erudition and scope of the text set it apart from other efforts to date.

Both books are available through Amazon; buy them, they deserve to be in your library.

That’s my view. What do you think?

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