The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook: A Guide to Enjoying the World’s Best Teas


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By: Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss

Published by:
Berkeley, CA / Toronto, Canada

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The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook is an authoritative pocket guide to tea that no tea lover should ever be without. It is a singular blend of practical know-how and rich detail on how to buy, discern and enjoy the six classes of tea (green, yellow, white, oolong, black, and Pu-erh). Advice on steeping the perfect cup, storing and aging tea at home, alongside a gallery of more than thirty-five individual teas with tasting notes and descriptions make The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook a singular source of both practical information and rich detail about this fascinating beverage.

The Heisses know that crafting fine, premium tea requires a highly developed sense of perception that no machine can replicate, and that every tea tells a story in the cup about the soil and air that nurtured it and the teamaking skills that transformed and shaped it.

Mary Lou and Robert have been premium tea retailers since 1974. They are adventurous tea trekkers and food and travel writers, and they also present popular educational tea workshops and tastings around the country. They are coauthors of the James Beard and IACP-nominated book The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide and Hot Drinks. When not traveling to source tea for their shop Tea Trekker ( ) the Heisses make their home in western Massachusetts.


 © Reprinted by permission of Ten Speed Press. All rights reserved.


The Glorious World of Tea

How times have changed! Premium tea is enjoying the spotlight today in ways unimagined just a few short years ago. Until the 1990s, retail purveyors of premium tea in the United States could be counted on one hand, and specialty food stores stocked just a tame selection of humdrum black tea blends. At best, these selections were marked by country of origin, with perhaps a simple attribution to style of tea or country of production. Unlike today, little detailed information was available to tea drinkers, and most people did not even know what questions to ask. For many, tea was, well, not very exciting, but something that you could count on Grandma to have on hand.

Today, we are learning how enticing and pleasingly distinctive premium tea really is. Tea can be subtle and alluring, bold and bracing, sweet and fresh, young and full of vigor, or rich and matured. It is always fragrant and welcoming at all times. Premium teas once unknown in the West are now becoming familiar, and new tea shops and tea houses are opening for business across the country. For tea enthusiasts, this offers a superb opportunity to travel the world of tea one delicious cup at a time.

Crafting fine tea requires a highly developed sense of perception for touch, sight, and sound that no machine can replicate. And every tea—from Taiwan’s Ali Shan High Mountain gao shan oolong to a brisk and bright Ceylon black tea from the Nuwara Eliya region of Sri Lanka—tells a story in the cup about the soil and air that nurtured it and the tea-making skills that transformed and shaped it.

So get ready to explore the world of premium tea, with information to decipher tea lists, tea labels, and tea menus and to purchase a varied selection of wonderful and delicious tea with assurance.

About Our Book

In our thirty-five years as retailers of premium tea, we have been asked just about every possible question regarding tea, tea steeping, and tea storage. We have kept these questions in mind as we approached the topics in our book.

Right up front, let us say that we define tea in the classic, historic sense as a caffeinated beverage brewed from the leaf of the Camellia sinensis bush. While it is commonplace today to refer to noncaffeinated, herbal beverages such as peppermint, chamomile, and lavender as “tea,” we believe that such beverages should be called by other, more appropriate names, such as herbal teas, herbal infusions, or tisanes. Many of these beverages are delicious and refreshing, but they lie outside the scope of our book, and we leave discussion of them to others.

The world’s best teas comprise a tiny percentage of the yearly worldwide production of tea. Yet to us, these teas are the most significant. Therefore, our book focuses its attention on pure, unblended, premium teas from the tea-producing countries that have made the greatest contributions to the art and science of tea cultivation and manufacture: China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan. As a result of learning, observing the results, and perfecting their techniques in the tea factories, generations of tea masters in these countries have created the most stunning teas imaginable.

We believe that learning as much as possible about tea and the process of artisan tea manufacture will heighten your enjoyment of each cup you steep. We hope you take delight in our journey through the vibrant world of tea.

A Simple Cup of Tea Is No Simple Matter

Tea is an essential beverage that quenches the collective thirst of millions of people every day. Whereas tea was once grown only in China, today tea is cultivated in forty-one (and counting!) countries of the world, and new tea industries are developing as worldwide demand increases for more various types of tea.

Tea drinking has never gone out of fashion—it has simply changed course and usage with each new generation of tea drinkers. Tea, the most widely consumed beverage on the planet after water, still proudly maintains its title as the world’s oldest beverage. Tea is a wonderfully intricate and complex commodity. There are said to be approximately twenty thousand different distinctions of tea made in the world, a vast number by anybody’s count. Yet, no two teas ever taste exactly alike, and every great tea has a distinctive, trademark flavor. You might even say that tea has a cultural identity.

Yet, all tea is made from the fresh leaf of the Camellia sinensis bush, and its three major varieties:

Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (small-leaf China bush)
Camellia sinensis var. assamica (large-leaf Assam bush)
Camellia sinensis var. cambodi (medium-leaf Java bush)

Additionally, in parts of Burma (known today as Myanmar), China, India, Laos (officially Lao People’s Democratic Republic), Thailand, and Vietnam, strains of indigenous tea bushes and old tea trees coexist with hundreds of local cultivars that have been developed to better meet the needs of tea growers in their specific environments. Since all tea starts as freshly plucked leaf, it is theoretically possible to turn any fresh tea leaf into any of the six classes of tea: green, yellow, white, oolong, black, and Pu-erh.

But tea manufacture is a precise, controlled, and predictable process, and in most tea-producing countries, tea producers focus on only one or two classes of tea. Japan, for instance, produces primarily green teas, but they are very distinctive and taste like no other green teas in Asia. On the other hand, China, the country that unlocked the secrets of tea making and established the manufacturing process for each of the six classes of tea, is the only country that produces all six classes of tea.

What explains the seemingly endless selection of tea available for sale in grocery stores and tea shops? The answer is terroir, or place. Terroir is the culmination of all the reasons why, for example, Chinese green teas are so different from Japanese green teas. The same forces that work to create all of the wonderful wines and cheese that are so distinctive and appealing are also at work in every tea garden around the world. Terroir is not just about the place where a plant grows, but also includes numerous other influences that are responsible for the variation in tea. Let’s take a look at all of them.

Terroir: Why Tea Is Unique

This word terroir has meaning that can fill volumes. By its most simple definition, terroir refers to the place where the roots of a bush or tree or plant nestle into the ground, and the effects that a distinctive environment, including geography, climate, and weather, contributes to the unique character and taste of a food.

However, our visits to tea-producing countries have shown us that other unique particulars also contribute to the overall effects of terroir and the distinctive differences among teas. These include the subvariety or cultivar of tea bush (generally, subvarieties are naturally occuring and cultivars are the result of human intervention), cultivation practices, the season of the pluck, the method of leaf manufacture, and the craft of tea making.

Tea that is grown in the high, thin air of the Himalaya in eastern Nepal will invariably taste different than tea that is grown in the low-lying, hot, and humid river valley region of Assam, India. What is it like where the particular tea bushes grow? Do the bushes go dormant over the winter or produce new leaf year-round? Are there weather conditions such as monsoon seasons or frost that affect the leaf and subsequently the taste of the tea?

Terroir can have a large connotation, such as tea from India or tea from China, or it can refer to a small, specific geographic connotation, such as tea from the Huang Shan in Anhui Province, China. Terroir distinguishes between locations within the same country as well as between countries.

When we look at all of the tea produced in the regions of any one tea-producing country, we see a composite of teas from north and south, coastal areas, and inland regions. Each terroir has specific tea bush cultivars that contribute leaf of a particular character and style to the teas made in that region. When the elements of place are distinctive and strong, they conspire to keep a particular tea from being able to be duplicated in exactly the same way in other places. The sum total of all of the unique places and teas in any one tea-producing country combines to create the collective regional or national character.

Tea Bush Subvarieties and Cultivars

Three main varieties of Camellia sinensis (and thousands of subvarieties and cultivars) flourish in tea gardens around the world. It is important that a tea bush variety is planted in a place where that bush will thrive. The foibles of the English in the nineteenth century when they first attempted to cultivate tea in India are a perfect example of what happens when the wrong tea bush variety is chosen for a given location. What many may not realize is that the tea bush variety works with terroir to provide the backbone style and to influence the flavor of the tea.

In China, several tea-producing regions in the provinces of Fujian, Guangdong, and Yunnan have native strains of tea bushes and tea trees (some are centuries old) that are not found elsewhere on earth. The fresh leaf from these indigenous varieties is responsible for much of the unique character of the tea from these regions. If you compare tea that is made from old tea tree leaf with one made from the leaf of a modern tea bush cultivar planted nearby, the difference in taste and aroma is quite noticeable.

Tea bush varieties and cultivars look different from one another, too, which means that they act differently during manufacture. Some bu…