Sunday, November 6, 2016

Review of Tea: A User's Guide, a tea reference book by Tony Gebely

Tony wrote the book on tea (credit)

I was just privileged to read and review an early version of a great book on tea (more info on availability here, how to buy it).  Tony Gebely's "Tea:  A User's Guide" provides a wealth of tea background information, covering types, processing, chemical composition, tea growing, brewing and a few other areas of "basics," a lot of it not so basic.  As an engineer I can completely relate to the rational, organized approach to in-depth research.

After writing a summary of the book it occurred to me; why would someone need to know all this?  My own interest in drinking tea, researching tea, and writing are almost separate interests, overlapping, but not always closely related.  To drink tea someone needs to know how to prepare it (covered in basic form here), and would need to know a lot about types to keep trying new ones, or better versions.  Background on general categories, regions, and specific teas is extensive in the work, both broad and deep, so most of what one would need to know to seek out different types is covered, really in more detail than necessary for just knowing what one might try.

Active components in teas--those that affect you, or affect taste--are treated more fully here than research would tend to turn up.  Processing basics are well covered, although it's never really enough.  Once you know the basics steps and how those apply to different teas the next level of questions still comes up, about variations and exceptions, and more specifics.  This book provides a clear starting point, the basic steps, and some general mapping to types.  Range is a strength of the work; there is lots on tea growing, basics on tea preparation, and tea evaluation.  Explaining the scope might work better by saying what it doesn't cover.

from the World of Tea site, but the book goes deeper (credit)

It's not about tea history, or ceremonies, or recipes.  Brewing content stays basic enough that the basic process is described, what happens during brewing, critical parameters, etc., but most related to Gongfu cha approach isn't, about formal, relatively ceremonial brewing, a process version that is also functionally different.  The most basic tea regions are described in good detail (China, Japan, Taiwan, India, and Sri Lanka) so it's down to teas from secondary places like Vietnam and Nepal that aren't.  Tangents like pu'er storage conditions are covered, but just the basics.  Plant-type scope is covered, cultivar background, of course not related to full treatment of the subject, which is endless.

random tea types graphic, not from the book (credit)

I've just spent three years researching tea for blog posts, investing more time than I'd ever admit to, and that level of reading up doesn't cover all the range and completeness of the content in this book.  A lot of the more basic content was familiar, and some review tangents have led further than the book covers, but the range and depth is extensive, some of it suitable for use as a reference resource.  I try a lot of tea but getting around to trying and reading about the most common hundred standard types really can't be rushed, and this book describes those in good detail (130, actually).

Tony's World of Tea site is good for taking review a bit deeper than what often turns up, but the scope there is limited; they get to whatever subjects they get to.  It amounts to a good bit, but that site is not intended as a comprehensive guide, as the book is organized.  They did add a database of cultivars there, which is a huge task to take on.  That's still a work in progress, or perhaps the kind of thing that could never be fully complete, since the range of what is known about many variations of tea plants changes over time.  That's a process that is informed by the modern study of genetics, but slowly informed, one research study and paper at a time, with limited findings adding up to an accepted body of knowledge.  Here's an interesting example of that, a research paper sorting out Darjeeling and Assam clone types, titled "Genetic Diversity and Relationships Among Tea (Camellia Sinensis) Revealed by RAPD and ISSR Based Fingerprinting."  Such articles make for an interesting read but only someone working in that field of study can completely relate to all of the content, so plenty of interpretation is required.

This book is perfect for anyone really interested in tea.  It's not exactly a user's guide; it covers both practical, applied knowledge and also other background tea enthusiasts would love to know that doesn't relate so directly to practice.  But it offers plenty of content on both, so someone looking for only one or the other wouldn't be disappointed.

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