Drink Magazine

The Books of Tea

By Dchew78 @peonyts

On an earlier post, I mentioned the importance of book learning in tea. Of course you could make the same argument for many different fields of study, with one proviso- having the right books on hand.

In the referenced article, I recommended 4 books which for most people would not be particularly useful as they are all written in Chinese. Unfortunately, the Chinese language is where the best sources of information on tea are written.

Besides being the birthplace of tea, every main category of tea- green, white, yellow, wulong, dark aka post-fermented, and even black tea- was first produced in China. In the case of five out of six, excluding black tea, it is where most of it is produced as well.

It would not, therefore, be a stretch to say there is a deeper wealth of knowledge in China than other parts of the world.

Tea has been consumed in China at least since 50 BCE, according to earliest written documentation available, but has been widely consumed since the 8th century at least. Tea only made its way to the West in the 16th to 17th century, and was initially the sole privilege of the ruling class.

Again, with 900 years of widespread consumption in between, that should be an easy case to make.

Neither of those reasons is why in my study of tea, I am thankful for my ability to read Chinese. Ever since the last century, there has been a revolution in the Chinese tea industry. Under the early rulers of the Qing Dynasty, China had a virtual monopoly on tea production. By the founding of the Republic of China in 1911, tea production has sprouted up in various colonies of the British empire, including India, Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon), Malaysia (then known as Malaya). Dr. Sun Yat-Sen and his comrades took over a China in a state of disarray, including its tea industry.

Thanks to luminaries such as Wu Juenong, Zhang Tianfu, Chen Yuan, and many others, research, education and training has shaped and revived the Chinese tea industry. There are more than 50 tea research institutes in China and over 30 universities that offer majors in tea studies. (My numbers may be understated since I was reading a publication dated 2007)

More importantly, tea training is ubiquitous and readily available.

Thanks for Mr Zhang Tianfu, standardized means of assessing tea has been established and taught in specialized courses. Agricultural universities publish detailed and specialized books and research on specific subjects of tea, including biochemistry and research literature.

More importantly, textbooks like these can be easily available to the average consumer. For instance, though I am not a student there, I have a copy of the excellent 制茶学 which is a textbook on tea production edited by安徽农学院 (Anhui Agricultural Institute). In it are detailed charts on how the number of ‘rattles’ in the ‘zuoqing’ stage of wulong tea produces specific aromas, among other information.

I can also purchase textbooks used for ‘Tea Masters’ (茶艺师) and Tea Assessors (评茶员) at major bookstores or even at amazon.cn. The Chinese tea revolution puts information and education at the forefront of it, empowering new farmers, producers, retailers, tea house staff and the whole range to gain access to these vital researches. Even foreigners who read Chinese like me to tap on it.

The range of research available is mindboggling. When I first got into a Chinese bookstore, I was like the proverbial kid in the candy store, to quote that old cliché. Today I remain amazed at the vast treasury of information available.

Information that is not available in English, at least not for the general public. I am not saying that the English speaking world is not privy to this knowledge, but there are few publications that provide details. It could be that tea production outside of the Far East is largely dominated by a handful of huge corporations. These corporations could have access to invaluable information there is no incentive for them to share it. Nor is there a ready market for specialized information unlike in China where literally tens of thousands of small producers and farmers look to how to improve their crops.

Part of the reason why this blog is largely informational is to bridge the gap. Of course, another reason is so that people searching for tea can find us- i.e. SEO- but you, intelligent reader, would have guessed that without me saying.

Information on this site is largely culled from a list of 40-50 (and still growing) books (all of them written in Chinese though it includes Taiwanese publications as well), as well as conversations and observations in the industry and our personal experience.

I have mentioned previously that I am working on a book on oolong tea. That is meant to be a more in-depth look at what is oolong, encompassing history, science, production, more than 20 specific varieties of oolong across all 4 major regions.

Other than that, I recently embarked on writing a short e-book, targeted 20-30 thousand words intending to give a practical and systematic overview to tea- from how tea are classified, to each of the 6 basic categories, step-by-step brewing guides, storage and selection among others.

The first is targeted for 4Q this year (2014) while the second, is for 2Q this year. With the ease of electronic self-publishing (for the latter), I hope to provide a source of useful, accurate and affordable (<$2) to a wider audience.

Stay tuned.

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