There are few books about tea that add to the discussion about tea in any meaningful way, but Mary Lou and Robert Heiss’s new book, ‘The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook’ is one of them. This is a book about quality, although they sidestep the word because it has very little meaning in the industry, and instead use the word ‘soundness’, saying “We prefer to begin judging the potential merits of a tea by evaluating its soundness”.
Their book points the reader in a sound direction. Serious students of tea may find that they disagree with some of the details, but it is indisputable that the path to the world’s best teas is clearly defined in this book. The international tea industry has never been clear about this path because it points to China and unblended, unflavored tea, and the established industry has a hard time delivering such tea to consumers. Even though teas from other areas are mentioned, the heart of the book is about Chinese tea. China, after all, is where tea originated, and definitions about tea need to be consistent with Chinese standards.
They have taken a risk in writing this book. The industry has not been very supportive of writers that dare to write books that challenge conventional wisdom. It may not be obvious to the people reading that are outside of the industry, but a book like this really is a game changer. People will start to look at the tea that they are buying from the conventional sources and will start to realize that tea that they are buying and is being sold for ‘good quality’ is in reality very ‘sound’. Then the open secret that people in the industry know, and increasingly ‘tea enthusiasts’ are becoming aware of, is that there is much better tea out there, it’s just that it is difficult to come by in the US and Europe. Mary Lou and Robert have stirred that controversy just by providing good information.
Mary Lou and Robert Heiss are excellent teachers. The lessons presented in this book are clear and concise. This book contains lessons that professional tea buyers ought to pay attention to and gives the consumers a high standard with which to judge in buying tea. The book is intelligently organized, highlighted with good photography, and well written. There are no examples of flowery rhetoric in place of substance. They tell the reader what good tea is, and where to find it. It may seem like a small book, but it gives the reader everything they need to get started with, or to expand their experience with tea. This is a book that every tea drinker should own, enthusiast or not, and in my opinion it is the most substantive book about tea to be written in English. It is not a travel log or a romanticized history.
I get asked often to recommend books about tea. The Heiss’s first book set the bar higher for tea education, but they have surpassed it with this book. I do recommend both of their books, but this one is really a game changer. Buy it.