We’ve just finished our first “tea book club”: eight of us spent eight weeks reading François-Xavier Delmas‘s “The Tea Drinker’s Handbook.” This book is produced by the French tea company Le Palais des Thés, and is the English version of “Le Guide de Dégustation de l’Amateur de Thé.” (Is that “How to Taste Tea Amateurs”? I much prefer the English title.) The course was a runaway success, and there’s lots of excitement about what’s next for the “Philadelphia Tea Institute.” I would note that the intense study is what kept me from blogging for two months, but all my blog’s readers were probably in the class with me. My impressions of the book follow.
Simply put, this is the best overview for the beginning tea student, and there’s enough here to interest the expert tea student as well. The appeal of this book is its crisp, factual approach. There’s a wealth of material, with great information about cultivation science and the development of manufacturing processes. There are compelling maps highlighting tea-growing regions. There are sections that clearly demonstrate gongfu and kyusu technique. (This is the rare book that “gets” gongfu tea and also gives Western tea credit.) It’s also instructive to mention the things this book lacks: there is none of the Anglocentric history that clutters most tea books. There are few mythological anecdotes and origin stories. And there are no rhapsodics about tea’s metaphysical or spiritual functions. You will not read about clipper ships or Bodhidharma’s eyelids.
Accordingly, the book is strikingly well-organized. It flows smoothly from cultivation, to manufacture, to preparation, to the drinking experience. This is followed by detail pages on the “50 greatest teas,” grouped by country. I had little trouble dividing the book into sections for our reading group, and going back to locate some piece of information is quick and easy.
So the “encyclopedic” approach is a great asset, but it makes the occasional inaccuracy more glaring. Delmas repeats the fallacy that different tastes are mapped to different areas of the tongue. (In fact, the entire section on “The Physiology of Taste” is best skipped altogether. Instead, I recommend Rachel Herz’s “The Scent of Desire,” supplemented with wikipedia articles.) Another troubling section on “Brewing Time” talks about “decaffeinating” your tea by discarding an initial 30 second infusion. Refuting this old chestnut would take more space than I have here, but suffice it to say the information Delmas gives on this topic doesn’t even agree with itself. It may be significant that these sections are both accompanied by diagrams that are more misleading than the accompanying text.
More outside references would have greatly improved things. There are no footnotes, virtually no sources cited, and the scant bibliography that does exist, which is subtitled “selected further reading,” is populated by travelogues, philosophy, and more general surveys. There are a lot of scientific claims here, new and exciting information, that I would love to embrace. Instead, I’m cautioned by the assertions I know to be false, and Delmas misses the opportunity to assuage my doubts with corroborating sources.
Another manner of offense is ambiguous language. Sometimes I got the feeling that Delmas knew he didn’t have a complete account of some phenomenon, and used inexactitude to cover all possible explanations. One of our members was particularly offended that Delmas seemed to equate Tang dynasty cake tea with the Pu’er bings we see today. I’m even more troubled that the section seems to equate the Tang dynasty cake tea with Song dynasty powdered tea, but the only thing one can ascertain from the passage is that “preparing tea has not always been a simple matter of infusing a pinch of leaves.” Again, watching Delmas’s language become smeary is especially deflating because it is so often clear and informative.
There are a few minor wrinkles due to translation from the French. I was intrigued to find that there are “glucides” in tea, until I realized that they are only “carbohydrates” en Français. All measurements are presented simultaneously in metric and US systems, which is admirably universalist but becomes tedious and arbitrary. For example, did you know “mid-grown” refers to Ceylon tea grown between 1,969 and 3,937 feet (600 m to 1,200 m) in altitude?
I’ve spent four paragraphs criticizing this book’s shortcomings, so let me repeat: this is a good book. It’s still the best tea book out there for beginners. And while the more advanced student will find problems, these will open more avenues of inquiry. Just by attempting a tea book that so embraces scientific empiricism and eschews mystique, Le Palais des Thés have performed a great service, and I applaud them in executing it as well as they have.