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The Meaning of Tea: A Tea Inspired Journey & The New Tea Companion: A Guide to Teas Throughout the World

The Meaning of Tea: A Tea Inspired Journey by Scott Chamberlin Hoyt and Phil Cousineau (ed). New York, NY: Talking Leaves Press; 2009. Paperback; 362 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0-615-20442-0. $24.95. Available in ABC's online store.

The New Tea Companion: A Guide to Teas Throughout the World by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson. London, UK: National Trust Books; 2008. Hardcover; 256 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0-9793431-7-9. $22.95.

More than coffee, more than Coca-Cola®, the most widely drunk prepared beverage in the world is tea. Steeped from the dried and otherwise variably-processed leaves of Camellia sinensis (Theaceae), tea has engendered a deep role and relationship with people in Asia throughout history and has become the dominant beverage in China, India, Southeast Asia, Russia, and England. It rivals coffee in the Middle East, Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa, Continental Europe, and (in the past 300 years or so) North America.

Author Scott Chamberlin Hoyt mentions in the introduction of The Meaning of Tea that his bookshelf groans under the weight of many books written on the subject of this mythic, popular, compelling beverage.

So why another book on tea? For Hoyt, it’s part of his personal journey, the past 10 years of which have been an alluring relationship with tea and the plant from which it is brewed. The author has a longstanding interest in Eastern thought and is intrigued by all things Asian. So when he decided to study tea, he was easily predisposed to traveling to Asia—and elsewhere—to film dozens of tea growers and producers, tea sellers, and tea drinkers for his highly-praised 74-minute documentary, also called “The Meaning of Tea.” That documentary was re-released this year in a multi-language version. This book contains the transcripts of his filmed interviews of over 50 people. In all, he and his film crew shot over 120 hours of footage that produced over 2000 pages of transcripts, which have been edited to create this book.

“There is no better time for the rest of us to adopt the practices of tea drinkers,” says Phil Cousineau, the book’s collaborator and editor. “Considering that the fallout of our weakened economy includes millions of stressed-out, overstretched people, this book offers a simple avenue to wellness, calm, and meaning through tea.”

The book is divided into 7 sections, each based on a geographical area: India, Morocco, America, Japan, France, England and Ireland, and Taiwan. Each section also follows the order of the 7 cups of tea alluded to in “The Song of Tea” by the Tang Dynasty poet Lu Tong (790–835 CE):

The first drink sleekly moistened my lips and throat;

the second banished my loneliness;

the third expelled the dourness from my mind;

the fourth broke me out in a light perspiration;

the fifth bathed every atom of my being;

the sixth lifted me higher to kinship with the immortals;

the seventh is the utmost I can drink.1

But this gem contains much more than the interviews. Hoyt’s book is about the philosophy of tea and tea drinking, as well as the intimate personal relationship people have with tea.

As director, writer, producer and food activist Deborah Koons Garcia writes in the foreword to the book, “Reading Hoyt’s wonderful book and watching his beautiful film, I learn much that sets me pondering the amazing substance called tea.” She continues, “Right now we can appreciate that tea is hand cultivated and hand picked, that it is enjoyed everywhere, a kind of global connective tissue.”

“What does tea mean to you?” asks Cousineau, in one of his commentaries, referring to the primary question asked to each interviewee. “What does it mean to grow it, sell it, drink it, cut business deals, or arrange marriages and funerals over it? What is it that moves people to bare their souls over a cup of tea? By meaning, I mean its value, its virtue, its inner significance, its intent, and its purpose.”

The book shows Hoyt’s penchant for meaning and skill as a philosopher of tea, going beyond being a documentarian of people’s relationship with the beverage. Sprinkled throughout the book are proverbs, aphorisms, and quotes (some about tea, some about life—of course, the point of this book is that, for millions, tea is life!) from Buddha, Confucius, Rabindranath Tagore, the Bible, Samuel Johnson, Carl G. Jung, Joseph Campbell, JRR Tolkien, Jack Kerouac, James Joyce, Alexander Pushkin, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, among others.

The book even includes an excellent summary in the final pages on the many documented health benefits of tea—an area of continual clinical and epidemiological research—by Pamela Yee, MD, an integrative physician in New York City.

As much as Hoyt’s book is about the meaning and relationship people have with tea, and as much as it may be focused on the essence of drinking tea, his book is not about the history of tea, the details of the actual rituals surrounding the drinking of tea, the many types of tea, or how tea is grown and produced. This kind of detailed information, however, can be found in another recently published book on tea—Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson’s The Tea Companion. Both authors are tea experts: Pettigrew is the author of 13 books on tea and Richardson is a professional tea blender and writer.

Beautifully illustrated with color photos, old paintings and drawings, and black-and-white engravings, this book is a small, coffee-table-like book that is so compelling that it is hard to put down once opened. And, like many reference-like books, one can pick it up almost anywhere and read a few short pages and find interesting and compelling information about the history and lore of tea.

The Companion is divided into 3 main parts: (1) the history of tea; (2) tea production, including leaf grades, blends of teas, and brewing tea; and (3) the main part, with information on over 100 teas from around the world, including descriptions of their tastes, brewing tips (including specific water temperatures, important for proper brewing!), and photos of the dried and wet tea leaves and brewed teas.

The authors have included sections on the recent rise in popularity of high quality specialty teas in the United States, organic tea production, and explanation of the puerh tea phenomenon. This popular tea is made from a large-leaf variety of Camellia sinensis that traditionally grows in Yunnan, China.

Tea, in its many forms, is a healthful and helpful beverage. Its popularity has grown quickly in the past decade, in the United States and worldwide. For an insightful and inspiring look into the role that tea has enjoyed and will continue to play in various cultures, and the physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits that tea can contribute to everyone who takes the time to brew and enjoy it, both these books are highly recommended.

—Mark Blumenthal

Reference1. Blofeld J (translator). The Chinese Art of Tea. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications;1997.