Tea Break: The World Tea Encyclopaedia by Will Battle

Ralph Adam


 In a recent episode of The 3rd Degree, the BBC quiz in which dons compete against their students, the students were asked a basic question about tea – none had a clue as to the answer. That’s, perhaps, a sign of how our love affair with tea has softened. Even the Tea Council, a major information source on tea, has evaporated.

Tea comes from the tea bush, Camellia sinensis, of which about3,000 varieties exist. It has been grown in China for over 2,000 years, first as a medicament, then as a thirst-quencher and stimulant. The story goes that tea was discovered by Emperor Shen Nong. He was enjoying his habitual cup of boiled water by a tea bush one day when some leaves fell into his drink. He liked the taste, made it his regular drink and soon tea became everyone’s favourite. Unfortunately, the Emperor’s reign came to an abrupt end when he sampled another plant to test if it was poisonous. It was!

First known as the ‘China drink’, tea became popular in Britain with the upper-classes after Catherine ofBraganzamarried Charles II in 1662. She brought her love of tea with her from Portugal; as a result it soon became a highly desirable luxury product imported by the East India Company whose initial business model was to swap it for opium. Later, the company took to stealing tea plants from China for cultivation in India. Even so, not everyone in Britain knew what to do with tea: some tried soaking the leaves and eating them, while others ate them on toast with butter. Now, about 1,500 different teas (for drinking!) are available in Britain, varying in taste, style and colour.

For Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter it was always tea time. But now, while tea is still Britain’s most popular hot drink by far, it is rarely made for its flavour: brewing takes time. Buying a decent cuppa, certainly in London, is becoming increasingly difficult: tea shops have virtually disappeared. To be drunk properly, tea requires an element of ceremony. A recent Mintel survey found that while men aged 16 to 44 are Britain’s biggest tea drinkers, they are not inclined to go for either atmosphere or quality.

Coffee drinking is promoted as an indulgent, crafted, connoisseur experience with an element of technology.  This has led people to look for the same style in tea, but without the traditional emotional and ceremonial links. Standard black tea has an ‘uninspiring’ image; unlike coffee, tea is rarely visible in the media: in plays or serials ‘having a coffee’ is the thing.

The Mintel report shows sales of ordinary British tea bags to have dropped 13% over five years, while the fashionable fruit and herbal tea market grew by 31%. Sales of traditional accompaniments, such as cakes and biscuits, have also fallen.

With such a long and complex history as tea’s, where can one find a detailed reference source?

The first encyclopaedic work on tea was that of Lu Yu, the Tea Sage, in AD 780.  Other explorations of the drink have appeared since then. However, the idea of a modern tea encyclopaedia was born a decade ago. The man behind it, Will Battle, a professional tea-taster, importer and consultant, has spent his life in the tea trade, partly as a Tetley’s taster – a job he describes as “the best in the world”!

Like Lu Yu’s encyclopaedia, this is the work of a single author, not a panel whose contributions are brought together by an editor or compiler. Unusually for a reference book, Battle decided to self-publish, rather than use a conventional publisher.

Battle, a long-time student of wine atlases and guides, spotted the need for a similar work on tea. There was clearly room for someone who has seen all the world’s teas to put that knowledge into a book. The result: an ambitious guide, probably the best reference work on tea to have been published in a century. It holds a vast amount of information, the climax of years of preparatory work and exploration. Readers are shown that there is life beyond the pound shop tea bag! Battle describes the book as part of a ‘mission’ to tell tea’s story and “showcase flavours from around the world in the hope of fighting back against the rise and rise of coffee”. As the subtitle suggests, it covers everything from ‘bush to brew’.

The author introduces us to a wealth of tastes and varieties (many unknown in Britain). He covers tea’s origins, from the landscapes and climates that influence varieties to its preparation, drinking styles and ceremonies. Battle explains how the global demand for tea has shaped where it is grown and how it is traded. He attempts to debunk the ‘snobbishness and doctrine’ that can scare off newcomers, pointing out that everyone has heard of Darjeeling (“the Champagne of teas”) and Assam. But, he asks, “who knows that there’s this fantastic tea from the Thyolo district in Malawi or that you can get a really exciting Oolong from a particular part of Indonesia?” For Battle, the ‘hero’ of this book is the tea bush. The artisans who ‘craft’ it into myriad forms he sees as the supporting dramatis personae.

The flavours of teas, like those of wines, depend on where they have grown as well as on the soil and type of bush. Battle uses similar language to that of wine writers. For example, he sees Kenyan blends as being “clean, well-made and reliable, characterised by a quick-brewing, astringent nature with a brisk-tasting style that lacks the complexity, smoothness and refinement of the best orthodox teas”.

The packets sold in shops are often blends of different origins with Kenyan currently the most popular element in the well-known packs. Battle thinks that only recently have people begun exploring the wide variety of available teas. “The diverse array of tea from across the world that is available at the click of a mouse or a visit to the local tea shop needs to be better known and understood,” he says, hoping that his book will enhance the reader’s enjoyment of what is, to him, a lovingly-created artisanal product.

Flip open the book’s cover: the first thing you see is a fascinating front endpaper. For commercial book designers it is fashionable nowadays to surprise readers with creative, pretty endpapers.  Here, however, the book opens to reveal a highly-coloured ‘flavour wheel’, acting as a sort of contents list-cum-index. This is designed to help readers identify teas that may appeal to them. The wheel is divided into four colour-coded levels: so if you seek a dark, fruity, mandarin-scented drink it directs you to Nigiri on page 234.

One expects at least a few minor errors in such a book, but the content in this volume is of very high quality, beautifully illustrated with photos of plantations, pickers and bush types on virtually every page (the page numbers are even enclosed within images of tea leaves!). Detailed tables of, for example, tea grades accompany the text.

The book has a narrative style: the story opens with an exploration of tea’s origins (growing and picking, how a factory works and the different types of leaf). Social and environmental issues, such as pickers’ poverty, biodiversity and the impact of fossil fuels are covered, but not in detail: thus, while Darjeeling gets a detailed account of why it is highly-valued for its delicate taste, little is said of recent local unrest, plant disease and fraud, all of which have contributed to reduced harvests and more being sold than is actually grown.

The second part focusses on drinking, going from how tasters work, to the many blends, brews and rituals to be found around the world. The bulk of the book, however, is an analysis of the tea industry in the countries where it is grown, ranging from the most familiar, such as China, India and Kenya, to those making for tough quiz questions (Argentina, Azerbaijan, Madagascar and Scotland are examples).  Battle is strongest on the Sub-continent and Africa, less so on China (“the most difficult …. to comprehend” he says) and east Asia.

Each county, region or state briefing contains a short history of local tea-growing together with geographical descriptions, explanations of tea types and highlights of local features. In most cases, there is also a feature box summarising such elements as plant types, terroirs, seasonality, processing methods and styles of drinking. There are detailed, high-resolution maps (by Jamie Whyte) of virtually all the producing areas, showing the location of estates, gardens and factories. The Introductionclaims that the mapping is the most detailed ever created. However, roads, railways and villages have been omitted for clarity: I found both this and the colouring (mostly shades of green) made the maps difficult to follow.

The Encyclopaediaconcludes with a five-page glossary, selected references and an index. The Glossary is valuable, but ‘everyday’ terms such as ‘orange pekoe’ or ‘fannings’ are omitted. Yet, how ‘everyday’ are such terms to non-experts? This is, after all, an encyclopaedia.

As a reference work, this encyclopaedia is not designed for quick ’look-ups’. Information snippets are hard to find and it won’t work for fast fact-checks such as: ‘what is Georgia’s annual tea output?’, ‘who are the main British distributors?’, ‘can tea bags be recycled?’ or ‘which country has the highest annual consumption? (Turkey: 7lb per head). The answers may be there, but unless you are very familiar with the book’s structure, you will have to search for them.

Space is obviously limited but there are noticeable omissions. For example, Orwell’s famous essay A nice cup of tea is quoted, but his questions on etiquette (Why is it vulgar to drink from the saucer?) and ‘subsidiary uses’ (telling fortunes, feeding rabbits, healing burns and sweeping the carpet) are not. Similarly, local customs (such as the Chinese use of tea as a floor cleaner) are not to be found.

The roughly 850-item index presents difficulties: it has too many broad entries for swift retrieval. For example, ‘India’ gets 37 undifferentiated page references (including one to a 30-page chapter), but few sub- or cross-references to individual teas. Conversely, the main entry ‘Darjeeling’ gives 43 page references. A searchable digital edition might be the answer!

This volume reads more like a monograph than a traditional encyclopaedia. But if you forget that this is an encyclopaedia, you have a fascinating, well-written book, packed with information which warrants a place in any library. As well as at the Mad Hatter’s tea party.

The world tea encyclopaedia: the world of tea explored and explained from bush to brew.

Will Battle

Troubador Publishing, 2017.

397pp. £30 (£20 through Troubador with discount code CUPPA).  ISBN 10: 1785893130; ISBN 13 9781785893131

A free download is available at:   https://worldbooks.me/browse/the-world-tea-encyclopaedia/


K & IM Refer 34(2), Autumn 2018


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