Book Review: MODERN TEA


The cover of MODERN TEA – book photo by Trixie; original tea image by Jenifer Altman.

MODERN TEA by Lisa Boalt Richardson, with photographs by Jenifer Altman
Chronicle Books, 2014  ISBN 978-1-4521-1229-9  $19.95 US
available here

A new tea book — how exciting! It is always enjoyable to look inside a new tea book, especially a handsome new tea book written by a person we know Knows Tea… and Lisa Knows Tea, doesn’t she? Lisa Boalt Richardson is the force behind the Alpharetta, Georgia business Lisa Knows Tea, which by its very name lets you know that this woman is serious about our beloved beverage. In MODERN TEA she turns her attention, palate, and descriptive prowess to a range of tea-tinged topics intended to enlighten and entertain journeyman and veteran tea enthusiasts — for who but an enthusiast reads a tea book, pray tell?

There is indeed plenty of information to delight even those of us who already have shelves full of tea books — descriptions of new developments in the realms of tea horticulture and manufacture (for example, the information about Yellow Tea on page 35 was new and wonderful to us); and there is a helpful inforgraphic (one of those beautiful things we used to call charts) called “How to Determine Water Temperature by Sight” on page 65 which I plan to post near our kitchen kettle for Trixie’s edification. As tea cultivation spreads throughout the world, abetted by climate change as well as by the horticultural prowess of people such as Nigel Melican, the information starting on page 15, “Where is tea grown?,” is timely and important.


Table of contents, MODERN TEA. Book photo by Trixie; original tea image by Jenifer Altman.

As a tea maven who travels quite a bit, sharing tea with people in many lands, I was particularly pleased to find several cultures’ tea-ways described in the book’s third chapter, “Tea Ceremonies and Rituals” — for how better can we mix and mingle with people everywhere than through the sharing of tea? — though, in my heart of hearts I do wish that Lisa’s editors had allowed her space to include Korean and African tea-making — and a description of the simple and oh-so-MODERN Japanese sencha ceremony — in addition to the included Chinese, Japanese (a formal cha-no-yu protocol with matcha is described), Taiwanese, English, Moroccan, French, Russian, and Iranian tea-serving styles. Come to think of it, the inclusion of German and Czech tea-drinking styles would also have been welcome, as those countries certainly enjoy vibrant tea cultures nowadays.

Trixie and I are always overjoyed to see cold-infusion methods described, and Lisa gives such a one on pages 67-68. Cold-infusion is not only excellent for making “iced” tea, it is an alternative way to prepare some teas for sampling, as it brings out full flavors without much tannic influence, so you can discover layers of flavor in a tea that you might not have found by hot-infusion alone… I will expound on this another time, but let me now praise Lisa and her team for including cold-infusion in this book.

Perhaps my favorite part of the book is the quote from Bill Waddington (owner of TeaSource in Minnesota and a teacher of note) on page 62 — I shan’t quote the whole thing here, because I want you to buy the book and read it for yourselves, but Mr. Waddington strongly encourages us to find our own way into tea, to develop our own preferences and joys, through tasting and experimentation. Yes! It feels intimidating to put any strange food into our mouths, but how else can we learn about it? Try unfamiliar teas, preferably in the company of one or more friends, and you can see right away how one person will love what you might not like at all, and vice versa — this is the thrill of exploring tea.

As for the design of this handsome book, well, it is a beautiful square shape, easy to hold in one hand while grasping a teacup or mug in t’other; text is large enough even for older eyes (that would be Trixie, ahem); the generally aquatic color scheme is peaceful and alluring; and the photographs by Jenifer Altman are simple, clear, and appropriately placed. One does, however, bemoan the lack of photo captions, especially in the images throughout Chapter One in which several teas are shown but not identified — how shall a newbie learn? Even a seasoned tea person has a bit of a guessing game to match teas to text in that first chapter — and gorgeous teas they are, too, provided by the aforementioned Mr. Waddington of TeaSource.

One final quibble — emphasizing that this and my other rants speak to editorial and design decisions not likely in the control of our dear Lisa, so we blame her not — there are many wonderful sidebars (short sections of related text) throughout the book which are separated from the main text in a quirky and not-wholly-successful way: pale “splashes” of color appear over the sidebar text to indicate a separation, and the font is changed but the size appears the same — on several occasions I (a careful reader) was confused because my eyes followed along from column to column, not “hopping over” those sidebars as the designer thought I automatically would. Again, these are NOT complaints aimed at Ms. Richardson at all, for we, as book designers ourselves, know the rigors of book-making and can only wish that the designers on this project were as keen to read about tea as we are (for when your first priority is to absorb a text, you welcome a book design that enables rapid absorption and does not hinder you in any way).

Oops! I fibbed — there is one further point: the index at the end of the book is maddeningly incomplete, for it omits every human being mentioned in the text EXCEPT a few tea sommeliers whose quotes appear in Chapter Four… what about the historical tea growers? Or the important people mentioned in the text who are developing a vital tea future on our climate-challenged planet? I certainly needed to be able to find their names for later reference — I have marked my copy with sticky notes to find them again.

Let none of my nit-picky point-outs deter you from this book, for it is a great addition to the library of a tea lover, especially a tea lover who is newer to this obsession. Well-timed for the 2014 holiday gift season, I encourage you to add this to your list of tea lovers’ gift options.
Blowing you all tea-stained kisses,
xo, Dustin


An interior page spread, MODERN TEA. Book photo by Trixie; original tea image by Jenifer Altman.

The Details:
Richardson, Lisa Boalt. Modern Tea: a fresh look at an ancient beverage. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014. Photographs by Jenifer Altman. Hardbound; printed paper over boards. Color photographs throughout. Approximately 145 pages of text and images plus appendices including resource list, bibliography, and index.
ISBN 978-1-4521-1229-9
$19.95 US

1. What is Tea?
2. The Art of Tea
3. Tea Ceremonies and Rituals
4. Beyond the Cup
5. The Buzz About Tea
Select Bibliography

This review was powered by Harney & Sons English Breakfast tea ~ Dustin