17 March 2014

Republic of Tea Book of Tea and Herbs

Republic of Tea Book of Tea and Herbs a Charming, Informative Read
By Kristin Battestella

I picked up The Republic of Tea: The Book of Tea and Herbs – Appreciating The Varietals and Virtues of Fine Tea and Herbs second hand and quickly dipped into this 150 pages of tea definitions, history, production, and witty perfect for any cup connoisseur.

The Book of Tea and Herbs is broken down into easy to follow sections for a swift read thru or a hunt and peck reference guide thanks to its itemized table of contents and index. Sometimes, “An Introduction to the Plant, the Leaf, and the Manufacture of Tea” may be too technical for younger readers in its explanations of tea separation, grading, and production – I doubt many Americans realize the complex process and its treasured practices. However, the team from The Republic of Tea’s “Ministry of Information” gives The Book of Tea and Herbs a clever and bemusing laymen style. Though this is the basics of tea vernacular, the sophisticated tea topics are streamlined with historical timelines and experiences across cultures and locations in “Tea History, Culture, and Customs” and medicinal tales are told in “Tea and Well Being.” Excellent explanations on the types of teas and which blends go together with what spices or foods are given with fun taste descriptions and flavorful herb definitions.

While the entire book can be read as one informative textbook or as a grab guide and reference, the Tea and Herb sections themselves feel unevenly presented. Certainly there is enough material for The Book of Tea and Herbs to be about one or the other topic, and though serviceable in informing on both, the “Herbs in History, Myth, and Lore” and “A Guide to Botanicals” chapters of the manual feel shorter or slightly less in depth than the seemingly more beloved Tea section. The Tea segments are well written in complete paragraphs with historical references, antidotal stories, and cited sources. The Herb chapters, however, read more like dictionary entries with undefined sentences, confusing wording, and poor punctuation that sometimes makes one read over more than once. It’s as if different writers or style editors from the “Ministry of Information” helmed the sections without comparing notes. Is the Tea Section meant as a fun read or quotable source? Was the Herbal guide a tacked on quick definition go to guide or was it too meant for something more?

Fortunately, the hand drawn illustrations are charming works you’d expect to see in a medieval apothecary source rather than a modern tome such as The Book of Tea and Herbs. Such appeal indeed matches the historically informative and storytelling style of the Tea chapters, but would real photographs have anchored the more reference check encyclopedic design of the Herb section better? Again, the attempted long lasting appeal at being both a read and reference to both tea and herbs compromises some of the picture potential here. However, extensive photographic documentation would have also made The Book of Tea and Herbs a much larger, more expensive book. Several pages of bibliography and further reading thankfully springboard readers to additional materials both of historical note and modern use.

The Book of Tea and Herbs is of course dated to its 1993 publication year and statistics and trends have almost certainly changed since its release. Coupled with its flawed dual design, this is truly not a definitive guide to its titular subjects. Fortunately, the company’s tongue in cheek quotes and “Minister of Leaves” references sprinkled throughout each chapter are a welcome quirk. So often today we probably expect advertising and ulterior motives to be hand in hand with certain materials, but The Book of Tea and Herbs is blessedly not a sales catalogue for the Republic of Tea company or their products. On the contrary, the pleasant tone and reference information here can still fill a place on the kitchen bookshelf for the long time ‘tea totaler’ or a newcomer to the “Republic of Tea.” The Book of Tea and Herbs may be a little tough to find and ultimately not an all encompassing source, but this is an affordable, educational catalyst to further tea readings and bemusements.

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