If you’re anything like me, each time you learn anything about tea, it only makes you realise how much there is to learn. One could live a life steeped in tea and still not know all there is to know about it. From the various histories, cultures, and philosophies associated with it, to its biochemistry, cultivation, and consumption–tea exists in near infinite and ever growing complexity.
Every tea journey starts somewhere, and where better to start than with a good book and a cup of tea. After perusing through my tea bookshelf, I compiled a list of some of our favourite English-language books about tea, Japanese tea, and Japanese tea culture:
Books about Tea in General
Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties by Kevin Gascoyne, François Marchand, Jasmin Desharnais, & Hugo Américi
A must-have for any tea enthusiast: novice or expert. This survey of tea explores the major styles from across the world, covering tea and tea culture from China, Japan, Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Vietnam, and East Africa. On top of this, it also provides a basic overview of teaware, brewing, and even has pairing suggestions along with drink and dessert recipes!
For me, this book hits the sweet spot between being accessible and detailed: it’s easy to read and understand, with beautiful photography and illustrations, all without oversimplifying or sacrificing accuracy. I often lend out my copy to anyone remotely interested in tea
As its title suggests, this book is not afraid to get nerdy–very nerdy. If you’ve ever wondered what chemical and biological processes are responsible for tea’s diverse tastes and aromas, look no further. Lovelace begins by explaining how we perceive taste, aroma, flavour, and texture in regards to tea, before diving into the details of the tea plant’s biology, the biochemical reactions that occur during different types and stages of processing, and the how the chemical compounds that these reactions create contribute to the final aroma and taste of various teas.
Books about Japanese Tea
As the co-founder and president of the Global Japanese Tea Association, Simona Suzuki (née Zavadckyte) has done some amazing work in spreading Japanese tea, tea culture, and tea knowledge to the world. Her 2017 book presents a compact yet well-rounded overview of the Japanese tea industry, from farming to processing, drawing from her personal experience working on tea farms in Wazuka. She also introduces the various types of Japanese tea and teaware, and gives us a brief insight into its history and culture.
Somewhat of a tea celebrity in Japan, Brekell’s Book of Japanese Tea is the Swedish tea guru’s first English language offering…with a twist: it’s bilingual, with each page both in English and Japanese! Perhaps the most detailed English language book on the modern Japanese tea industry–complete with brewing guides, cultivar family tree, and exploration of growing regions–Brekkel’s guide is also ideal for Japanese language learners.
Books about Japanese Tea History and Culture
Written by the 15th Iemoto (Grand Master) of the Urasenke school of Japanese tea ceremony and translated by V. Dixon Morris, this book chronicles the commonly accepted history of tea and tea culture in Japan, starting with Lu Yu in China and ending with Sen no Rikyu and the maturation of chanoyu (the Japanese tea ceremony). This oft overlooked period is when Japanese tea was born, transforming from an imported foreign good, to a domestic luxury with its own styles and a unique and rich culture.
Born from 400 years of tea and zen knowledge transmitted through the Ueda Sōko school of tea, Pearl Among the Clouds contains practical wisdoms distilled from the Japanese tea ceremony, formatted as easily practised lessons designed to incorporate fundamental values, aesthetics, and teachings of Tea into everyday life. It contains lessons on breathing, flowers, tea etiquette, seasonality, and much more. Written by the 16th and current Iemoto (Grand Master) of the Ueda Sōko school and translated by renowned chajin Adam Sōmu Wojciński, it is the ideal companion for tea ceremony practitioners and non-practitioners alike.
Though not as famous as Rikyu, Oribe, or Eisai, Baisaō is still one of the most recognisable and influential figures in the history of Japanese tea. Rejecting the decadence of religious life and the strictness of the tea ceremony, Baisaō abandoned his life as a monk to pursue an ascetic life as a tea seller, opting to serve simple boiled tea, known then as sencha, rather than the matcha preferred by the elites. Waddell’s book contains both a biographical sketch of Baisaō’s life alongside translations of his zen poetry, combining to form a deep insight into this most intriguing tea figure.
Though easily the most famous Japanese book on tea, Kakuzo’s title is somewhat deceptive: The Book of Tea is not simply about tea or tea ceremony, but rather an essay on Teaism, and how the values and aesthetics of Japanese Teaism (the tea ceremony)–such as the union of art and nature and the importance of simplicity–permeate and underpin the essence of Japanese culture and the Japanese outlook. Written in 1906 following the rapid influx of Western culture and ‘foreignism’ in Japan, Kakuzo sought to teach the West about the beauty of traditional Japanese daily life.
While there are no official English translations of this manga or its anime adaptation, I would be remiss to exclude it from this list. Set during the Sengoku era, at the height of political turmoil, Hyouge Mono is centred around the life of influential chajin Furuta Oribe (whose name lives on most famously in Oribe-yaki)–a samurai who struggles to balance his duties as a warrior with his unbridled passion for aesthetics and chanoyu. It’s the perfect manga for anyone interested in either this era of Japanese history, with a deep dive into the political struggles of Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, or those interested the tea ceremony, as Hyouge Mono shows us chanoyu in its prime: when tea and tea masters, such as Oribe and Rikyu were still powerful and revolutionary, before chanoyu became solidified and pacified in the Edo period.