Once upon a time the Chinese tea industry was said to be so jealous of their secrets that when the British sought to grow their own tea they essentially had to resort to corporate espionage. It’s a story that’s been told many times – at book length and otherwise – but for a brief overview of the exploits of one such bold tea pioneer/spy, start here.
With this in mind it’s interesting to run across a book like Samuel Ball’s An Account of the Cultivation and Manufacture of Tea in China. The work was published in 1848, but as the rather verbose subtitle notes, is drawn “From Personal Observation During an Official Residence in that Country from 1804 to 1826.” This was a time during which Ball worked for the East India Company, one of the powerhouses of tea trading at the time.
Ball notes in the preface that the purpose of the book “is utility rather than amusement” and after reading it most modern-day readers probably won’t argue. Much of the book, as the title suggests, leans toward the practical and can be a bit on the dry side – and it falls just short of 400 pages before it’s all said and done.
Ball kicks things off with a discussion of the discovery and early history of the tea plant in China. Right off, he addresses the myth of the discovery of tea by an early Chinese emperor, a persistent myth that lingers to this day. The next two chapters are an in-depth look at growing conditions, climate and soil. Ball also includes an entire chapter on harvesting practices and rather detailed chapters on processing tea. The last of these is a little less dry than the others, in that it branches out to also look at tea drinking and culture in Mongolia, Tibet and other parts of central Asia.
Chapter IX takes a close look at all things green tea-related, including those types of tea that we don’t hear so much about nowadays, like Hyson, Singlo and Twankay. From there it’s more on processing, cultivation and whatnot. The final two chapters take a look at tea production in other countries, including India, where tea growing was just getting started, as well as Japan, Java and Brazil.
Like many old books about tea this one was meant to be more of a manual than a page turner, but if you’re willing to skim through some of the slow stuff you can find plenty of interesting nuggets of information even so. Try it out here.
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