Thursday, January 23, 2020

Review: Tea: A Nerd's Eye View

There are tea nerds, and then there are Tea Nerds. The folks that get into the details of the leaf and then go deeper into the science of tea. The new book Tea: A Nerd's Eye View by Virginia Utermohlen Lovelace brings together information for Tea Nerds of every kind. Everything from tea chemistry and plant biology, to how our senses perceive the flavors in tea. Below is a little bit about the book, and what I thought while reading it.

Who Is The Book Really For?
This book is for anyone curious about the science behind tea, from leaf to cup. It may seem daunting to open this book and see so many chemical diagrams and charts, but Virginia does a great job of taking her wealth of knowledge and break it down for readers to understand. This is a book for anyone interested in getting deeper into tea. And it's enjoyable to read!

Flavor And Perception- Personal and Botanical
Flavor is of course key to enjoying tea. As tea drinkers we talk endlessly about flavor and aroma, what we like and don't like. The book goes into depth on flavor- how we as humans perceive it, and how it's created both within the plants and through processing. Virginia touches on how taste perception is super personal, and genetics plays a huge role.

I may perceive something as bitter but enjoyable, but someone else may find it repulsive. I may notice something as sweet, but someone else may find it pungent. I love how she discusses the perception of flavors, and how our personal memory and knowledge will change how we taste a tea.

The book also focuses on how flavors in tea are manipulated from the grower but also the tea brewer. When we brew at home, our parameters have an effect on the flavor we taste in the cup. This is all quite logical, but not something I normally sit and deeply think about. Virginia gets into the science behind all of this, and she keeps easy to follow.

Plant Biology
The book really gets down to the tea leaf on the cellular level. The plant biology is fascinating and even though I didn't understand every concept, I gained an understanding of how the plant's survival influences the development of flavors.

Virginia examines the different flavor compounds in tea plants, and how they present differently in each type of tea. She discusses basic chemistry properties in tea leaves, and I think it really helps in understanding the flavors we taste in our tea.

Caffeine content in tea is such a misunderstood thing and I'm glad Virginia covers both how it's produced, and how it may change during processing. And if anyone tells you delicate green and white teas have less caffeine than other teas, just tell them this:
Caffeine is a poison for many insects that would otherwise consume tea leaves. The younger more tender leaves are easier for herbivores and insects to attack, so younger leaves produce a greater quantity of caffeine. Older leaves are stiff and hard, thanks in particular to their greater content of woody compounds such as lignin. They are much less inviting to insects so they don't need as much caffeine to defend themselves.
Processing And Brewing
The book goes through the chemistry involved in each step of tea processing, and how it changes the flavors and aroma. It then examines how the brewing process changes the flavors as well. Virginia says that out of all the ways to brew tea, there is really only one main thing you need to have...
What is fascinating to me now is how many acceptable ways there are to brew tea, and how few true imperatives there are- in fact there is really only one absolute imperative: you must use good water. Or modify your approach if you have poor water.
Traditional brewing techniques are discussed such as tea ceremonies around the world, and how everything from the vessel, to the cup shape, to the brewing parameters will change the flavors in the tea prepared. She also writes about water temperature at length (for both hot and cold brews) and even touches on the tea serving temperature.

I think Tea: A Nerd's Eye View is a fascinating read for the tea lover looking to learn more about the science of the leaf. This book does get quite scientific with everything covered, but it's all very digestible. And, if you're not really interested in the nitty gritty of the science, it's easy to skip paragraphs and jump around the chapters. It's a great book to have on hand as a reference, and for learning more about flavor and chemistry.

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