Interview with Mary Lou Heiss, author of "The Story of Tea"

Bob and Mary Lou Heiss
Bob and Mary Lou Heiss. Photo by Steve Garfield.

Today, I’m really pleased to publish an interview with Mary Lou Heiss. I have a small but growing collection of books about tea, and The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide, which Mary Lou penned with her husband Bob, is by far the most comprehensive resource on the subject. The Story of Tea takes an in-depth look at the world of tea, covering the various types of tea, major tea producing countries and regions, tea culture and its history – among other things. Seriously, if there’s one book about tea you should have, it’s this one.

I was excited to have the opportunity to ask Mary Lou a few questions about her personal tea journey, what led her to write The Story of Tea and how she sees the economic crisis affecting the tea industry.

What are you drinking at the moment?

Right now I am dipping into all of the Pre-Qing Ming and Before the Rains green teas (Du Yun Mao Jian, Gu Zhu Zi Sun, Jing Shan Hao Ya, Jiu Hua Shan Fo Cha) that we have received over the last few weeks. Most of these teas are from eastern China, from Zhejiang, Anhui and Jiangxi Provinces, the places that we visited on our very first tea sourcing trip to China. The tastes of these teas are near and dear to me.

When did you first grow interested in tea?

We have been selling tea for 35 years, and I have always found it interesting.

Over the years I learned all that I could from our tea suppliers and from books, etc., until I finally reached the end-point of tea information in the USA ( in English). For example, I, like most everyone else in the tea trade, read William Ukers book on tea ? All About Tea ? which is wonderful but rather dated. I found it frustrating that there was not a more current book that brought the conversation about tea cultivation and production into the 21 century. I realized that in order to learn the details that we wanted to know, we needed to go ?to the source? to observe and learn for ourselves.

So when we took our first trip to China in spring 2000 we were finally able to see artisan tea made in different regions of China and how the influences of terroir (place) affect the flavor of each tea. Tea is important in tea producing countries, not just as a crop but also as the national drink. In each tea producing region , tea production is influenced by national culture as well as by local culture and how it is that the locals have always processed their tea. Nearly everyone in the tea villages is (or was when they were younger) involved with tea and contributes their efforts to get the tea harvested, made, and sent to market. It is an old-fashioned agrarian way of life that is fascinating to observe. The importance of culture and the combined efforts of many is something that older tea books never really addressed.

Why did you decide to write The Story of Tea?

Matcha, bowl and whisk
Matcha, bowl and whisk. Photo by stephcarter.

We had traveled to China on three separate occasions to different tea producing areas and had observed the manufacture of many different regional teas. I had taken close to 2,000 photographs because I love to photograph people, process and food. Back home, we gave talks and made slide show presentations for our local audience, but it did not occur to us that perhaps there was a larger market interested in what we had to say. We did all of that exploring because we had become a bit obsessed about tea and wanted to learn as much as we could about it.

Long story short, we both attended an international culinary conference and each spoke separately about tea. The acquisitions editor of Ten Speed Press heard one of us speak and tracked us down. He asked us if we would be interesting in writing a book about tea, and we said ?YES.? It was to be a small book but it ended up being a very large book because there is just so much to say about tea.

One of the things I appreciate about you book is that you’ve been to tea growing regions and you’re obviously writing from first-hand experience. How much of your personal education about tea has come from these visits?

Prior to visiting tea producing countries I knew about the basic steps of tea manufacture, etc, from the books that I had read. But, as I discovered, there is so much to be learned from immersing oneself in the frenzy of activity during the spring tea harvest and watching how everyone from the tea pluckers to the tea masters processing the leaf in the tea factory work together to get the job done and done well. All tea making has exceptions to the ?written rule? such as the little extra steps that the workers do or don?t do in the processing of their tea that make it unique.

The best tea makers work with the fresh leaf to make the best tea that their experience tells them they can make from that leaf; they do not force the leaf to be something that it does not want to be. Or to make their tea taste like something their tea is not meant to taste like. They do not try to re-invent the wheel but instead try to perfect the tradition because that is what gives their tea its distinctive qualities. Local traditions are a big part of terroir and they know that, even if they don?t use that word for it. It?s a bit like cooking: one can read all the cookbooks in the world about what to do and what order to do it in, but the actual act of cooking always throws situations at one both sideways and crossways and almost never in that straightforward manner that the book suggested.

I would say my personal tea education has given me insight and perspective. I have come to learn that tea making is not just a homogenous process but that the intangibles of terroir, custom and culture are crucial elements to the taste of a unique tea. The detail and specificity required to produce great tea is astonishing and to be respected.

For me personally, one of the cool things about tea is the diversity and range of teas available. In some ways, I feel like I’m just discovering the tip of the iceberg. After years of drinking and selling tea, does tea still throw some surprises your way?

Sure, but most of the surprises are good ones, such as uncovering teas that have not been sold here before. Fortunately, we live in a time when great tea is available in both of our respective countries. Prior to the relaxing of export laws in China, the great teas were not being sent to the West, and most of us in the tea business did not have access to the diversity of China?s tea. Now that trade with China has opened up, and tea has become a very hot commodity, the floodgates of great tea have re-opened. This is allowing many of China?s premium teas to come our way, and that is thrilling. Recently, we were offered some Zhu Hai Jin Ming, a black tea from Jiangsu Province, China. We did not know the tea and tasted a sample. We loved it and snapped it up. For us it is fun to find new teas with new tastes and characteristics that we can charm our customers with, such as the glorious hand-rolled Nepal tea that is on the way to us now.

So yes, access is changing. But with modernity and access come situations like counterfeit tea and the need to protect the great teas, such as Darjeeling and Longjing, from mis-labeling and mis-use.

How do you expect the economic crisis to affect the tea industry?

I don?t think that the current economic crisis will have much effect on the tea industry per se, but I think that there are changes afoot that will impact the tea industry as a whole.

I think that there are two different tea markets and two different situations occurring. First, the premium tea market seems to be holding strong because these amazing teas have such a strong appeal to young people, who are a very dominant force driving the premium tea market. Also, cafes, restaurants, etc are upgrading their tea selection, which provides exposure to good tea to a large number of people of all ages. And, more than before, older adults are taking leisure travel holidays to countries where tea is produced and the tea drinking culture is strong, such as India, China, Vietnam, etc. This is increasing exposure to distinctive, premium tea for that age group as well.

Sadly, I think that the countries that produce commercial grade CTC teas for large tea blenders and tea packers to use in tea blends and RTD beverages are suffering from a world-wide over-supply of such tea. It is difficult for many of these countries to command any kind of equitable price for their tea, so the prices drop and the workers get paid less for their fresh leaf. Hopefully, some of these tea industries will realize that the future is not in cheap tea and learn to craft teas that are special and unique to their region and country. In a perfect world, everyone would encourage the terroir in their leaf rather than force it out, which would upgrade the quality of everyday drinking tea and RDT might actually contain some measure of tea in the bottle.

You mentioned that you have a new book in the works. What will be the focus of this one?

This book is a great companion book to The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide
as it covers different aspects of the tea experience. The working title right now is: The Tea Enthusiast?s Handbook: A Guide to Enjoying the World?s Best Tea. It is a tutorial on learning what one needs to know about tea in order to feel confident when faced with the choices on a tea menu and how to be discerning when purchasing loose-leaf tea. There are many discussions about all manner of topics regarding tea and a lengthy tea pictorial and tasting guide.

Is there anything that you would change about the tea around today if you could?

Yes. It saddens me to see such an emphasis placed on flavored teas and RTD bottled tea beverages. To me, flavored teas are the ?sangria? of the tea world and while there are many delicious ones available, it seems in some corners of the tea market that these are becoming dominant. To me, flavored tea is ?sugar-coating? the taste of tea with fruits and spices. The wine industry managed to move people away from fruit wines a long time ago; I pray that a better appreciation of pure leaf tea leaf and all of its origin specific uniqueness will ultimately come to pass.

RTD bottled beverages have little to do with tea ? they are simply a way for the manufacturers to grab a share of bottled water sales. It is unfortunate that some people equate these beverages with ?drinking tea? or being a healthier alternative to soda: that is not the case at all.

Bob and Mary Lou’s specialty tea shop is Tea Trekker; it boasts a wonderful collection of teas you may never have heard of. I also suggest checking out their blog and, of course, their book.


  • 1

    This is a great interview with an author I’ve read and enjoyed. She’s certainly an expert and a certified tea lover. I feel like I’m reading about one of my own here because I am a budding tea author myself. I’m working on my first tea book “Spirituality of Tea.”

  • 2

    I spent nearly fifty years in the tea business, buying and blending tea, with a major packer. I find this article typical of the condescending and snooty attitude of tea pseudo sophisticates. What is being discussed here is a segment of the market comprising less than one tenth of one per cent of tea grown and consumed throughout the world.The author is “saddened to see such an emphasis placed on flavoured tea.” Earlier she wishes to protect Darjeeling tea. Darjeeling tea is flavoured— albeit naturally. Similarly, while not specific on the subject, the author probably admires jasmine scented teas where the petals of the jasmine flower are manufactured in with the tea leaves. This is flavoured tea. “It is unfortunate that some people equate….(RTD)….with “drinking tea”….this is not the case at all.” I wonder how the author classifies iced tea (largely water, melting ice, flavoured with lemon and sweetener) which accounts for over 90% of tea consumption in the US and supporting business infrastructure and employment. Fortunately tea is a global commercial undertaking and the product is enjoyed by many millions. This type of pseudo sophistication is irrelevant.

  • 3

    Hey Alan, this “pseudo sophistication” you speak of may be irrelevant to you, but it isn’t to everyone. Sure, high quality artisan tea is a tiny fraction of the market, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it is of a much higher quality than most of the mainstream supermarket varieties of tea. But hey, that’s just my opinion and personal taste. Whatever floats your boat.

  • 4

    I know I’m jumping in late on this discussion…but I really liked this interview – way to go on getting such a great interviewee! I’ve read The Story of Tea, and think of it as one of the best tea books in my library. It has taught me very much and increased my interest and enthusiasm in the subject. I’ve already quoted from it in my own new blog. Thank you for doing this.

    In response to Alan, I’d have to say “read the book”. There is indeed a lot of information on jasmine and you’ll be happy to see that it indicates that flowers are left in for visual appeal and have nothing to do with the flavour of the tea. That aside, the authors do not come across condescending or snooty in the least – in fact, it is very accessible, and I believe can only add to any enthusiasts’ enjoyment of tea. So please, read before you judge.

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