Harney & Sons Guide To Tea

By Alex Zorach

The Harney & Sons Guide to Tea, by Michael Harney, published by Penguin Press in 2008, is a recent guide to tea. Michael Harney is best known for his tea association with Harney & Sons, a Connecticut-based tea company which sells both loose tea and tea bags. The book is well-written and easy to read, and contains a wealth of infomation. This review includes a few finer points of criticism of this otherwise outstanding book.

Organization of the Book

The book is organized by varieties of tea, and covers a total of 56 individual teas, with a few pages on each. The book is broken loosely into categories: white tea, Chinese greens, Japanese greens, Oolongs, yellow teas, Chinese black teas, British legacy black teas, and Pu-erh. The book is organized loosely on the basis of strength and darkness/lightness, starting with white teas with delicate aromas and subtle flavors, and moving towards more powerful teas. I found this book to be very well-organized.

Major Omissions in the Book

My largest criticism of this book is in the area of major omissions: this book limits itself to regions and types of tea which Harney & Sons focuses on, which is not surprising, but there are some surprisingly important teas which are completely omitted. Interestingly, these omissions tend to occur mostly among inexpensive teas. Shou Mei, an important and well-known, but inexpensive type of Chinese white tea (incidentally my favorite type of white tea), is not mentioned anywhere in the book. The book also ignores a number of major tea-producing regions, including Turkey and Argentina--and I suspect because they are not as "classy" as the regions mentioned.

There are also a number of smaller or more minor regions, such as Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, and Nepal, which may be less important or influential in the world of tea than China or India, but I think deserve more mention than they receive.

Another criticism of the book is that it does not delve into much depth with respect to sustainability and human rights issues, issues that are of critical importance in many of the regions discussed (especially China, Sri Lanka, India, and Kenya). In particular, sustainability-related issues such as organic agriculture and the fair trade movement are not explored much.

Referencing & Citations

I also found the references and citations in this book to be lacking. Although the book does contain a bibliography, the citations throughout the text are sparse. The reader is expected to trust in Michael Harney's authority when it comes to most of the information presented. Many of the numerous facts and tidbits of information in the book are given completely without reference, and it's hard to trace what information originates in sources given in the bibliography and what comes from Michael Harney's personal experience. This is not a huge problem when it comes to subjective information such as descriptions of aroma and flavor, but when it comes to legends and stories, history, and discussion of production process, I find it slightly more problematic.

The Bottom Line

Bottom line, this is a fun and informative read for the casual tea enthusiast, but it's less comprehensive than you might expect, and less authoritative than it presents itself as. People seeking a more balanced discussion of varieties of tea or a deeper discussion of sustainability-related issues will need to search elsewhere.

Alex Zorach
Article by Alex Zorach
Alex Zorach has an M.A. in statistics from Yale University, and is an avid tea drinker and the creator of http://RateTea.net, a website for rating and reviewing teas, with a wealth of information on styles and varieties of tea, brands of tea, and tea-producing regions, including many omitted from the Harney & Sons Guide to Tea. Read about varieties of tea on this website.

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