How It All Started

Bob Phillips

The title of this blog was inspired by one of my Spanish professor's at Miami University of Ohio, Dr. Robert Phillips, who died in the e...

Thursday, January 20, 2011

All in This Tea

"Food" includes "beverage" and in our household, a dedication to quality coffee has grown to encompass many of the lesser beverages, including beer, whisky, and tea. (We've not yet delved into milk, but it appears to be equally deserving of attention, as does sake.)

It is in this context that Pam found the intriguing documentary, All in This Tea, which is available both as a DVD and streaming video from Netflix. This 2007 film follows tea buyer David Lee Hoffman as he pursues tea in China. As I've read elsewhere, China has always preferred to keep its tea at home. Most of the tea that does get out goes through a series of intermediaries, lowering both pay to farmers and the quality to customers. This film follows Hoffman from the institutional sellers to the farmers themselves.

Online reviews of this film have been mixed, some emphasizing the education about tea and the insights into rural China and others noting Hoffman's arrogance and (apparent) lack of language skills. The former is evident throughout, though his arrogance is directed at sellers who appear to care little for their product or the producers, and it is on behalf of the farmers and the tea itself that he sometimes waxes strident, so I cannot blame him for being a bit curt with these merchants. The equivalent characters in coffee circles are known as coyotes, and even though I'm polite to these folks, I don't blame anyone who calls them out, as Hoffman does. Regarding his language skills (which I do consider to be very important), the fact that he speaks only English on camera has several possible explanations, aside from Ugly American-ness.

At least one online review suggests that the film provides a field-to-cup overview of tea, and I consider this overstated. Many steps are shown, but not in any systematic way, so that a much richer appreciation of tea can be gained, though not a comprehensive understanding. The film, in fact, does create one very serious false impression, as it implies that black, green, and oolong teas are different. In fact, they all are produced from Camellia sinensis, with differing levels of post-harvest oxidation.

Far more important than any technical details or personality traits, however, is the great appreciation for tea and tea farmers that this film conveys. The lush landscapes and intimate portrayals of a variety of tea-producing locales are memorable. As with every tea documentary I have watched so far, this one is extremely soothing, with sights and sounds that leave the viewer with a memory more like that of a dream than of a waking journey.

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