Summary of A Little Tea Book by Sebastian Beckwith and Caroline Paul

  • Post category:Summaries
  • Post last modified:April 8, 2024
A little tea book book cover

Summary: 7 minutes

Book reading time: 1h

Score: 9/10

Book published in: 2018

Access the Summary Database


  • All teas come from the same plant called Camellia sinensis
  • There are six types of tea: white, green, yellow, oolong, black, and dark.
  • Tea was discovered 3000 years ago and was written about by Europeans for the first time in 1550.
  • Tea originally comes from a region located on the Burman-Chinese border.
  • China kept the growing and preparation of tea secrets for hundreds of years due to its commercial value until the British stole the secrets in the 19th century.

What A Little Tea Book Talks About

A Little Tea Book is a book about tea written by Sebastian Beckwith and Caroline Paul. It introduces the nature, history, taxonomy, and preparation of tea to people that don’t know anything about it. It’s the most straightforward book to become a tea connoisseur in barely an hour.

That’s it.


Get the book here.

Table of Content

Summary of A Little Tea Book Written by Sebastian Beckwith and Caroline Paul

A Little on the Tea Plant

All tea comes from one plant called Camellia sinensis.

There are six types of tea:

  1. White
  2. Green
  3. Yellow
  4. Oolong
  5. Black
  6. Dark

This means that things like chamomile or jasmine soothing ain’t tea.

In general, if there’s no caffeine in what you’re drinking, it’s not tea.

Tea leaves are harvested on plants that are three to five years old.

A Little on the Six Types of Tea

Tea is made out of tea leaves. We can have different types of tea because we do different stuff with the leaves after picking them up. But originally, all teas came from the same leaf.

Eg: if you want to make green tea, don’t let the leaves oxidize. If you want to make dark tea, do let the leaves oxidize.

Once you harvest a leaf, oxidation (also called fermentation) begins. The same process happens for avocadoes (when they get dark after a few days) or apples.

From least to most oxidized teas:

  1. Green
  2. Yellow
  3. White
  4. Oolong
  5. Black
  6. Dark.

The air temperature, heat source, humidity, and storage time will each have an impact on the tea’s taste.

There are on average five steps to make tea:

  1. Wither
  2. Kill-green: done to prevent oxidation.
  3. Roll
  4. Oxidize
  5. Fire/final dry
  • White tea: harvested and airdried in the spring, when there are fresh new leaves. Minimal interference with the process.
  • Green tea: The original tea. The leaf is immediately heated by pan firing or steaming to prevent oxidation which let the tea leaf keep its green color. It is then folded into different shapes. There are several hundred types of green tea.
  • Yellow tea: Like green tea but heated at a lower temperature. It dries and oxidizes slowly. Since it’s harder to make than green tea, not much is made anymore.
  • Oolong tea: Partial oxidation before shaping and heating. Requires great skills to make. Wide range of flavors.
  • Black tea: Most produced and consumed tea worldwide (Darjeeling, English breakfast, etc). This tea needs as much oxidation as possible. It is first withered, then rolled to encourage oxidation.
  • Dark tea: encompasses lots of different types of tea. The most common is made like green tea and then set aside for aging. The tea can ferment for several years.

The first harvest of the season is considered to be the highest quality, so it is often more expensive.

A Little on Shape and Size

Part of the making of tea is changing its shape and size.

White tea is left as is.

Dark teas are pressed into bricks.

Oolong can be spiraled, balled, or twisted.

image 32
The different types of tea shapes. Illustration from the book.

A Little on the Taxonomy

Tea comes from Camellia sinensis, but there are two types of it:

  1. Assamica: has large leaves, can reach up to ten meters, and it grows well in warm climates like in southern and southwestern China, India, and Sri Lanka.
  2. Sinensis (again): grows in the rest of China, Japan, and Taiwan. It has smaller leaves.

Some tea plants evolved naturally (called variety) and others were engineered by farmers (called cultivar).

Variety reproduced naturally, which means they continue evolving.

When a particularly good variety comes along, producers clone the tree.

A Little on Names

You may encounter different names for green tea because these are different types depending on weather, soil, time of harvest, etc.

Two teas may have the same name but be different. Eg: sencha, Japanese name for green tea.

Some name describes the process used to make it, or the type of cultivar.

Use Babelcarp to know more about tea names.

A Little History

  • 2737 BCE: Tea is discovered.
  • 200 BCE: earliest tea storage facility
  • 780: first book ever written about tea called Cha Jing.
  • 800: Japan starts growing tea
  • 800s: China imposes the death penalty for anyone who shares tea information or exports it (it’s become a lucrative business).
  • 1391: tea is transported as leaves rather than bricks.
  • 1500: first Yixing (clay) teapots
  • 1550: first European reference to tea
  • 1550: First oolong tea
  • 1651: Dutch sell tea
  • 1735: Invention of Sencha
  • 1850: The British smuggle tea from China to India

Tea is grown everywhere in the world today but originally, it was only found in a specific area straddling the border between China and Myanmar.

image 33
Source: Wikipedia

It was first consumed as a medicine and then became part of daily life throughout Asia. Chinese merchants were already trading tea in 300 with Indians, Tibetans, and Arabs.

China began trading tea with Russia in the 600s where it was used as a hangover cure.

The Western Europeans began to trade tea with the Chinese at that time but the Chinese only accepted silver as a mode of payment.

Since the Europeans didn’t have any, they began to sell opium to the Chinese against silver then use the silver to get tea.

The Chinese emperor outlawed opium and destroyed the stocks, which led to the first Opium War between Britain and China.

The British had already smuggled tea into India but they couldn’t grow it well due to the Chinese’ secrets.

So the Crown charged Robert Fortune, a botanist, with a mission: steal tea secrets from China. Fortune penetrated the country, bought some seeds and tea workers, and set up shop in India.

By the late 1800s, Britain was growing and exporting tea everywhere. The tea bag was invented in the 1800s but was meant to be opened.

People instead drop it into their cup and it became quickly famous in America – not in Britain until the 1970s.

A Little on Choosing Tea

Tea is like wine. You should taste a lot of them to see which one you like the most.

A Little on Altered Tea

Some teas come out altered, like chai. We can add oils, flowers, chocolate, roots, or lemongrass.

Earl Grey, for example, is black tea flavored with citrus oil.

Most tea today is what is “commodity tea”, that is, mass-produced around the world and blended so it always has a constant taste. This is the low-quality tea found in basic tea bags.

Blended tea isn’t necessarily bad, but unblended tea is almost always unique.

The best way to know which tea is good and which isn’t is…to taste it.

A Little on Dark Tea, Also Called Fermented Tea or Heicha

The most famous dark tea is called pu-erh and it only comes from the Yunnan Province.

Dark teas are often sold as bricks (also called cakes).

A Little on Labels

Labels don’t mean much as there are no international standards and everyone does different things in different countries.

A Little on Preparation

There are three variables that influence your preparation of tea: the amount of tea, how much time the leaves stay, and the water temperature.

  1. Choose your tea. Avoid the tea bag and the tea ball. Leave the leaves loose.
  2. Get a teapot with a large infuser.
  3. Fill up the teapot with hot water. Let it rest for a minute or two.
  4. Empty the teapot of its hot water. The purpose is to preheat up the teapot before adding the hot water that will be tea.
  5. Choose the water. Avoid tap water due to the chemicals. Get spring or filtered water.
  6. Heat up the water. Different temperatures go with different teas (see below)
  7. Add the tea to the teapot. Four grams for a small teapot.
  8. Add the water. Let steep for 2-3 minutes.
  9. Take the tea out of the pot.
  • White or green teas: Below boiling, about 170°–180°F or 76° – 82°C.
  • Oolongs: 185°–210°F or 85° – 99°C
  • Black teas: 210°F or 99°C
  • Dark teas: 195° – 212°F or 90°- 100°C

For more summaries, head to

Did you enjoy the summary? Get the book here!

Want more?

Subscribe to my monthly newsletter and I'll send you a list of the articles I wrote during the previous month + insights from the books I am reading + a short bullet list of savvy facts that will expand your mind. I keep the whole thing under three minutes. 

How does that sound? 

Leave a Reply