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March 30, 2008

Movie Review – All in This Tea (2008)


All in This Tea is an enjoyable documentary about David Hoffman, a man who is passionate about a good cup of tea. Not many people love a beverage so much that they will make frequent, long, and uncomfortable trips to the back reaches of its Far Eastern source country to buy direct from the farmers.

Hoffman’s decades-long love affair with fine teas has made him an expert on the tea plant and its cultivation, harvesting, and processing. His personal buying trips to China’s tea growing regions grew into a successful tea import business. The camera follows him as he canvasses Chinese markets and tea farms in search of the best teas, and as he navigates the minefield of Chinese bureaucracy and entrenched business interests in his Sisyphean efforts to buy locally and ship internationally.

The trio of Hoffman, tea, and China is the focus of the film, but we also visit with him at his California home (and organic farm), tea shop, and tea stall at an Asian fair in Berkeley. As if swept along by the infectious tide of Hoffman’s enthusiasm, the film periodically cuts to interviews with other tea enthusiasts. The interviewees teach about the pleasures of drinking tea, its cultural significance, the history of its cultivation and sale, the different varietals, tea’s health benefits, and many other interesting tidbits about this quite fascinating plant and its attendant brews and rituals.

This is a single-camera, barebones production; most of the film’s budget looks to have been spent on travel costs. That is not to say that it is not well made. Documentarian Les Blank is an experienced filmmaker (with a number of movies about food to his credit) and the film is skillfully constructed and edited. It is to say that the film’s interest lies almost entirely with its subjects: David Hoffman; tea; and, more broadly, the love of good food.

As a tea lover (albeit one who is more than content to mail order her fine quality loose teas; thank you, good food movement), I was predisposed to like this film. Non-enthusiasts should find it very nearly as interesting as I did. It’s fun to listen to knowledgeable people talk about their passion, whatever the subject. Hoffman is a quirky guy with colorful anecdotes and reminiscences. The history of British 19th century industrial espionage to break the Chinese monopoly on tea production was so incredible in its details that I might not have credited it if I had learned the story from a less reputable source. The buying trip to China offers the pleasures of a travelogue in the scenes of bustling city markets, remote rural tea farms, and expert hands making tea.

3 stars