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Tasting Qualities

The Past and Future of Tea (Atelier: Ethnographic Inquiry in the Twenty-First Century #5)

Sarah Besky


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Other Editions of This Title:
Hardcover (5/12/2020)


What is the role of quality in contemporary capitalism? How is a product as ordinary as a bag of tea judged for its quality? In her innovative study, Sarah Besky addresses these questions by going inside an Indian auction house where experts taste and appraise mass-market black tea, one of the world’s most recognized commodities. Pairing rich historical data with ethnographic research among agronomists, professional tea tasters and traders, and tea plantation workers, Besky shows how the meaning of quality has been subjected to nearly constant experimentation and debate throughout the history of the tea industry. Working across fields of political economy, science and technology studies, and sensory ethnography, Tasting Qualities argues for an approach to quality that sees it not as a final destination for economic, imperial, or post-imperial projects but as an opening for those projects.


Praise For Tasting Qualities: The Past and Future of Tea (Atelier: Ethnographic Inquiry in the Twenty-First Century #5)

"[Besky's] nuanced study of Indian tea . . . is a refreshing brew of botany, business and culture."

— Nature

"A stimulating account of Britain’s favourite drink."

— Times Literary Supplement

"Provides an unusual and rich understanding of the process of creating, reproducing, and evaluating the quality of tea."

— American Anthropologist

"Tasting Qualities will be a beneficial read to a broad range of scholars with interest in food, labor, and commodity studies, the intersection of food, nutrition, and health knowledge, science and technology."

— Food, Culture & Society

"A fascinating view of the Indian tea industry. . . . manages to easily deconstruct and demystify the space between the plantation and the cup of tea."

— Tea Journey

"A wonderfully layered and immaculately researched exploration of the enduring tastes of empire."

— Allegra Lab

"Engages deeply with the theoretical aspects of assessing the quality and value of commodities through the lens of tea."


University of California Press, 9780520303256, 256pp.

Publication Date: May 12, 2020

About the Author

Sarah Besky is a cultural anthropologist and Associate Professor in the ILR School at Cornell University. She is the author of The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair Trade Tea Plantations in India.