An open letter to restaurants about tea
I love you. Really I do. I’m not a picky guy. I’m certainly not a snob. I love a five-course meal at a five-star restaurant, but I also must confess a fondness for a “Snag Burger” at the bar down the street from my shop. I love a good Indian buffet, a medium-rare steak, authentic London fish and chips, and an authentic Inverness haggis with neeps & tatties. Basically, if the chef cares about how the food tastes, I’m probably going to enjoy it. And if your servers care about serving the customers, I’m probably going to enjoy being in your restaurant. I love eating out.
But we’ve really got to talk about your tea.
First, if your restaurant is even half a notch above fast food, you have more than one type of tea, right? It may be powdered sweepings from the factory floor in a Lipton teabag, but you’ll have a black tea, a green tea, something without caffeine, and either Earl Grey or Moroccan Mint. If you don’t offer at least those four, you’d might as well hang a sign that says, “Tea Drinkers Not Welcome.”
So let’s start with that. When we order a cup of hot tea, either ask what kind we want, or present us with a basket or box containing a selection to choose from. Don’t just bring out a cup of black tea and then let us find out later that you had other options.
RULE 1: Tell us (or show us) the options!
Next, don’t grab the water until you’re on the way to the table. If we’re ordering black tea (and that includes Earl Grey), then we want that water boiling, or darned close to it.
RULE 2: Hot water. Really hot water.
And now, a big no-no. Don’t ever ever put the tea leaves (or tea bag) in the water before you bring it to us. The only exception to this rule is if you run a tea shop and your waitstaff plans to monitor the entire steeping process for us, in which case you’ll be controlling the steep time as well.
RULE 3: The tea meets the water at the table.
There are several reasons for this.
First, most serious tea drinkers have their own opinions on how long their tea should be steeped. I typically short-steep my black teas and drink them straight. My friend Angela steeps hers long and strong and adds milk. There’s no way to prepare a cup of tea that will make both of us happy. You have to let us do it ourselves.
That said, if you start the tea steeping in the kitchen, we have no idea how long the leaves have been in the water when it gets to our table. A glass carafe (like the one in this post’s header) helps that, but if we don’t know the particular brand and style of tea you’re serving, it’s really hard to judge by the color.
Additionally, not all tea takes the same water temperature. If I’m drinking black tea, I’ll pour in that boiling water the second it gets to me. If I’m drinking green or white tea, I’m going to let the water cool a bit first. Boiling water makes green tea bitter.
Once our tea is steeped to our liking, we’re going to want to remove the leaves from the water — or pour the water off of the leaves.
RULE 4: Give us something to do with used leaves or teabags.
I’ve been in many restaurants that give me a cup of water and a teabag, but no saucer to put the bag on when I’m done steeping it. I really don’t want a soggy teabag on my dinner plate, and you probably don’t want it on the tablecloth or place mat. Even the nice places that bring me a pot of water with a strainer full of leaves and a cozy to keep the pot warm sometimes don’t provide a place to put that strainer. Oh, and this reminds me of rule five:
RULE 5: Don’t just dump leaves loose in a pot with a spout strainer unless it’s a single-serving pot.
It’s frustrating to pour off a cup of tea and know that by the time I’m ready for the second cup, it will be oversteeped and nasty and there’s not a thing I can do about it.
Those five rules will cover the basics. All but the real tea snobs can make something acceptable to drink if you have a few choices (which need to include unflavored options — don’t just give us Earl Grey, mint, fruity stuff, and herbal stuff) and serve it properly. But if you’d like to upgrade the experience and really make us tea drinkers feel welcome, here are a couple of bonus tips:
BONUS TIP #1: Make sure all of your servers can answer rudimentary questions about your tea selection.
Everyone who works there should know which of your teas have caffeine and which don’t. They should know the difference between green and black tea (and know that Moroccan Mint is green and Earl Grey is black). They should know the teas from the tisanes (herbals), and they should know which ones are organic and/or fair trade.
If you serve leaf tea, as opposed to bagged dust, give the staff a bit more information, like origin and style. You want your server to be able to tell a customer whether that red wine is a Merlot or Zinfandel and whether it’s from Bordeaux or Napa Valley. Why shouldn’t they be able to say whether the black tea is a Darjeeling, a Ceylon, or a Keemun?
BONUS TIP #2: Give us a couple of upgraded options.
Offering a oolong, a white tea, or a pu-erh makes me feel like you really want me to enjoy the experience. I don’t even mind paying more for a Bai Hao or a Silver Needle. It’s like offering some really nice wines in addition to the everyday wines; or offering craft beer in addition to Bud Light. That tea can make a good meal a really memorable one.
Attitude is everything in the service industry. If you and your staff are proud of the food you serve, it shows. Steak lovers look for restaurants that take pride in their steaks. Tea lovers look for restaurants that take pride in their tea. Most of the time, we’re lucky to find a restaurant that will even put a bit of effort into their tea, much less take pride in it.
If you aren’t a tea expert, find one and ask for advice. Show that you’re trying, and that you take as much pride in your drinks as you do in your food. We will notice. You will turn us into regular customers. We’ll be happy and you’ll be happy. We all win.
While writing this blog post, I was drinking Jasmine King, a jasmine silver needle white tea. The touch of woodiness in the tea blended beautifully with the heavenly aroma of the jasmine. I don’t drink a lot of white tea, but I’m getting hooked on this one.
Seasons of Tea
As my tea bar does more direct tea buying (as opposed to buying through distributors), I have an opportunity to taste some absolutely fascinating teas. As I tasted some estate-grown Darjeelings the other day, I was reminded of how much difference the picking time makes on the character of the tea.
The three teas on the right side of the picture above are all Darjeeling teas from the Glenburn estate. The terroir is identical. It’s the same varietal of Camellia sinensis var sinensis (the Chinese tea plant) — all FTGFOP1 clonals. They are all black teas. They were steeped for the same amount of time using the same water at the same temperature. I used the same amount of tea leaf for each cup. What’s the difference?
- The light golden tea second from left is a first-flush Darjeeling, picked on March 20th. At that time of year, the spring rains are over and the tea plants are covered with fresh young growth. The tea is very light in color, and the flavor is mild but complex with a touch of spiciness. Although all four of the teas in the picture were steeped 2-1/2 minutes, I actually prefer my first flush Darjeelings steeped for a considerably shorter time (although everyone has different opinions on that). I’m drinking a cup as I write this, and it’s just about right at a minute and a half.
- The amber cup to the right of the first-flush is a second-flush, picked in June. The drier summer climate produces a heartier cup of tea, with a flavor often described as “muscatel.” There is more body and a bit more astringency as well.
- The darkest cup of tea on the far right is called an Autumnal Darjeeling. This one was picked on November 10th. By then, the monsoons are over and the new growth on the tea plants has matured. An autumn-picked Darjeeling will be darker in color, stronger in flavor, and fuller-bodies, but without as much of the spicy notes Darjeelings are known for.
These seasonal differences account for massive differences in caffeine content as well. Early in the season, tea plants will have more caffeine concentrated in the new growth, which is what’s picked for the delicate high-end teas. The data that Kevin Gascoyne presented at World Tea Expo last year showed a 300% increase in caffeine between two pickings at different times of year in the same plantation.
Comparing Darjeeling teas can be difficult, as much of the “Darjeeling” tea on the market isn’t authentic. According to this 2007 article, the Darjeeling region produces 10,000 tonnes of tea per year, but 40,000 tonnes is sold around the world. Even if you don’t consider the local consumption, that means 3/4 of the tea sold as Darjeeling is grown somewhere else. That’s why it’s so important to buy from a trusted source.
When selecting teas, we tend to look first at the production style (black, green, white, oolong, pu-erh), and then for the origin (a Keemun black tea from China is quite different from an Assam black tea from India). As consumers, we rarely know the exact varietal of the plant or the picking season, but those factors are every bit as important to the final flavor.
I suppose the main message of this article is that you can’t judge a tea style on a single cup. You may love autumnal Darjeeling and dislike first-flush. You may enjoy a second flush from Risheehat and not the one from Singbulli.
Keurig K-Cups and Tea
We checked into the Lake Hotel in Yellowstone last week for the latest stop on my book signing tour. As usual, I schlepped in all of my tea stuff so I could have a decent cup in the morning: electric kettle, teapot, a selection of loose-leaf tea.
Frequently, hotels have coffee makers in the room (unless you’re in Las Vegas), but I don’t like having my tea water taste like coffee, so I don’t use them.
In this room, however, was a Keurig® B130 In-Room Brewing System, the kind that uses the single-serving K-Cups. The sampling of K-Cups in the room included two regular coffees, two decaf coffees, one tea, and one herbal blend. I decided to give their Celestial Seasonings English breakfast tea a try. For some reason, Celestial Seasonings decided not to capitalize “English.” Because of my Scottish heritage, that makes me smile, but that’s irrelevant to the subject at hand.
Following their instructions, I took the sealed cup, which had its lid puffed out from the altitude, and inserted it in the machine. When I closed it (puncturing the top & bottom of the cup), the top of the coffee maker popped open. I added a cup of water, set the mug in its place, and looked for adjustments. Finding none, I just pressed “brew.”
The cup was ready surprisingly fast (one point for the machine), with much hissing and burbling. And it tasted like … your basic cup of breakfast tea in a restaurant. I don’t take milk or sugar in my tea, so I use shorter steeping times than the British generally do. Unfortunately, there are no adjustments on this machine, so I got a stronger, more astringent brew than I wanted. Minus one point.
I couldn’t taste any coffee at all in my tea — and I am pretty sensitive to that flavor — so that’s plus one point.
After my wife removed the tea K-Cup and made herself some coffee, I decided to see if I could get a second infusion out of the tea. I carefully lined up the puncture hole on the bottom of the cup and reinserted it. I followed the rest of the process as before, and got a pretty decent second cup. It was weaker than the first, of course, and similar to what you’d get if you reused a tea bag.
Opening the used cup gave some insight into the workings. As you’d expect with a mass-market breakfast tea, they used CTC (crush, tear, curl) processed leaves, broken into quite small pieces. This provides the large surface area needed for the accelerated brewing process Keurig uses.
I understand you can purchase special K-Cups to fill yourself. It would be interesting to play around with whole-leaf teas and tweak the amount of leaf. Unfortunately, since you can’t adjust water temperature, the Keurig would destroy delicate white or green teas, and since you can’t adjust steep times, it would produce bitter oversteeped pu-erh or Darjeeling.
Interestingly, I took a look at the list of tea K-Cups on Keurig’s website, and it does include green and white tea. I’m guessing that their target audience probably uses boiling water in green tea anyway, and doesn’t realize it’s not supposed to taste like that. Most of their 50 selections are black tea, of course, and many are herbal tisanes rather than tea. There are a couple of chai selections there, and I’m guessing those would work.
In conclusion, if you’re looking for a fast, easy way to replicate your basic restaurant-style black tea, the Keurig will work admirably. If you want more than that, it’s a lot cheaper to buy an electric kettle and an IngenuiTEA, and you’ll get much better tea, too. The Keurig Brewer is at heart a coffee maker, and using it for making tea is like driving nails with a wrench: you can do it, but it’s a sub-optimal solution.
A Nice Cup of Tea
On January 12, 1946, the Evening Standard published an essay by George Orwell entitled “A Nice Cup of Tea.” Like almost everyone else in my generation, I had to read his books Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm in school. They told us a lot about society and a lot about English culture, but not much about tea.
Orwell was British, and born in 1903. These two facts tell you a lot about how he viewed tea. I’ve written before about “Tea Nazis,” who believe that their way of preparing tea is the only way to prepare tea, and this essay is a marvelous example of that philosophy in action.
He opens the essay by saying that if you look up “tea” in a cookbook it’s likely to be unmentioned. That was very true in 1946. It is less true now, but even though there are a lot of wonderful books about tea, mainstream cookbooks generally find it unnecessary to describe how to prepare a pot (or a cup) of tea.
Orwell continues by pointing out that tea is a mainstay of civilization in England, yet the “best manner of making it is a subject of violent disputes.” Judging from conversations I’ve had with British friends, I’d have to agree with that. His next paragraph sets the tone for everything that follows:
“When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:”
Since in my humble opinion just about everything related to preparing tea is subjective, I’d like to present my own take on Orwell’s eleven rules. Lets look at them one at a time.
“First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.”
Here, I must vehemently disagree with Mr. Orwell. Perhaps the fact that he was born in India is showing through here. There is excellent tea from China (and Japan and Kenya and Taiwan…). If you want a beverage that will make you feel “wiser, braver or more optimistic,” I would recommend tequila. If you want tea that tastes good, you can find it all over the world.
Incidentally, when Orwell refers to “Ceylonese” tea, he means tea from the country that was called Ceylon when he wrote this essay, but became Sri Lanka when it achieved independence in 1948. We still typically call tea from Sri Lanka “Ceylon” tea.
“Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britannia-ware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.”
He has an excellent point about the small quantities. To me, this means preparing it by the cup rather than by the pot, and there is a lot of excellent teaware available for that purpose. Although china, earthenware, and ceramic teapots do add something to the tea, using plastic or glass pots allows you to watch the tea steep. It also adds (and detracts) nothing to the flavor.
“Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.”
I agree that pre-warming the pot helps to keep the water hot as the tea steeps.
“Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realised on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea-lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.”
My biggest problem with this “rule” is the statement that “all true tea-lovers not only like their tea strong.” In fact, many tea lovers like a shorter steeping time so that the flavor of the tea isn’t overwhelmed by the bitterness and tannins that come out later in the steep.
“Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.”
Philosophically, he’s right. Allowing the water to circulate freely through the leaves does improve the infusion process. I do prefer not to consume the leaves (unless I’m drinking matcha), but a proper modern infuser will catch pretty much all of them.
“Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.”
Clearly, Mr. Orwell was aware of only one kind of tea: black. While boiling water is the right way to go for black and pu-erh tea, you get much better results with green and white tea if you use cooler water. I won’t get into the oolong debate at the moment…
The little aside that he snuck in here about freshly-boiled water is perhaps the biggest point of argument I hear from tea lovers. Does your tea really taste different if the water is heated in a microwave instead of being boiled in a teapot? Does the tea taste different if you reboil water that has been boiled before? In a blind taste test, I can’t tell the difference. Perhaps you can.
“Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.”
I confess. I do this.
“Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold — before one has well started on it.”
Your cup is as personal as your clothing or your car. Most of the time, I use a 16-ounce ceramic mug made by a local potter. When I’m trying a new tea, I make the first cup in a glass mug so I can see it better. I typically use a smaller cup for matcha, a bigger one for chai lattes, and a bigger one than that for iced tea.
“Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.”
Unless I’m drinking chai, I do not add milk to my tea. I have made the occasional exception (I actually like milk in purple tea), but I generally prefer to taste the tea, not the milk.
“Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject.
The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.”
When I make chai, I don’t use either of Orwell’s methods. I find that the spices extract better with the lipids in the milk present than they do in water alone. In other words, I heat the milk and add it to the water while the tea is steeping. It changes the flavor considerably.
When I’m adding milk to any other tea, I typically put it in the cup first and then add tea to it.
“Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt.”
Good point, Mr. Orwell. Now please substitute the word “milk” for “sugar” in this paragraph. Then go back and read rule nine. I don’t sweeten my tea (chai being the exception again — I like some honey in it), but I see nothing wrong with doing so. Adding a bit of sugar is no different than adding a bit of milk.
Oh, and by the way, tea was traditionally prepared in salt water in ancient China. And one of my favorite chai blends does, indeed, contain pepper.
“Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.
Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.”
Again, Orwell is speaking only of black tea here. I do not expect bitterness in, for example, a Long Jing Dragonwell green tea. And I would argue that there are a lot of fine black teas that have minimal bitterness: Royal Golden Safari from Kenya, to pick a favorite of mine.
If I had to pick one issue to argue in this essay, it would be that George Orwell considers all tea to be the same (after eliminating the majority of the world’s production by limiting himself to India and Sri Lanka). Even within the world of black tea, there is immense diversity. I don’t use the same preparation methods or expect the same results for a malty Assam tea and a delicate first flush Darjeeling — much less a smoky Chinese lapsang souchong.
My recommendation? Experiment. Try new teas, and try them first without adding milk or sweetener. Use your supplier’s recommended water temperature and steeping time. Taste the tea. THEN decide whether you want to steep it for a shorter or longer time; whether it needs a bit of milk; whether you’d prefer to sweeten it.
The best tea is your favorite tea, prepared just the way you like it.