Hello, I’m Henrietta and I’m a tea fanatic. I usually order coffee.
It’s my job to travel the world searching out the finest leaves. I venture far from the beaten track in the mountains of China, India and Africa, but when it comes to drinking tea in the UK I order coffee, not because I prefer it, but because I don’t dare try the tea.
In bars across Britain, proudly displayed coffee machines gleam expensively. We take for granted the sound and smell of beans being freshly ground. But in a nation renowned for its tea, where is it? Somewhere in among the espresso cups you might find a cardboard box full of dusty tea bags.
Despite all the love and flair that is lavished on serving a decent coffee, what degree of care is allowed for tea? A waiter plops a bag in a cup with a string hanging menstrually over the side. Or perhaps the bag lurks, a dark floater, to be retrieved with a teaspoon and left seeping on your saucer.
Even if the tea bag is hidden discreetly in a pot, it’s still all-too-often an ordinary tea bag. No one is fooled. Customers don’t think for a moment that they are being given a rare treat. When we go out, don’t we want an experience a bit better than ordinary? We certainly don’t expect to find instant coffee. A cup of builder’s in a bag might be okay for a greasy spoon, but is it really acceptable in a restaurant or bar?
Restaurant and bar managers often tell me that they don’t pay much attention to the tea they serve, because they don’t serve very much – it doesn’t occur to them that this might be because no-one
wants what they’re serving. If the only wine they had was an industrial blend served from
a plastic bottle, I’m sure they wouldn’t shift much of that, either.
When customers are offered a single-estate Muscatel Darjeeling or Jasmine Silver Tip, things are a bit different. Staff who are interested, informed and proud of the tea they serve are able to sell far more. Where they can tell the customer that the Jasmine Silver Tip has been scented over six nights with fresh jasmine flowers or that the breakfast tea is a bespoke blend created for them by the Rare Tea lady, things are very different indeed.
As soon as good tea goes on the menu, sales increase. When a glass teapot with loose leaf is served, customers across the room start ordering. Henry Harris, chef/proprietor of Racine, told me that his staff were dubious when his glass teapots first arrived. They soon came round when sales shot up, and it was clear to customers that care had been put into the crafting of the product and its service. When people can see whole leaves unfurl as they infuse, they realise they are experiencing something different to the dusty industrial-grade stuff they get at home.
And its not just fine restaurants that have begun to embrace good tea.
‘Too often, tea is overlooked as being a vital element of a venue’s drinks offering,’ says Eddie Francis from The Engineer pub in London’s Primrose Hill. ‘Even in a relaxed gastropub, it is essential that the same care and attention to detail is given to all aspects of service and a bag of Tw*****s simply doesn’t cut the mustard.’
Bars serving iced oolongs and cocktails based on rare white teas have also seen growing interest. Places that started with Earl Grey and English Breakfast are now offering a full range of teas from white leaf to wok-fired green. Once customers have tried a beautifully crafted English Breakfast and been blown away they’ll feel comfortable to try less familiar teas.
The vast complexity and diversity of flavours is often a big shock and a great joy to people obsessed with flavour. Part of my mission is to change people’s preconceptions that tea is just a utilitarian milky drink from a bag or, in the case of green tea, a bitter brew for virtuous people. Tea can be so much more.
BEYOND THE BLENDED
A common-or-garden tea bag is generally a blend of 60 industrially processed teas. The challenge is blending it so that it always tastes roughly the same: bland but standardised. The skill in good leaf teas comes from the growing and crafting.
Fine tea is a lot like fine wine. It all comes from camellia sinensis, just as all wine comes from grapes. It’s the variety grown and where and how the leaf is processed that creates the vast range of flavours. Like wine, you can buy tea for a few dollars a kilo or a few thousand dollars. It depends on many variables like terroir and the skill of the craftsman, but most importantly, on how it tastes.
Like wine, you get what you pay for. If it’s cheap, there is a reason, and you can be sure the producer has had to compromise on taste. A small producer cannot hope to compete in price with the economies of scale that big agribusinesses enjoy, but they win hands down when it comes to flavour. I’m not against tea bags because I’m a snob or elitist (I know my name is Henrietta but I don’t live alone in a cottage full of cats, antimacassars and fish knives).
BAN THE BAGS
Tea bags don’t make good tea. They might make service marginally easier, but they are a massive flavour compromise. It doesn’t matter what shape they are, whether they’re made of silk, nylon or paper. It’s just too small a container for good tea to infuse properly.
The best teas come from whole or large pieces of leaf, with room to unfurl they swell to up to six times their size. Unless you use the tiny crumbs of low-grade ‘dust’, it is always better loose.
It’s not a huge outlay to invest in the equipment to make great tea. The coffee machine may cost thousands but the high-end technology to make good tea cost only a few pounds. It’s been around for thousands of years. Robust, timeless and aesthetically pleasing, a tea pot is all you need. Hold on, you also need a strainer and a teaspoon to measure out the tea.
Good tea costs more, but people are willing to pay for it. Margins can remain the same. You can get a tea bag for a few pennies and charge pounds for a pot, but for pennies more, you can get good stuff.
At wholesales prices a tea like my Lost Malawi – a rich, black, single-estate tea that knocks spots off any commercial afternoon tea – will set you back about 20p a pot. It doesn’t cost the earth but you are giving your customers something really, really good, and they would expect to pay more for that, than for a mug of builder’s. And even though it costs more, it’s unlikely that they’ll feel ripped off in the way they do when they are given the same tea bag they get at home.