I may be ranting to the choir, but I am disappointed that it is still too hard to find a good cup – let alone a good pot – of loose whole-leaf tea in restaurants and cafes.  Often, I count myself lucky if I can find a drinkable cup of loose tea away from home.  Or, as I humorously like to put it, a cup “that can be consumed.”

How can this be?  I would have thought that some inroads should have been made in this area due to the tea education efforts of the Specialty Tea Institute and the business-to-business trade shows put on by the World Tea Expo and others, not to mention the availability of tea and tea information over the Internet.  But that is sadly not my experience.

In some ways, the trend towards serving loose whole-leaf tea in coffee-and-tea cafes and small tea rooms is making the situation worse instead of better.  For this reason, I think that most food establishments are better off with individually wrapped teabags of premium tea that they can buy in small packages.  The following is why I have changed my mind on this issue.

There is a problem with maintaining the freshness of loose tea in food establishments.  Storage conditions are usually poor.  All too often, what was once fairly good loose whole-leaf tea is being stored in clear glass jars under bright lights in warm conditions (even over the stove!) for long periods of time.  These large jars may only have a smattering of leaves at the bottom, often little more than the stale broken bits that remain from the multitude of scoops made into the jar over the previous months.  Occasionally, judging by the dust and grime on some containers, it looks like the tea has been sitting under these conditions for possibly years.  It appears that once bought, the jar of tea will sit there until every last bit is gone, perhaps never to be replaced.  No tea, no matter how good, could survive this abuse!

There is also a problem with the selections being offered.  Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoy drinking high-quality scented and blended tea.  By this, I mean teas such as Earl Grey, English Breakfast, and Russian Caravan.  However, I usually prefer my teas unscented, unflavored, and unblended.  The blending and flavoring trend has gone so full-tilt that these days, I am lucky if I have more than two or three selections of straight-up tea when I drink tea away from home.  And, if I frequent a place often, I tire of those few selections and have actually smuggled in my own tea so I could slip it into the cup or teapot.  Ahem, not that I am suggesting anyone else do that!

Many establishments, especially coffee-and-tea cafes and start-up tea rooms are confusing quantity with quality.  If I am being offered 30 stale teas, 25 of which I would not drink even if they were fresh, the “vast selection” is not doing anything for me.  Some small tea rooms – not tea shops mind you – are offering over 100 teas!  This should raise a red flag.  This many teas are usually nothing more than window dressing.  I doubt such a place would really take on the chore and financial burden of rotating out that many teas before they go stale.  The English Breakfast and Earl Grey might be fresh, but many of the more exotic blends and flavors are probably stale.

In my experience, food-service staff rarely know how to prepare non-black tea properly.  Just this week, a barista at a coffee-and-tea cart kindly said she would place my teabag of green tea into the paper cup while she piped steaming hot water in so it would “brew better.”  Once, a café barista ruined a rare, whole-leaf green tea this way before I could stop her.  She kindly obliged my request to remake it with cooler water by taking the exact same sleeve of tea, brewing it exactly the same way and then tossing in a few ice cubes afterwards to lower the temperature.  Smiling, she explained that they can reuse the leaves a few times because it is such high-quality tea.  I gave up at that point, politely took the paper cup of scorched tea, walked outside, and tossed it into the trash.  It is not surprising that so many people think they dislike green tea!

Tea enthusiasts must educate the owners of coffee-and-tea cafés and tea rooms about proper tea storage conditions (store small, full, opaque containers that exclude moisture someplace cool), so they begin to treat their loose, whole-leaf teas with respect.  Sadly, it seems that their tea suppliers are part of the problem as I keep seeing the same setups in multiple locations.  We can ask to see the open container of loose tea so we can evaluate it by sight and fragrance before we make our selection.  Refuse to buy stale, improperly stored tea.

Most tea drinkers only consume a handful of different teas regularly.  We can state to managers that we are willing to have fewer loose tea selections in order to have fresher, properly stored tea.  We can state our willingness to pay a little more to have our loose tea on a replacement schedule.  When I see that an establishment is offering properly stored loose tea, I will patronize it.  We can also choose a wrapped premium teabag over stale, loose tea.  Voting with our consumer dollars will make a difference.

We can make it our personal responsibility to see to it that our teas are properly brewed.  For example, when feasible, I ask to be the one who places green or oolong tea into the cup or pot of hot water.  This gives me control over the steeping temperature and timing.  I can wait for the water to cool or I can add ice or cold water before submerging the tea.  If the water is too cool, I can ask for it to be re-heated (not in the microwave) without compromising the tea leaves.  This also sends the message that we do not trust them to steep our tea properly.

We need more tea education for the general tea-drinking public, more discernment regarding where to spend our tea dollars as consumers, and more willingness to give feedback to baristas and managers.  Those of us who know more about tea brands can make suggestions to the owners about alternative sources from which to buy their tea.  We need them to know that we want to be taken seriously and that we are not fooled by the smoke-and-mirrors they are using to try and get us to buy their stale, loose tea.  And, lastly, we can drink tea away from home more often so businesses have a financial incentive to give us a better product.