The King of Siam may not have been thinking about afternoon tea when he said to Anna, “Tis a puzzlement,” but his words are apt nonetheless. Why do so many places that serve afternoon tea seem to forget about the quality of the tea itself? Yes, the tea sandwiches, scones and sweets, clotted cream, and passable jam and curd are all there, but when it comes time to taste the tea, it is sorely lacking. Underbrewed, overextracted, and cool are just a few of the adjectives in a long laundry list of no-nos that spoil the overall afternoon experience. Often the tea menus are sorely lacking in description, a situation compounded by the fact that the server cannot offer the imbiber any help in making a decision about which tea to choose in relation to the flavor profiles of the foods being served to accompany it. I, for one, do not wish to recall how many afternoon teas around the country I have experienced (in hotels, restaurants, and tea rooms) in which the tea was of indifferent quality – either stale, improperly stored (in the warmest part of the kitchen perhaps), or brewed with no finesse whatsoever.
Who’s at fault? I contend it is all of us in the tea world, from those who sell, import, process, and package tea to those who regularly drink and write about tea (certainly the audience of this blog). It’s time to pay attention to what is being served in the cup as well as on the plate at afternoon teas everywhere. And it’s all about education – education disseminated to the buyer and to the end user. What tea company wishes to find its teas on an afternoon tea menu shown in an unflattering light?
We all know that – with proper storage, in a cool place and tightly sealed – most teas retain much of their character and flavor for long enough for any self-respecting tea room to use them before the teas go downhill. But educating the servers and sales clerks in tea shops, ah, that’s another issue. Professional attitudes and career track aspirations for those working in the retail world are in short supply, even in an economic climate of double-digit unemployment. Perhaps passion for the field might be fueled if tea room owners took more time with their staff, unfurling the history and mystery of this large story that we call tea. And the consumers would benefit.
I cannot count how many times a server knew little or nothing about the teas being served and couldn’t romance them or give details about their origin, history, or optimal temperatures and times for infusion if their lives or tips depended upon it. How about a view of the leaves before being brewed and then even after? Is that too much to ask? As tea enthusiasts – and, dare I say, experts – we need to be sure that all levels of the tea distribution chain are remedying this information gap. Accurate information, history, tips on brewing, vivid and evocative descriptors of the tea and the landscape in which it is grown, and recommendations for proper storage and shelf life must all flow seamlessly from the tea company owner who procures or processes the tea, to the sales reps who peddle it, and to the buyer, owner, or manager of the venue where afternoon tea is served. Whether printed or verbally communicated, this information should help to ensure that the second word of “afternoon tea” is taken seriously.
The pleasures of a pause in a busy day rest not only on the social interactions between or among those at the tea table, but should also derive from the liquid refreshment served at its peak, regardless of the level of quality of the teas being used. Just a bit more attention to what is served in the cup – and what’s on the plate – can go a long way toward improving the overall experience. Even a modest everyday kind of tea can be enjoyed, when brewed at proper strength, served at the correct temperature, and refreshed or replaced for second or third infusions, if appropriate. We’re not talking tribute tea or rarities here. The next time you are out for an afternoon tea, take note of the tea that is served and be sure to register your pleasure or dissatisfaction, as the case may be. It’s the only way things will improve and in my view, nothing less than the growth of the tea market beyond ready-to-drink is at stake.