“Tea would become a more popular beverage in the United States if restaurants improved their brewing methods, United Nations experts have decided. Unsatisfactory tea-making is probably a major reason why the tea habit has not caught on more in this country, officials of the Food and Agricultural Organization said in a report today. They did not find fault with the brew [prepared at home] but they had some less-than-enthusiastic remarks about the beverage served in public eating places and the Army.”
– “Beverage’s Popularity Hurt by Poor Quality Served in Restaurants, F.A.O. Finds,” New York Times
This quote is from an article that appeared on November 22, 1954 – an article that probably attracts little attention today, except from tea enthusiasts who read it and lament that things haven’t gotten a whole lot better in 57 years. Why has the professional skill set in restaurants to make and serve a good cup of tea not budged in over half a century? At a time when chefs have become celebrities who micro-manage every detail of their restaurant from concept to design to the execution of elaborate food and drink offerings, how is it that banal tea is still being served and that adequate passes for acceptable, sometimes at $5.00-$6.00 a cup?
As the recently taken photograph through the window of an eating establishment that accompanies this post demonstrates, tea is still frequently an afterthought in food service, or in some cases, completely forgotten – a rack of tea bags shoved into a corner with an employee’s umbrella. Why is tea a nuisance beverage when a good cup of coffee can be more complicated to store, prepare, and serve (grind beans, brew the coffee, don’t let it set too long, milk, cream, sugar, artificial sweetener, decaf …)? Tea: infuse it in water of the approximately correct temperature and serve. Even if a little more preparation were required, for a restaurant, tea has the upside of being infinitely more profitable than coffee on a cost-per-cup basis.
Maybe it isn’t technique. Maybe it is just a numbers game – a question of too little demand? As the article in 1954 went on to compare, “Per capita consumption of tea has fallen by two-thirds since the turn of the century, and only in the last few years has it begun to climb. Despite the low cost of tea as compared with coffee, per capita consumption declined from 220 cups a year in the 1900’s to a low of 106 [cups] in 1946, and last year  averaged 137 cups. Per capita coffee consumption increased from 475 cups annually during the 1920’s to 700 cups last year .” Perhaps we’re not really doing our share then. While tea has had a good run in the last decade, per-capita numbers fluctuate depending on the source and whether glasses of iced tea and ready-to-drink bottled teas are included. A per-capita average of 157 cups of hot tea is one of the most frequently used recent estimates for the U.S. So we’ve only increased consumption +/- 20 cups per capita since the 1950’s? Our friends to the north in Canada currently drink around 264 cups per capita.
The article goes on to mention that at that time, “Only 1 of every 12 eating places serves tea properly prepared,” a number which, like tea consumption, may have moved up a bit over the years, but not by much. How can we speed up the process? Numbers of tea drinkers alone won’t overwhelm the 6 to 1 ratio of coffee to tea drinkers any time soon. While we might be a smaller customer demographic, tea drinkers can begin to speak up in a voice that is louder than their numbers might indicate. When you do get good tea service at a restaurant, let the manager and chef know you appreciate it and on that detail alone, it will make you a returning customer. Turn to the various social media and restaurant-rating sites and include in your positive ratings comments about their tea service.
Likewise, when the tea service is bad, let the establishment know that as wonderful as the rest of the meal was, your experience ended on a sour note (or more accurately, a bland and bitter note). And for those truly dreadful tea encounters? Take that dusty, tasteless, nondescript tea bag they’ve given you, infuse it, pull it out of the cup and walk it over to the hostess desk. Swing it gently in front of their eyes and firmly announce that, “This. Is. Unacceptable.” Gently place the sopping tea bag on their counter and walk back to the table, head held high. Or something to that effect.
Let’s hope we all get to enjoy better tea days to come in restaurants over the next 57 years. We’ll compare notes in 2068.