Based on my anecdotal evidence, high-quality tea is coming into its own.  In fact, I would even go so far as to say there is a c-change happening in the tea industry.  I felt it this past January as I crisscrossed the United States on an extended business trip and found decent tea (not great, but decent) in the unlikeliest of places, where ten years ago my sole choice would have probably been Lipton.  

Over the past three weeks, that feeling I had back in January has been validated time and again.  These days, rather than complain about a soggy tea bag in lukewarm water, I complain about an inaccurate description on a tea menu (yes, a tea menu) at a local breakfast hangout, the inability to prevent a whole-leaf green tea from continuing to steep, or the lack of education of customers on the variance in water temperature depending on the tea you have ordered.  Let me explain.

On the Fourth of July, my cousins took us to one of their favorite breakfast places in downtown San Diego – Brickyard Coffee & Tea.  Housed in a brick building with plenty of character and a welcoming ambiance, Brickyard Coffee & Tea offers 13 whole-leaf teas that run the gamut from a classic English Breakfast to an Organic Passion Fruit.  Quite exemplary.  But then I noticed two things.  First, the “Vanilla w/ Pieces” selection halfway through the tea menu was described as a “fully fermented black tea flavored with select Indonesian and Tahitian vanilla beans.”  Fermented?  Really?  I accompanied one of my cousins to the counter to order and asked about the “fermented” tea.  Was it, by chance, a pu-erh?  Is that how they really meant to characterize it?  One of the staff behind the counter quickly responded – “It’s not fermented,” he said.  “That description is incorrect.”  Hopefully, my next visit will find their tea menu duly corrected.  Secondly, my trip to the counter afforded me the opportunity to see how Brickyard’s teas were stored – in clear jars.  Although Brickyard goes through most of their teas in a month or two and stores them in a rather dark corner, I suggested they switch to storage containers that were opaque.

The weekend of July 14 found my husband and me in Las Vegas attending a wedding.  Since the wedding festivities were not until the evening, I suggested an impromptu gathering at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel’s Tea Lounge, a recommendation that came from two of our T Ching contributors – Ifang Hsieh and Naomi Rosen.  Ten of us, including the mother of the groom, converged on the 23rd floor Tea Lounge overlooking the Las Vegas strip.  We were a convivial group, most of us having worked and played together for nearly 30 years.  Getting away together for a couple of hours of tea and conversation was just what we needed.  The intimate Tea Lounge lived up to my expectations.  Their tea menu has something for everyone, without overwhelming guests with choice.  No tea bags, no loose tea leaves floating in water and continuing to steep – just delicious, already properly steeped tea.  There is, however, always room for improvement.  In the case of the Mandarin Oriental, my only advice is a bit of education and setting of expectations.  Not all tea should be served piping hot, straight off the boil.  Let your guests know that up front, so they understand why a green or white tea they order is perhaps not as hot as they are used to.  All in all, though, the Tea Lounge is absolutely worth the trip (and the expense – it is pricey).

Finally, a week ago, after a particularly rigorous housecleaning session and no desire to cook, we decided to try K-Zo, a Japanese restaurant in downtown Culver City that is known for its sushi.  Although we had not gone to K-Zo for its tea, I was delighted to see the following section in their menu that featured tea before coffee:

Premium Tea and Coffee
Green Tea    3.

Genmai Tea (Green Tea with Roasted Brown Rice)    3.

Premium Iced Green Tea    3.

Fresh Brewed Tropical Iced Tea    3.5

Iced Oolong Tea    3.0

Fresh Brewed Dark Roasted Coffee    3.

I asked for the green tea and was promptly presented with a cup and a glass teapot swimming with unfurling green tea leaves.  Not much to complain about, but – you can see this coming – how do I stop the tea from continuing to steep?  The cup wasn’t large enough to accommodate all the tea, so I was forced to drink the tea quickly to avoid a bitter brew.  However, in fairness, the tea was very good, as was the food.

Who knows, in another six months, the quality of the tea and of its presentation at the various venues I visit may leave me with nothing but praise.  I can only hope.