By Regina McHugh Forrence
Popular culture is against us. Few in charge understand us. There's no strength in our numbers. Equal treatment is an elusive dream. The person behind the counter opens a faux mahogany chest and, pointing to its contents, says, "Pick one of these and I'll get you some water that was hot 20 minutes ago." He doesn't really say that, but that's what he means.
"That'll be $3.29," he says.
He really does say that, and he means it.
Sigh. I am a tea drinker.
You coffee drinkers have your baristas. They learn the art of the brew, develop a flair for adding that rush of steaming milk to a cup of cappuccino, and regularly deliver to you a product that's hot and ready to be enjoyed. Those same baristas give me a cup of possibly hot water and a wrapped package of old, crumbled leaves and charge me the same price.
At restaurants, the wait staff is trained to keep coffee cups full, to "freshen" them regularly with newly brewed java. When my cup runs low, the same wait staff volunteers to pour more tepid water onto a used, cold bag of mediocre tea. I wince. If I ask for a new tea bag, I am charged for a second beverage, while my coffee-drinking companion can have cup after cup at no extra charge.
As a group, we tea drinkers are second-class citizens.
For at least the last half century, coffee has been the hot drink of choice in the
Only some of us don't.
Tea is a gentler, soothing drink. Its aroma is subtle. Its flavor can be flowery, smoky, earthy or zesty. Just a dash of sugar erases its bitter edge. It sports a little caffeine kick, yes; but it rarely leaves one jittery. Proper preparation is simple and its cost is economical. For too long, though, it's been coffee's poor, struggling cousin. Something called tea is on the menu at most establishments that serve a cup of joe, but in reality the stuff that is servied -- tepid water with a side of dark dust in a paper wrapper -- is not tea. It's a DIY kit for something my father used to call "water traveling in bad company."
The American public has been trained by years of bad precedent to believe that almost-hot water accompanied by a wrapped tea bag is as good as it gets. Many don't know what they're missing.
Tea is brewed properly when water -- preferably cold water -- is boiled and then immediately poured over loose tea in a ceramic pot. One heaping teaspoon of tea leaves is required for each cup you wish to brew plus "one for the pot". Thus, making four cups of tea in a single pot would require five heaping spoonfuls. Tea bags that contain good quality tea leaves are acceptable (and admittedly more convenient); but it should be noted that, with few exceptions, good tea leaves are not packaged in tea bags with strings. Tea leaf dust is what is lurking in those bags. Once the water is poured, the tea should be allowed to "mash" for five to seven minutes. The full-flavored result is poured into a warmed cup.
I know that one can enjoy a quite satisfying version of "High Tea" at the Four Seasons or at the Ritz; but that's an event, complete with pastry, sandwiches and sweets. Lovely, but it's not something the average tea drinker can afford daily - in time, calories or money.
Aside from the occasional attentive server who gets it right -- pouring freshly boiled water over waiting tea leaves - most food service employees are not trained in the art of tea making. Usually, the ingredients I'm presented with to brew my own lack purity. This is especially true in catering halls, where pots of heated water are often pots that once (or more than once) contained coffee - thus tainted forever with the flavor of bitter beans. It's depressing.
My jealousy of how the other half sips has more than once led me to an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality. I watch someone enjoy an aromatic cup of coffee after a meal and I think, "I want that".
When I taste it, though, the overwhelming pungency always leaves me gasping the same pronouncement: "This stuff is vile!"
I don't begrudge coffee drinkers their quaff's status as an artisan brew. But how about a renaissance for the proper cup of tea?