Crimes Against Tea

Collage: cups of tea.

I’m as fussy about tea as I am about beer, but perhaps in a slightly different way.

I started drinking tea when I was about 2-years-old — weak and milky, then, out of a bottle. The not so fun side of this is that by the time I reached my teens I was on about ten cups a day and suffered withdrawal symptoms (migraine, faintness) if I missed a dose for some reason. Tea is, after all, a powerful stimulant and vehicle for caffeine, despite all the Great British Bake Off tweeness that comes with it.

Over the years I’ve got to a healthier place with a general cutting back and the odd decaff placebo, though I can still be knocked out the next day if I don’t have a cuppa mid-afternoon. And that’s one reason I often end up drinking tea in pubs, between or instead of pints.

There are other good reasons too, of course: it’s a terrific pick-me-up; it gives the palate and the liver a break; it’s warming, which can be useful on a winter pub crawl for icy-fingered folk like me; and (perhaps not universally applicable) it’s entirely historically appropriate in an inter-war improved pub. (Especially for a ladylike lady like wot I am.)

So, here are my thoughts on the quality and presentation of tea, some of which apply to pubs, and some more general.

  1. Just as with beer, how it’s treated matters. Freshness and storage conditions are the most important factors: fancy teabags stored in a glass jar on a shelf in the sun for six months won’t taste as good as basic ones refreshed frequently and kept in an airtight container in the dark.
  2. Let me put in my own milk. You are putting in too much, too early. Remember, tea for me is a substitute for espresso, not bedtime Horlicks.
  3. ‎Related: don’t rush it. Either leave the bag in, or let it brew for four or five minutes.
  4. Fancy leaf tea is fine and can be transcendent (I remember fondly a place in the City of London whose tea had an almost hoppy floweriness) but, really, bags properly looked after taste great to me. So don’t put yourself out on my behalf.
  5. Supposedly artisanal tea brands can do one. Many of the teas with the sexiest brands, biggest claims and fanciest packaging seem to be utterly mediocre — all about the upsell.
  6. Organic tea, unlike organic beer, is still a thing and, just as with organic beer, seems to taste worse than the pesticide-laden variety.
  7. ‎Local tea? Don’t be daft. You can grow tea in the UK but why bother?
  8. The worst crime of all is tea that has somehow been contaminated with coffee. I quite like coffee, I love tea, but the ghost of a stale coffee in my tea? Blech!

Now, to be fair, in my experience most pubs do a better cuppa than the average high street chain coffee shop, which might be worth remembering next time you’re in a pub and, for whatever, want something other than booze.

And, now I think about it, some of this isn’t that different to how I am with beer after all: a basic product in decent condition trumps a fancy one that’s treated and presented like rubbish.

17 thoughts on “Crimes Against Tea”

    1. Presumably, bags are the keg equivalent to leaf’s cask?
      Artisanal teas would be craft, I guess, although I suppose the range of fruit teas also fits in here.

      I can’t recall having many cups of tea in pubs ever – coffee, yes, but hardly ever tea. Whereas I often have tea in rugby clubs. Hmmm, rather odd… I think I don’t expect pubs to do a decent cup of tea on one hand, and generally don’t visit them when I want a cup of tea on the other – tea for me is a late morning or afternoon drink. And most rugby clubs serve the tea with the teabag in, milk separate to put in when you want to, so tend to make a decent fist of it even if the teabags themselves are rarely all that good – which is actually a rather close parallel with the beer they offer as well.

  1. Couldn’t agree more.

    Really annoys me how many pubs won’t do a basic cuppa though. When it’s my turn to drive in the winter I don’t want pints of lime and soda – I want tea! And I want it made with boiling water and decent teabags. It’s actually better with less equipment (as opposed to coffee machine made tea), and I assume the vast majority of pubs have a kettle for staff use so why won’t they make me a cup of tea?!

    Once staff know me in these establishments they have been known to take pity on me which is lovely, but it should be standard fare.

    1. I seem to recall one pub citing ‘health and safety’ as a reason for not putting the kettle on, which was directly behind the staff member…

  2. Interesting. It’s actually never occurred to me to have a cup of tea in a pub – even when I’m there for breakfast I invariably get coffee. I guess I assume I’ll just get “builder’s tea”, dark and stewed, and which always seems to give me a much bigger & more jittery caffeine boost than the equivalent amount of coffee; perhaps there’s a tannin high in there somewhere. I’m a massive teabag snob, too, although you may actually have changed my mind on that score – really good leaf tea will always outshine teabags, but how often does it have to be a really good cup of tea?

    Agreed on ‘artisan’ tea – commodification always seems to go along with blandness, even at the top/weird end. I remember getting something called “red zinger” from a Chinese street market in London, 30-odd years ago; God only knows what it had in it, but it was strong stuff (cleared your sinuses right out). There are ‘red zingers’ in the tea aisle at Sainsbury’s now, but in my experience they’re a blend of hibiscus and nothing much.

    More on tea, connoisseurism and craft beer here, from way back when I was a newcomer to this blogging lark and hadn’t even heard of Beer Advocate. (I heard of it quite quickly after that.)

    1. @jeff Cross contamination of serving vessels. It’s much worse with conferences and events where the organisers serve the afternoon tea in the same flasks as the morning coffee.

      1. But it seems to be only flasks which have the issue?? You can have a flask of tea as many times as you want and it will taste nice, but once it’s had coffee in the next time you have tea it tastes of foist and rubber. It needs properly cleaning and sanitising to get rid of the taste. It’s one of the worst flavours I know.

        However I often have cups of tea in the same cup I just had coffee in at work and there seems to be very little problem.

  3. Jarvis Cocker on Desert Island Discs said tea should be the colour of the toffees in Quality Street. I nicked his description and have used it ever since.

  4. @landlady – yes, absolutely agree on just using a plain old kettle! It needs to be boiling, not coffee machine temperature. I should have added that to the list.

    1. I once got told in a local pub that they couldn’t serve tea for “health and safety reasons”. I think I may have pointed out the risks to staff’s health and safety would be far higher if I didn’t get a cup of tea. Or something like that.

  5. Found out that my daughter has joined the Tea Society at university – in my day, we started the Real Ale and Home Brew Society. What is the world coming to? 😉

  6. Little bit scared about this, but..

    I put the milk in tea first, a couple of minutes before the boiling water. Never used to, switched a decade ago as it tastes better to me. I make a hundred cups of tea for old ladies on a Saturday and put the milk in first; never had complaints (they hate my coffee you can stand a spoon in though).

    My point is, I don’t know ANYONE else who puts the milk in first. No-one else in my large office did, for instance. Loads of tea connoisseurs and commoners ridiculing the milk first brigade, which I think is a brigade of one.

    Am I really Not Alone ?

    1. Milk first when using a Teapot is the One True Way (yes, even at work…)!

      Milk while the teabag is still in the mug should be a hanging offense.

      >>Am I really Not Alone ?<teabag>water, but they’re engineers so assume it’s laziness rather than taste.

      How do you feel about the little (indestructible) glass mugs that you often get in church/village halls? Maybe they could all be commandeered, CE marked, and distributed to hipster craft beer joints.

      1. Yup. The water needs to be boiling to correctly brew normal tea; with leaf tea, that happens in the pot (which should be pre-warmed to prevent the temperature dropping too quickly to extract the flavour); with a teabag in a mug, it is equally essential not to put the milk in first, or else the water just isn’t hot enough and what you get isn’t tea, but a milky hot drink with a little tea flavour. Fair enough if that’s what you really want, but a dreadful thing to inflict on other people who have a reasonable expectation of a cup of actual tea if you offer them a cup of tea. Hanging’s way too good for such miscreants.

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