The Semi-Magnificent Seven

If I go into a café, bistro, restaurant, hotel or any other eating establishment, and they are the sort of pathetic, standardless, thieving charlatans that have teab*gs, then naturally I recoil in horror and often make my displeasure known. You’d expect nothing less, right?

In fact, often friends and family members will apologise for my behaviour IN ADVANCE. Yes, before I even open my mouth in a genuine attempt to explain to the proprietors exactly how criminally stupid they are. A bit rich, considering what a favour I am doing them, pointing out their faults so they can easily improve.

The problem this leaves me with, though, is that sometimes I walk into places with loose leaf tea.

That doesn’t sound like a problem, does it?

The first issue is my own principles. I may have walked in wanting a cold drink, or a hot chocolate, but as soon as I see loose leaf, I need to order it. I need to send these people the signal that they are doing the right thing. After all, the other people in there sipping their soy decaf quarter-lattes and Coke Zeroes aren’t helping.

I cannot help but order it. I am bound by my own code, much like Dexter, except with moderately less homicide. Here’s how it plays out.

There are usually up to seven options of loose leaf tea. Let’s count them.

There’s English Breakfast. Great.

Now, I love a good Breakfast tea. If you look at our range you’ll see we have around EIGHT breakfasty black blends in each market. And usually, they are ones that I have personally developed. It’s not always the case, but I tend to develop the straight black blends and the green range and Lady Devotea the florals and the whites. There are exceptions to this and we generally work together, but the point is, I’ve always got at least eight breakfasty blends at home, as well as about 30 single origin. So when I see “English Breakfast tea”, in a canister, usually either unmarked or of a brand I don’t like as much as ours, let’s just say I’m unexcited and if possible, I wish to avoid it.

And that’s where the trouble starts.

The next canister is almost certainly Earl Grey. Might be great, might not. But as I have an allergy that precludes bergamot, it’s not an option.

The next canister is almost always labelled “Green Tea“.

Really? “Green” tea. That can be anything from a stringy, bitter, grassy, cheap Japanese sencha to something like a Chun Mei, which I could drink all day. So, in the popular management-speak, I’ll generally “put a pin in it” and return later to considering it.

You know what’s coming next, don’t you? I can barely type it: Chamomile.

Yes, the only thing worse than the completely untrue claims about this being a calming, relaxing sleep-helper – and who the hell needs that when they are out and about? – is the vile taste. This herb – and it is certainly not tea – has the gall to take up one-seventh of the tea slots in our mythical standardised café, and it’s not even tea. Best use for this is to start a fire with it, though apparently, not on the front counter of a café.

So we are four in, one boring, one to consider later, two aren’t happening.

Next up, we’ll likely get a masala chai. It will be marked Chai. It will have no ingredients listed, of course, so I will stay away from it because (a) it may well have citrus peel in it and (b) what are the chances they can make it properly?

Note that in some places they offer “powdered chai”. Try not to throw up on the table if they even suggest it. Or maybe you should, they might take the hint.

Peppermint is in the next canister. Always. This can be good news if it is pure peppermint, but I’ve also come across it mixed with all sorts of stuff, and in several cases, lemon peel. So unless I can be guaranteed it is pure, no dice.

Last, we are going to get some sort of herbal mix. Most likely without tea. In some cases, it might be nice. Lemongrass and Ginger, perhaps. But more likely a less sensible mix called “Nature’s Garden” or “Granny’s Window Box” or “Chillaxification” if you have accidentally strayed into Hipstertown. It consists of of calendula, lavender, jasmine, hibiscus, oleander*, blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, strawberry, elderberry, halleberry, rose petal, rosehips, sage, parsley, rosemary, thyme, orange peel, lemon peel, grapefruit peel, tangerine peel, apple, pear, banana, chamomile, peppermint, spearmint, raspberry leaf, garlic , juniper berries, old socks and formica**.

That’s seven. So, let’s recap:

  • Canisters 2 (Earl Grey, allergy problem) and 4 (Chamomile, tastes like old socks problem) are out. That leaves 5 of them.
  • Canister 7 (the herbal) is usually out for either allergy or taste reasons.
  • English Breakfast is the fallback position, but perhaps I can do better
  • So I need to assess three of the rest. Yes, I need to get my hands, my eyes and mostly my nose on the next group.

“Can I have a look and smell of some of your teas, please?”

I usually find my ever reliable nose can be deceived by chai. There is too much going on to be certain there is no citrus peel. I can taste it in the finished product 100% of the time, but that’s rather too late.

An unsafe choice, so let’s sniff the peppermint. Mostly, this turn out to be OK. So that’s one on the ‘possibles’ list.

Then the green. This is mostly disappointing. Firstly because it’s often cheap or Japanese, two concepts I hate in a green tea. And secondly, because it’s usually not made very well unless you are in a specialist tea shop. (The exception to this is jasmine green tea in Chinese restaurants. Seems no matter how cheap, it tastes good in that environment.)

So the net result of a five minute discussion, often with staff that are less that happy about it – because they are hipsters and I’m over 30 so I know nothing – it comes down to English Breakfast or Peppermint.

Sometimes, I find that a smaller place has performed a miracle, and that one of the above is missing, and instead there’s a canister marked “Darjeeling” or “Assam”.

Not marked with a garden name- probably a blend. Looks like it’s been there a while. I’ll just take a deep breath.

“I’ll have that one, please”.


 

*oleander is highly toxic. Don’t drink it. It’s a joke.

** Make formica tea by taking your cupboard door off and soaking it in a bathtub of hot water for a week. Still better than chamomile.

 

Robert Godden

Certified Tea Nutter. Blender. Author of "The Infusiast" and Tea "Stories"

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6 thoughts on “The Semi-Magnificent Seven

  1. It is true to that choice is often limited and I think your technique is a good one to select the perfect tea for you (which is not that surprising).

  2. I assume if there’s something called “chai,” a dialog something like the following will ensue:

    ROBERT: What is this?
    WAITER: It’s chai.
    ROBERT: These are all chai. Chai means tea. What is this one?
    WAITER: It’s, like, chai, man. You know. Like … chai? It’s organic.
    ROBERT: What’s in it?
    WAITER: Tea. And chai. And it’s organic.
    ROBERT: Chai *IS* tea, dude. You mean there’s tea with a masala spice blend?
    WAITER: I don’t know. Probably.
    ROBERT: Cardamom? Ginger? Cinnamon? Cloves?
    WAITER: Yeah, I guess. You know. It’s chai.
    *sound of Robert’s head hitting the table*

    More tea shops need to provide consulting and training to restaurants. The steakhouse down the street serves our tea, and we’ve made sure that there’s something for almost every tea drinker — even you, Robert!

  3. I think I’ve had formica tea. Wasn’t half bad. I was, maybe, eight – still in the “licking counters” phase of life. There’s a coffee shop near my work that I test-drove before a date. They only had four options in loose leaf canisters – Assam, Chamomile . . . and Genmaicha.

    I went for the hot chocolate, and suggested to my potential date that we have tea elsewhere.

    Luckily, this being Portland, I knew of several coffee shops that had better tea ranges, AND I was familiar with where they sourced from.

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