A Melodrama About Tea in Five Acts


In one long dark teatime of the soul*, I stared into the abyss, pondered the hell hole that was my surroundings, and wondered at the inhumanity of it all.

Yes, I was in Melbourne Airport.

In late February, 2008 I blogged about a trip interstate. At the time, I was not enamoured of Melbourne. I have since grown to love it. On a nice day. Or in the nice bits of your average four-season Melbourne day.

So, I mentioned my soul-destroying sojourn to Melbourne Airport in the blog, and there is the throwaway line: “got a good cup of tea”.

Not great. Not tremendous. Not even really good. Just “good”. So why, in all my travails on my 5 decade journey through life, the universe and everything*, does this cup of tea justify it’s place as the central tenet in the first act of those referred to in the title of this meandering post?

Brace yourselves… it was a teab*g.

SORRY… I should have warned you. Breathe deeply, the dizziness will pass soon.

I remember it well. I got rained upon, my suitcase split, my laptop ran out of juice. I looked a bit dodgy so I got the security pat-down, twenty questions and the explosives test. Quite frankly, I was lucky to avoid a cavity search and a beating with hoses.

I limped into the airport café and saw tins. Assuming loose leaf, I ordered the chai**, and waited 15 minutes as they were heavingly busy. I grabbed the huge double-cardboard-cupped result, complete with lid, and magically a seat near the window – right next to a power point – opened up. I dived in, plugged in the laptop. and opened the cup.

Floating inside was a teab*g. And I was not willing to give up my seat to go back and argue. I decided to grin and bear it.

And I enjoyed it. It had good cinnamon notes, it was made with filtered water, it was steeped a while and was rather strong.

In fact, I decided there and then that, if ever backed into a corner with no other choice, I would once again take a chance on this tea.


Again in Melbourne, and I was sick.

When I have a migraine, I often curl up and feel sorry for myself. I usually arm myself with a huge mug of tea, a pint of water on the side and something salty: plain corn chips are my first choice.

Which is fine, if you are not there to represent your state and talk to a squillion people at a career fair.

So, after staying reasonably upright all morning, I wobbled off to the Exhibitor Lounge and Canteen – or “roped off plastic chairs” to be more accurate.  I asked for water: they had none, so I got 600mls of Coke Zero. I asked about corn chips – a large bucket of hot chips was as close as I came. And once again, I saw this brand of teab*g, and ordered the chai.

I wasn’t after taste, and don’t think I even noticed it. After washing two aspirin down with the above, I felt somewhere between ‘ready to fall over’ and ‘ready to run a marathon’, and while the former was much more likely, it was an improvement.

Here’s the thing about teab*gs: they don’t kill you. They are mostly harmless* in terms of their physical effect on you. However, they are an affront to every shred of decency: in  a café they tell you nothing less than that the owner does not care for you, and/or has no interest in taste, and/or only employs people who are so stupid they can’t be trusted with a teapot, and/or just wants your money to feed their opium habit. They probably have shares in a business that uses child slaves to make pesticides and bribes customs official to import antifreeze as “Fine Russian Wine” – but let’s not be too judgmental.

At the conclusion of this Act, I think I have freely admitted that sometimes, in extreme cases, one might drink teab*g tea. It’s a bit like people who get lost in the desert and survive by eating dead rats and passing insects, and drinking their own urine.


Only a few months ago, I needed to meet with a business associate, and we agreed to meet at a lovely tea shop I knew of in a nearby suburb.

We got there to find it closed – not the “be back in five minutes” kind of closed, but the newspaper across the front window kind of closed.

Across the road was a coffee shop. It was our only choice.

I don’t drink coffee any more, but this was the kind of coffee shop I applaud. Totally committed to seriously good coffee, well made, with premium milk, scrupulously clean, really good and innovative food.

So I spy the familiar tins, and resign myself to a mediocre experience.

“So, you have teab*gs, then?”, I started. No, said the hipster behind the espresso machine. “It’s loose”.

“Brilliant”, I reply. “I don’t suppose you have their chai?”

“Just came in yesterday” he replied, and from under his counter produced a foil pillow with about a kilo of tea in it, with one corner snipped off. I could smell it, rich, overpowering and I was overjoyed.

I had it. Served in a plunger/french press, it was excellent. They even supplied a little sachet of honey on the side, should one choose to indulge. The meeting went well, and all in all, it made me happy.

I decided that now I knew that this tea outfit has loose leaf available, I will ask the question more often when I see their tins, instead of just ordering a mineral water instead.


I was meeting someone and we met at a little Italian style café. He had a coffee and I saw the tins, so I tried my luck:

“In that tea loose?”

“It’s loose leaf tea in bags”

“Sorry, mate, that’s just nonsense. And why do you have filter teapots of you have teab*gs?”

“Look, I can empty the bag into a pot if you want”

“Well, do that then. I’ll have the chai”

Obviously I had just backed myself into a corner, but I was not displeased with the result. While it was not even close to how good the previous act’s tea was, it was noticeably better than a bag plonked on a cup.

Not so much a good cuppa as an interesting experiment.


Last weekend, Lady Devotea and I found ourselves along one of Adelaide’s more upscale retail precincts, and as we wandered along the BMW-lined paved footpaths, we noticed a coffee-and-cake place we knew now had a new name and a new look, so presumably new owners.

Her Ladyship declared herself to be quite amenable to coffee and cake, as we had failed to lunch and it was mid afternoon, so we ventured in.

I spied the familiar tins and asked the question of the young lady behind the counter: “Is that loose leaf tea” to which she replied in a manner that I feel was quite definite and not subject to any ambiguity: “Yes”.

I was so excited, I decided not to order the chai, but try one of their others: I went for the Ceylon.

We took a table and less than ten seconds later, the same young lady turned up with two milkshakes, asking which of us had ordered strawberry and which of us chocolate. It was case of mistaken identity: I guess all middle-aged couples look the same to you when you are under 25 and spend all day looking for reflective surfaces to admire yourself in.

Oh, how I wish I’d just said “strawberry” and started to drink it. But I didn’t.

My teapot arrived, and I opened it.

And, here’s what I found:

A filthy, filthy trick of the worst kind.
A filthy, filthy trick of the worst kind.

I’m going to end the story here.

I’ll leave it to your imagine to finish it off.

It does show, that there is a new sensibility. Not only are café staff and probably owners willing to serve teab*gs, but they are now convinced that lying about it is perfectly acceptable.

Sure, lying about teab*gs is unlikely to start a World War or cause a nuclear accident, but if we can’t trust the person who makes our tea, then our society might just crumble and disappear, not with a whimper, but a bag.


*I managed to get three Douglas Adams book titles into this post, just for fun. But once I realised there was no way “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” was getting over the line, I sort of gave up. I was visited by The Salmon Of Doubt*

** Yes, yes,  I mean Masala Chai. Tea pedants, you can stand down.

4 thoughts on “A Melodrama About Tea in Five Acts

  1. Robert, in the US, unless you are in an establishment devoted to afternoon tea, it is nearly impossible to get a decent (let alone ‘proper’) cup of tea. So when traveling, or just out for the day, I carry some good quality teabags. But, like you, I’m all about the loose leaf tea. I don’t know that teabags are truly harmless–at least for someone like me who drinks tea at least 8 times a day. There’s the paper that’s been bleached or the synthetic fabric. Then there’s the substance that’s holding it together. Bleached string. So I use loose leaf tea and, when I want to contain the leaves, a stainless steel mesh infuser.

  2. I agree with Jean, bleached teabags are even worse than plain teabags. When I use tea filters I use non-bleached ones. I also think those colorful labels that drop into your teacup, delivering a touch of lightly lethal chemical should best be avoided. Plastic thread teabags are equally undesirable.
    As always, and as you said Robert, one should drink loose. At least whenever possible.

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