Reinvent Your Tea Service
“Tea, while no intoxicant, most definitely produces a high all its own—a state of heightened altertness, of tranquility and freedom from care, of ruddy cheeks and sparkling conversation. Tea exhilarates.” — James Norwood Pratt
Tea shares wine’s ability to captivate, if not intoxicate. Remember the first wine that really snared you? The one that lured you with its aroma, captivated you with its flavor, and surprised you with its layered and long finish? In tea, that might be a cup of Alishan Oolong from Nantou Taiwan, or a fresh First Flush Darjeeling from a famous Himalayan estate. Tea creates a lasting impression that recalls the stories told of one’s first classed growth Bordeaux, or the epiphany triggered by a first taste of Raveneau Les Clos.
Tea and wine share other connections as well. While one is fermented grape juice and the other processed tea leaves, both beverages express endless variations through cultivar, terroir, and processing. Both artfully combine the influences of growing site and and human elaboration. They have long histories of bringing people together and creating shared rituals among friends. Moreover, each beverage’s wide range of flavors and aromas generate innumerable pairing possibilities.
In fact, Master Sommelier and TEXSOM co-founder, James Tidwell, recently teamed up with Certified Tea Specialist and co-owner of The Cultured Cup, Kyle Stewart, to develop a comparative tea and wine tasting guide. This guide, included below, can be used by wine and culinary professionals to understand the nuances that distinguish different teas, to educate their tea palates, and to craft distinguished tea menus.
Tidwell has since become the first Master Sommelier certified through the Specialty Tea Institute as a Tea Specialist, and maintains that, “Knowledge of the world’s most-consumed prepared beverage is essential.” Although America’s tea culture still lags behind that of some other countries in sophistication, interest in fine tea is growing substantially. According to the Tea Association of the USA, specialty tea sales have increased 8% annually, not least because millennials continue to seek unique artisan tea experiences.
With that promising fact noted, we must still ask: what is the status of tea in American restaurants? Unfortunately, far too many fine dining establishments continue to offer tea—and tea service—that does not rise to the level set by their food and wine. This is a shame, because tea’s aesthetic potential and myriad culinary properties can make it an ideal offering to express a restaurant’s personality to its guests. Great tea is easy to make and simple to serve beautifully. It provides opportunities to create elegant rituals around its service, offer experiences that are new to customers and distinctive to restaurants. Additionally, like fine wines, great teas have sufficient depth and complexity to pair with multiple menu items. For guests who don’t drink alcohol but are interested in the interplay of foods and beverages, tea can provide an exciting array of synergies with different foods and flavors.
Of course, a great tea list isn’t worth much without proper tea preparation. First and foremost, quality tea requires a good source of filtered water heated to the appropriate steeping temperature. Considering the fact that many fine dining establishments provide customers with options regarding bottled waters, it seems clear that a comparable level of care should be devoted to water quality for tea. Tap water often contains chlorine and minerals that mask or taint a tea’s delicate flavor components. Filtering the water lets differing teas reveal their subtle complexities. Steeping temperatures are equally important. Just as you would not serve Cabernet Sauvignon at refrigerator temperature or Champagne at room temperature, you should not brew Japanese Sencha with boiling water. Green teas often become astringent when steeped at higher temperatures, whereas black teas require boiling water to develop fuller body. Many great teas are diminished by simple errors. An easy solution might be to use a reliable company such as Bunn, which offers both water filtration and temperature equipment for small and large operations.
What’s another way to improve your tea service? Provide tea education for your staff. Because American tea culture is still on the upswing, employees may not know as much about tea as they do about wine and food. Identify an employee who is passionate about tea to help educate your staff about your tea menu. Or, more ambitiously, enlist a local tea expert to build a tea menu and train employees to create a tea program fitting the scale, style and atmosphere of your restaurant. As with any product, tea will not be appreciated if the staff isn’t able to promote or prepare it adequately, and this won’t happen without concerted efforts.
Creating a great tea menu, much like creating an outstanding wine list, is a true labor of love, but love can’t be blind to concerns of cost, availability, marketability, and menu compatibility. Tea professionals can help you think
through these concerns. Presuming that your establishment isn’t billed as a teahouse, you really do not need an overly expansive list. In fact, it’s often a great idea to operate from a small yet broadly representative list of top-notch teas rather than a long, redundant list of familiar ones. Not only do smaller menus assist with storage issues (it’s important to keep tea in a cool, dry, and dark place), they also streamline the process of training your staff. If your restaurant doesn’t have the space or budget to accommodate temperature control equipment, consider the following strategies:
- Use a simplified cooling method for oolongs, whites, and greens. For example, pouring boiling water into a cool vessel tends to reduce the temperature to around 190° F (+/- 5 degrees). This would work for oolongs and some whites. Pouring the water back and forth several times can lower the temperature to 175° F (for greens). Every facility is different, but it is possible to find a simple temperature reduction method in most kitchens.
- Blend boiling and cooler water together. Finding a simple blending ratio can get water to the correct temperature.
- Offer a tea menu including only teas prepared with boiling water. This encompasses most black teas, herbal infusions, and dark teas such as Pu-erh. You could offer a wide range of flavor profiles and simplify the brewing process for your staff.
- Cold brew your tea. Use approximately 1/2 oz. of tea per 24 oz. of cold water, and steep overnight. No need to remove the tea leaves, which can be reused up to three times. Hario even makes a cold-brew tea pitcher that looks like a wine bottle.
Once you’ve prepared the tea, the final concern is presentation. How do you create a memorable, yet time-efficient ritual for your customers? As with wine, the experience is important. Traditional tea service (when it’s not a teabag in a mug) involves cups, saucers and an English style teapot with infuser. However, you may want to consider a tea service that better fits your establishment’s aesthetic. Here are a few suggestions:
- The Gaiwan, for instance, is an elegant way to serve an individual cup of tea while engaging the customer in a simple and memorable tea ritual. Many inexpensive gaiwans are available, and some have matching handle-less cups.
- Double-walled, dishwasher safe glasses display tea in a manner akin to how fine stemware enhances the presentation of wine. Like wine, tea’s color and clarity conveys important information, and glass vessels contribute significantly toward this end. Clear glass pots serve this same purpose, and can be inexpensive but beautiful enhancements of the brewing process.
- Serve artisan cold brew teas in a Champagne glass with a garnish (but no ice).
- Introduce a “Farm to Table,” U.S.-grown tea to your menu, such as a selection from The Great Mississippi Tea Farm.
- Whisk matcha tableside in a Japanese tea bowl. Matcha, as invigorating as it is unique, is a suspension of shade- grown Japanese green tea, traditionally prepared in the famed Japanese tea ceremony. To drink the tea, one places both hands beneath the warm, textured bowl, lifts it to their mouth, and drinks.
Ultimately, the teaware you employ should accommodate each variety of tea you serve, just as each tea you serve ought to suit your menu and establishment. At its best, tea service can be the recognizable, memorable act that caps an epic dining experience. At a minimum, enjoyment of tea should provide a simple, elegant ritual complementing an evening with friends. Preparing quality tea need not be an obstacle for you—it should be an asset.
Tea Sensory Evaluation
Tea Name __________________
Steeping Time __________________
Describe the appearance (color, shape, and size) of the dry tea leaves. Evaluate their aroma. NOTE: Have you experienced this aroma or taste before? Does it trigger a specific memory? Compare your memory with the list of descriptive words listed below these steps. Be specific. For example, if you detect fruit, what type of fruit? If it reminds you of asparagus, is it raw, steamed, or sautéed in butter?
Describe the appearance (color, shape, and size) of the wet leaves. Evaluate their aroma.
Evaluate the color and aroma of the tea liquor.
Carefully slurp the liquid using a spoon or hold the liquid in your mouth. While closing your mouth, carefully breathe in and out of your nose as you continue to taste.
Identify which of the following sensory terms (widely used by experts when describing tea and wine) help describe your experience: Fruit, Floral, Vegetal, Herbal, Nuts, Spice, Woody, Earthy, Caramelized, Sweet, Toasted, Smoky, Salty, Dairy
Dry tea (left vertical column head to Appearance and Aroma below)
Wet tea (middle vertical column head to Appearance and Aroma below)
Tea liquor (right vertical column head to Appearance and Aroma below)
Appearance (color, shape & size) __________________
Tea Liquor Evaluation
Overall Impression __________________
Reprint from TEXSOM presents SOMMELIER Volume 0, pages 32–36