Reinvent Promoting & Preparing Your Tea Service: Quality Tea in Your Restaurant
written in collaboration with Chris Beard
Tea shares wine’s ability to captivate, if not intoxicate. Remember that 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 service, that might be a cup of Alishan Oolong from Nantou Taiwan, or a fresh 1st flush Darjeeling from a famous Himalayan estate—it’s a feeling (and a lasting impression) that recalls the stories told of someone’s first Grand Cru Bordeaux, or one trying Raveneau Les Clos for the first time.
Tea and wine share other connections as well. While one is fermented grape juice, and the other processed tea leaves, both beverage’s express endless variations through cultivar, terroir, and processing. Both artfully combine terroir and human elaboration. They have long histories of bringing people together and creating shared rituals among friends. Furthermore, each beverage’s wide range of flavors and aromas generate innumerable pairing possibilities.
At the 2012 and 2013 World Tea Expo, Master Sommelier and TexSom Co-founder James Tidwell 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 at the end of this article) can be used by wine and culinary professionals to understand the nuances that differentiate tea, a skill necessary for educating your tea palate and crafting a distinguished tea menu.
Tidwell became the first Master Sommelier certified through the Specialty Tea Institute, and advocates that “knowledge of the world’s most-consumed prepared beverage is essential.” Although America’s tea culture lacks the sophistication of other countries, interest in fine tea is growing substantially. According to the Tea Association of the USA, specialty tea sales have increased 8% annually as millennials continue to seek unique and artisan tea offerings.
What is the status of tea in American restaurants? There are too many fine dining establishments where the quality of tea and tea service does not meet the standard set by their food and wine. This is a shame, because tea’s aesthetic potential and myriad of culinary properties make it ideal for expressing your restaurant’s personality. Great tea is easy to make and simple to serve beautifully. It provides the perfect opportunity to create a small ritual around its service, and offers the customer something unique. Furthermore, like fine wines, great teas have the depth and complexity to pair with multiple menu items. For customers who do not drink alcohol but are still interested in culinary exploration, tea can contrast and compliment an incredible range of flavors and foods.
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. Many fine dining establishments provide customers with bottled water options. This same standard of water quality should be applied to tea. Tap water often contains chlorine and unwanted minerals that can taint a tea’s delicate flavor components. Filtering the water removes these flavor distractions and reveals a tea’s subtle complexity. Steeping temperatures are equally important. Just as you would not serve Cabernet Sauvignon or Champagne at cellar temperature, you should not brew Japanese Sencha with boiling water. Green teas often become astringent when steeped at higher temperatures, while black teas require boiling water to develop a fuller body. Many great teas are diminished by simple mistakes. 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 a tea education for your staff. Because American tea culture is new and growing, 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. As with any product, tea will not be appreciated if the staff isn’t able to promote or prepare it adequately. Additionally, connecting with a local tea expert provides further expertise to help train employees and build a tea menu that fits the scale, style, and speed of your restaurant.
Creating a great tea menu, much like creating the ideal wine list, is a true labor of love, but it will also share a wine list’s concerns of cost, availability, marketability, and menu compatibility. Tea professionals can help you think through these concerns. Luckily, if you are not billed as a teahouse, you do not need an expansive tea 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 broad, 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 acquire 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 temperate 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 that can be prepared with boiling water. This encompasses nearly all 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 ½ 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? Similar to 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 an infuser. If you are the kind of restaurant that uses port tongs rather than corkscrews to open bottles of wine, then you may want to consider a tea service that 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 glass displays tea similarly to wine. Like wine, tea’s color and clarity conveys information about that tea, and aesthetically highlights the dining experience. Clear glass pots are also inexpensive yet beautiful vessels for displaying the tea as it brews.
• Serve artisan cold brew teas in a Champagne glass with a garnish (and no ice).
• 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 ought to accommodate each variety of tea you serve, just as each tea you serve ought to accommodate the menu and restaurant itself. At its best, tea service can enhance the customer experience through a memorable and time-efficient tea ritual. Tea doesn’t have to be an obstacle for you, it should be an asset.