The never ending search for a decent cup of tea

Sixteen or so years ago, I got a job at a place in Tempe, Arizona, known as the Coffee Plantation. This was a bit odd given that I didn’t (and don’t) drink coffee, but they decided that I would be an ideal person to be their retail tea specialist, a position which later advanced to tea buyer. While I could write about this experience for ages (this being my first official contribution), I’ll cut to the chase: this job ruined me for drinking crap tea. We had a standard set of teas we sold (and made iced and hot tea out of) purchased from Pannikin in San Diego, but added in some specialty teas from GS Haley in San Francisco: an excellent jasmine, Hunan Gujiang Mao Jian, Margaret’s Hope 2nd Flush Darjeeling, and a lovely Formosa Silvertip Oolong. Yum. I fixated on the Oolong (so much lighter than the Ti Kuan Yin we also sold) and the China Keemun (the only tea I’ve ever had that tasted as good hot as cold – good for a busy retail environment where my poor cup might be forgotten for half an hour or more) and completely lost my taste for bagged tea.

Many years later and I find myself living in England, which many Americans think as a place where tea is worshipped. It is true that tea culture runs broad and deep here, but the fact of the matter is far different from what tea loving Americans might imagine. It was not an anomaly that the worst cup of tea I have ever had was the first one I had in England, served to me as part of breakfast in my hotel. Not only was it thick and sludgy, but there was a mysterious slime floating on top of the water. The horror! As I eventually had breakfast elsewhere besides my hotel, I learned that, when not cut with milk, this was the standard look of a English cup of tea. The scum comes from the heavy lime scale in London tap water; the sludge from the particularly virulent crap that gets stuffed into teabags here. According to the nice Mr. Bramah (owner of the Brahma tea and coffee museum in Southwark) and as confirmed by a book I read about post-War English habits and customs, the reason why the quality of tea is so very low is because it is designed to be brewed in about thirty seconds, basically the amount of time of TV commercials. Most English people also cut their tea with milk, so the sludge factor is considerably reduced with the addition of a second liquid, but the fact of the matter remains that this is, basically, the dust swept off of tea warehouse floors, put into a bag and sold as a lovely cuppa. Bah! After years of “monkey picked” this and “first flush” that, I had thought that Twinings was bad, but even Lipton comes off great when you’ve been offered cup after cup of nasty PG Tips.

Over the course of the last year and a half, I’ve come to have a special spot in my heart for “Builder’s tea” or “Caf tea” (for “cafe,” what diners are called in England), sludge cut with milk and with sugar added, but to me it’s an entirely different beverage from tea, much like the chai you’d get at an Indian food restaurant (here called “spiced tea” and not always available). But after all the excitement about how moving to England would mean I’d be able to get a decent cup of tea whenever I wanted it, I’ve gone back to my reprobate ways, hiding a kettle under my desk at work and bringing in bags of loose-leaf tea and my own infuser. I’ve even had to resort to buying bottled water so my tea tastes like something besides “London tap.” So even though everyone in my office IS drinking tea, and the kitchen is stocked not just with 5 kinds of tea bags, but milk in the fridge AND a boiler full of hot water – I’m back to being the tea freak, huddled in a corner of the kitchen, waiting for my pot full of “special water” to boil so I can pour it over “that weird thing you’ve got in your tea cup” and actually have a beverage I consider worth drinking. Who would think I’d be the one teaching the English what good tea is about? But I’m not alone – I’ve got the lovely Mr. Bramah on my side, and Timothy of Postcard Teas, and with luck, we’ll get people back to the world where tea is something that tastes just fine without a drop of milk or sugar and deserves more than the thirty seconds between the end of Dr. Who and the start of the nightly news.


  1. I’m surprised at how little attention is paid to water quality. The tap water here in Seattle is theoretically not bad, but I sure wouldn’t ever use it for brewing tea. But the combination of low quality tea, poor quality water plus milk and sugar sounds pretty unbearable. Thank goodness you have found some respectable local sellers! And thank goodness it is so much easier to obtain exactly what you want by mail order than it used to be.

  2. I found the tap water in Seattle and Arizona both quite good, but I’ve never been somewhere that has so much dissolved lime in the water. Supposedly the water tastes different in other parts of England but I feel that just buying bottled is the best way to go here. even though the “reduce carbon emissions” people are very anti-bottled water these days.

    I haven’t actually done any mail order here except to get stuff from some folks in the states – I should write about the nice company (Silk Road Teas) I got a fun sampler from last summer.

  3. So the ridiculously high lime content in the water supply is the reason that the English are called Limeys?

    (I’m joking – The slang actually comes out of the practice of British sailors eating limes to ward off scurvy.)