Drinking tea with no leaves

I’ve voiced this before, but it happened again over the past weekend, and it really mystifies me.

Why do teahouses in the United States serve tea without giving you the leaves?

What I mean is, when you go to one of these establishments, you order your tea (in this case, Keemun).  They take your order, and give you a pot with a cup.  It’s an English style pot.  Nothing’s wrong with that, except that there are no leaves in there — just pre-infused tea.  I know this is probably not going to bother most people, and in fact, may even be great for most of the casual visitors to such establishments, but it annoys me, especially because these places often also promote themselves as serious teahouses.

Without seeing the leaves, I have no way of really controlling how the tea is brewed.  Most of the time, the tea comes out weak, slightly understeeped, and most important of all, there is no chance for redemption — you cannot resteep the tea, you cannot add more hot water, and you have no way to look at the wet leaves, because they don’t give it to you.  Perhaps I can ask for it, and perhaps they will entertain me, but I don’t think this should be necessary.  The ability to resteep leaves multiple times is, in my opinion, a fundamental distinction between tea and coffee, and the nuances and changes that a tea undergoes from infusion to infusion is a great part of the enjoyment of any particular brew.  Taking the leaves away deprives me of all that.

I can think of some reasons why a store may decide to do such things, for example

1) Shorten visits — if you can reinfuse tea, you are more likely to sit there for longer.  Bad for business, obviously

2) Likewise, the possibility of reinfusing tea means you are less likely to order another pot, which of course means less money

3) Some people are clueless as to how to make tea, so doing it for them removes the possibility that they will screw it up, think it’s bad, and never come back again

While 3 is a legitimate concern (and I suppose 1 and 2 are too, for different reasons), I find it hard to swallow.  A serious tea place, IMHO, should probably at least offer the choice of leaves or no leaves.  A universal no leaves policy leaves something to be desired.  Or at least, for me, that’s a rather disappointing thing to see in shops and teahouses.  Maybe I’m being too much of a purist, but I still think that if I am buying tea to drink, I am buying the leaves, not the infused product — especially if I’m getting charged $4 for it.


Comments

Drinking tea with no leaves — 9 Comments

  1. Tea in the US is just a hopeless topic aside of few exceptions. It will never really improve, and even if it does, most people simply wouldn’t care. I guess save the good tea for home and friends and get used to drinking coffee at the fancy restaurants. At least that way you will feel better about spending $6-7 on a cup, knowing that it’s probably of some decent quality.

  2. I think that your analysis is perfectly accurate! #3 means also that some brave customer would ask what to do with the materials provided, and thus trained staff would be required. We could add the necessity of providing extra tea wares, which means larger table spaces would be required, more washing-up, and thus more time and cost. Most coffeehouses in the college town I live in require you to perch on a tiny space that can barely hold a cup and a plate, let alone a bowl to pour off the first brew.

    I also agree with exstns that finding a teahouse in the US is a hopeless situation. I have yet to find a “serious teahouse” in the US, except in the Asian neighborhoods of large cities. How spoiled I was during my year in Taiwan, where I could visit the Wisteria cafe in Taipei (Gongguan district) as often as time and budget permitted, and learn as much tea lore from the staff as I could understand!

  3. We infuse the tea for our customers in our store because most people would do it wrong. They are usually there to socialize and not pay attention to how long they should steep their tea. There is also the question of getting the water temperature correct. In addition, for black teas, like your Keemun, it would be awkward to bring out boiling water in sufficient quantities (18 oz for a pot in our store). So for us, we consider it a question of quality and somewhat an issue of safety. We want the customer to experience the best teas infused correctly. However, we will bring the leaves out for a customer if they request it, and we always save the leaves of fine green and white teas in case the customer wants a second or third infusion (or more if they request it). The exception is oolong tea. We bring it out gong fu style and let them infuse it themselves. We always check with these people to see how familiar they are with the gong fu style. if they are not familiar with it, we always give them a brief 101 on how to make tea gong fu style.

  4. I think it’s a matter of praticality.

    Americans are dumb. We buy expensive houses with fancy kitchens, but eat out can’s and frozen boxes. We pay more for bad fast food instead of saving money and eating healthier. It’s an instant society with no patience, or pallet.

    If you sent the tea out with the pot, most people would leave it in there and then complain that it’s bitter because they were too stupid to take it out. We expect things to come prepared for us rather than taking responsibility for our own stuff.

    Also… there’s the infusing in 18oz pots. What’s the likelihood that you’re going to drink 32 oz of tea in a sitting? I don’t think it’s a matter of rushing people out. That’s only necessary if your tables are full, which is probably not the case. Also, I’m not convinced it’s about getting people to buy more than one pot, since you want your customers to be happy and come back frequently.

  5. Well, some of the places that I visited used teapots that are vastly smaller than 18oz…. so I felt like as if I were robbed of something. It really wasn’t much more than a regular English cup of tea.

    I suppose I could’ve asked, but I find the default of no leaves disturbing. I think whether or not it was the original intention, this would inevitably have the effect that customers will buy more than one pot, if they want more tea. Unless, of course, they asked and were granted the leaves….

    Maybe that will be my next experiment when I go to these places and ask to see if I get leaves.

  6. Yes, you know why the tea houses don’t offer a fuller experience. They need to be concerned about business and income. And then there is the consideration of the people who don’t understand about resteeping leaves but want to taste of the experience. I’d also add here that it would be difficult for these tea houses to get the water temperature right as well as the steeping time when they have to serve multiple customers. I’m afraid you’re going to have to do all this at home if you want the kind of experience you can completely control. Jason Witt dot org

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