In restaurants and cafes, when you ask for hot tea, it comes in a tea bag. For a long time, it was Lipton orange pekoe tea. There were no choices until its popularity changed supply and demand. Now there are a variety with about half of the selections being herbal, which is not really a tea.
At home, it's pretty much the same thing -- fast, easy, done.
But as tea rooms have emerged over the past fifteen years or so, more people are becoming aware of tea and its rituals. So much so that it's now more chic to celebrate birthdays, holiday luncheons, baby or wedding showers with afternoon tea. And if the tea room is a true tea room, they serve loose tea.
It might be why people enjoy going there. Loose tea, how do you use it? Looks like a lot of work and probably complicated to brew so why figure it out, just go to the tea room and they'll do it for you.
The first time I had brewed loose tea was in a tea room. I did what I always did, added milk and sugar.
When the server saw what I had done, her eyes widened and I knew I must be doing it wrong. Were there rules for drinking tea, a certain etiquette to be aware of in these fancy tea rooms? I felt ignorant and uncouth, like I didn't belong there and was embarrassed.
The server realized this unspoken exchange and when she returned to freshen my tea, she engaged me in a conversation about tea and did it with the utmost diplomacy and kindness.
I don't remember what she looked like, her name or what she wore, but I do remember what so told me and have never forgotten it. That exchange, I believe, is what sparked the love I have for tea today.
She not only explained about the difference between tea bags and loose tea, she showed me. And this is what I learned . . .
Loose tea is tea leaves that have been rolled. When brewed, the leaves open and you get the true flavor of the tea. There is no need to add anything to enhance that flavor just savor it on its own merit.
She brought me a new cup and poured the tea into it, asked me to smell it. It had a distinct aroma that I never noticed when using tea bags.
Then she told me to taste it. I wasn't too sure I would like it without at least sugar but I took a sip anyway.
It was a revelation. The earthy flavor was unexpectedly pleasant and I found no need to add a thing to it.
ON THE RIGHT: TEA BAG TEA, MORE POWDER-LIKE
I also learned that the dust left behind from rolling the leaves is what they put into prepared tea bags. That was a shock but after thinking about it, made sense. Less flavor in the dust so the need to add something to it for flavor. Not everyone knows this or are fine using prepared tea bags. But for me, now that I know the difference, I can no longer use them.
When I go to a tea room, it is understood that they are a place that specializes in tea. You would expect they did their homework and serve real tea ... rolled tea leaves, but I have been disappointed to find a tea bag in my pot and make note not to return. They missed the whole point of what a tea room is all about -- the tea.
I am more patient with individuals who have not learned the secret and am happy to explain in the same way that the server informed me. But for those who call themselves a tea room, there is no excuse for serving pre-packaged tea bags. Shame on them for giving their customers an inferior product and calling themselves a tea room.