Elaborate coffee shops have shaped city streets, yet it seems that it’s increasingly hard to find a decent cup of tea when you’re out and about. Despite the larger chains’ elaborate, snarling coffee machines, they take precious little care over the tea they serve. Often dispensed as what looks like a bowl of hot water accompanied by a papered tea-bag, a cup of coffee shop tea is a disappointing affair. These coffee shops market both the mechanised machismo of the gargantuan gaggias and coffee’s conspicuous consumption.
The magic of these coffees is in the boastful bashing of granules, the swirling steam, the oozing milky froth and the visual effect of carrying around an enormous pseudo-personalised, sugared, syruped, synthetic concoction for all to see. And so, in contrast, tea is constructed as something humble, something unassuming; something sometimes twee or nostalgic, something mundane and austere. Yet for its simplicity there is an art to making a cup of tea.
A cup of tea is a cliché, a cup of tea is the stiff upper lip. Chain coffees are milky, infantalising as they ape our first tastes. Tea is grown-up comfort. Making a cup of tea for someone is a personal act, not a mechanical one. Tea cannot be made to another’s taste from an order over the counter. A cup of tea doesn’t come from some regulated, branded, faux-authentic name and artificial flavours. Milk and two sugars is about as complex a request as you’re likely to get, so you make tea the way you learned to, rather than how you were taught. Making tea for someone can be very personal. Sometimes a cup of tea is all you can do to help, be it a bad day in the office or something much worse.
In a documentary shown after his death, Roald Dahl said that one of the hardest things about his wife’s illness, was the knowledge that there was nobody at home to offer him a cup of tea at the day’s end.
Of course coffee shops can’t get it right. Tea needs care and thought, not practice and explosive machines.