Photo Credit: tedeytan
I had to pull out my snob cred last week. I hate pulling out my snob cred.
“If you want to bring your tea leaves back to the counter, I’ll just brew up another cup for you,” the barista told me, her tone a familiar flavor of I’d rather be somewhere else, so please shut up and do what I say politeness. Anyone who’s worked in food service, customer service, or retail knows this voice. Those of us who are stuck in such underpaid industries cultivate it to a razor’s edge.
But, like snake handlers who routinely get dosed with their charges’ venom, we’re immune when it’s turned on us.
“You can just give me some hot water,” I replied, inching my empty mug towards her. I’d already finished off my first cup of oolong, and was looking forward to a second and third steeping of the same leaves, which bring out more of the flavor. “I’ll steep it myself.”
“We’re just really particular about the way the tea gets brewed,” she said. “The timing and the water temperature and the number of steepings and everything.”
It was a cool, humid day, threatening rain. The cafe was busy, full of ironic fashion choices and budding graphic designers hunched over their Macbooks. I’d skipped breakfast. I’d just moved and was switching jobs. I’d been reading about the history of Haiti, which doesn’t make one feel particularly charitable towards humanity. I was already short on patience, and I didn’t want to cede control of my beverage over to anyone.
In short, I just wanted my fucking tea.
“Oolong tea is supposed to be brewed at 180 degrees for two to three minutes,” I recited from memory. “I can do it myself. Just give me some hot water, please.”
The barista bit her lip, gave me a smile that was two-thirds a grimace, and went off to get my water. It took me about fifteen seconds before my feeling of triumph crashed and burned, melting into self-loathing. I’d turned into one of those customers, the kind that believe they could do your job better than you.
Here’s the thing, though: I work in a cafe, and we’re all trained on basic tea preparation. Moreover, I’ve been a two-cups-a-day tea drinker since a trip to Britain turned me into a junkie for Camellia sinensis. And while I love a standard cup of English Breakfast, I’ve come to enjoy tea in almost all its forms. My favorite for years has been Assam, particularly in its incarnation as masala chai. I crave Genmaicha when I’m caught in a food-coma. I loved Earl Grey until its association with an ex-lover kind of ruined it for me. Every so often, I’ll indulge in a pot of Lapsong Souchong or Pu-erh, or something else that tastes mildly outlandish to my senses, just for a change.
But there’s also the other side of my tea-love, wherein I literally can’t function before I have at least two cups of the stuff. At seven-thirty in the morning, I’m not particular. Hell, I’ll even drink Lipton, though not without making a face and some bitchy comments. (I even have a note on my computer, reminding me never to make important decisions before tea or after booze.) When my mother, grandmother, sister, and I were in a room together, we could go through half a box of PG Tips in a day. We’d chat, sip, watch the news. My sister and I would be grilled about school or our recent travels. Grandma would read aloud clues from the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, pretending (or maybe hoping) that one of us would be able to keep up with her.
We’d all laugh a lot.
Tea is a lot of things: a comfort, a luxury, a necessity, a spiritual practice. It has an interesting history, which includes espionage, sabotage, colonialism, and one of the first multinational corporations. It is, at this point, consumed worldwide, in different forms and strains , informed by the soil and weather conditions in which it grows, and by the culture in which its served.
In short: I have a lot of feelings about tea. This hopefully explains why I got pissy when a cafe decided it needed to have absolute control over my experience in drinking it.
Still, being a barista isn’t anyone’s dream job, and I hate it when people get snotty with me. A minute or so after my outburst, I went over to apologize and pick up my mug of hot water.
My mug was on a scale, and the barista was pouring water into it from a long-spouted drip kettle, carefully watching both the weight and the temperature via a wand thermometer. I got annoyed all over again, wondering who the hell had decided to apply the scientific method to my subjective experience of drinking tea. What if I liked it stronger? What if I liked a judicious amount of tannins? Or what if I wanted weak tea, just strong enough to taste the leaves?
Instead, I said, “Sorry I gave you attitude.”
The barista gave me another smile-grimace. “It’s fine. And just so you know, it’s actually supposed to steep for three minutes and fifteen seconds.”