I can survive mornings without the assistance of a milky caffeinated buzz, so I do. I can get through the working day without a cup of browny white froth on my desk, so I do. I can walk past a coffee shop without ever feeling the need to go in, so I don't.
But over the last three days I've been bought three teas from coffee shops, teas I'd never normally have had. And, my apologies to the kind people who bought them, but they weren't very good.
On Saturday I was bought a cup of tea from a coffee shop on Chatsworth Road. It was exactly what I asked for, which was an Earl Grey without milk, and it turned up hot. If anything it turned up too hot, which ought to have been a good sign because the water in tea is supposed to be boiling. But I was forced to sip with caution, indeed was barely able to sip at all, as I held the cup of essentially scalding water in my hand. A tastefully expensive teabag floated somewhere within, which normally I'd seek to eject after the requisite time except it hadn't done its stuff yet, and I was about to climb aboard a bus. This was a beautifully preserved heritage bus which didn't have a litter bin on board, and so I found myself on the top deck clutching a full cup of water too hot to drink, and no way of removing the bag of leaves without disfiguring the floor. Off jolted the bus round the first corner on its route, and my tea promptly spilled out over the brim through the little hole in the lid. I tried to sip a little, and thought I'd succeeded in lowering the level, but the next corner brought further overflow and an increasing puddle on the floor. Speed bumps, turns and narrow streets caused repeated additional mess, which thankfully nobody else noticed, but there was by now considerably more liquid on the floor than in my stomach. By the time I disembarked my tea had become drinkable, but was still surprisingly weak, and therefore no longer as attractive as it had once promised. My cup went in the nearest bin still half full, which for a bespoke premium Earl Grey seemed less than ideal. And if you had to mop up my bergamot-scented spillage, or ended up sitting in it, my apologies.
On Sunday I was bought a cup of tea from a coffee shop at a station. It was a pretty generic brew all told, the sort that's doled out matter-of-factly to thousands of commuters daily. I hadn't actually asked for it, but my travelling companion was in need of a caffeine fix so had bought me a drink thinking I'd be the same. I said thank you, obviously, then set my drink down on the table in the carriage and waited for it to become drinkable. Alas the resulting brew was oddly tasteless, which surprised me because it contained all the key elements of a decent tea. The teabag hadn't infused like teabags in my kitchen, possibly because the shop and I use different types, or possibly because I take mine out after a different length of time. I have a pretty good idea how long my usual bags should bathe, whereas the random bag from this particular chain outlet was more of a temporal mystery. I also use a mug that's smaller than a typical coffee shop cup, because good tea isn't helped by excess water. My station-bought tea tasted over-diluted, because the barista had taken control of how much liquid was poured in and had plumped for volume, as if somehow this was better value for money. Again half my tea ended up in the litter bin on the way out of the carriage, not that anyone noticed because the cup was sealed and I dropped it so as to avoid a telltale splosh. If that was you who bought me that 'tea', my apologies.
Yesterday I was bought a cup of tea from a coffee shop at work. I say coffee shop, it was more a coffee franchise, where some lowly paid employee puts on a specially coloured hat and apron and pretends to be from the same company as the proper shop down the street. This particular coffee franchise was at a distant set of offices where I'd gone for a meeting. Tea and coffee used to be provided in the meeting rooms, make-it-yourself-style, but management then sacked all the tea ladies to save money and installed a central go-to outlet instead. People who like coffee are well pleased, because they can now have their favourite frothy number with special syrup instead of the dark brown liquid in a thermos previously served. But we tea drinkers are far less well served because we're now forced to endure a bag dropped into the wrong amount of water with the wrong amount of milk. My tea arrived from the central point of manufacture just as the meeting was starting, but I was scheduled to be talking a lot which meant I didn't have much time to drink it. Occasionally I snatched a sip, only to discover that it wasn't very nice, and was getting increasingly less nice as time passed. I couldn't pause to lift out the teabag because the eyes of the meeting were on me, and there was nowhere to dangle and dump it anyway because saucers had been cancelled when the trolley staff were sacked. I really wanted a drink after my long journey, but the tea in my cup was becoming increasingly stewed in the same way that coffee doesn't. I left the offending cup on the table at the end of the meeting, although I don't know who collects the empties any more, my apologies.
But on another occasion over the weekend I went to a proper tea room and ordered proper tea. A proper teapot turned up, filled with boiling water and proper leaf tea of the gnarled and fragrant variety. I waited, and waited a little more, and poured the tea into the china cup with eager anticipation. What emerged was the weakest brew I'd seen in ages, barely the shade of milky water, and a most unsatisfying cuppa. Never mind I thought, the second pour will be better after the leaves have had longer to infuse. Not so, the second cup was pretty much as weak as the first, which I subsequently determined was because the tea leaves were sitting undisturbed on the floor of the pot. I don't know how the lady behind the counter had managed to pour in boiling water without disturbing the leaves, that's quite abnormal, but manage it she had. A simple stir of the pot produced the correct colouration, but by then there was barely half a cup left and I'd wasted the majority of my allocation. I'm more used to mugs than teapots, hence my inexperience, and the disappointment of a proper tea experience wasted. And I paid for this one too, no apologies.
For a nation of tea drinkers, it strikes me that we're no longer very good at serving up tea in public. In particular we're not very good at serving up tea in coffee shops, which is where the majority of external beverages are created these days. People who like coffee are well served because they get an expert hand-crafted drink they probably can't get at home. But people who like tea are generally presented with a bag of leaves dumped into too much boiling water with an inappropriate amount of milk, and left to stew, to create a drink that's entirely substandard to what could be made at home. Which is why I don't bother going to coffee shops, as a rule, because for a tea drinker it's like throwing money down the drain. And if you see me out and about, thanks very much, but there's really no need to buy me one.