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A Barista Guide to Speciality Tea – What Does It Take to Serve Quality Tea?

All around the speciality cafes in Europe, you will meet people working with a speciality product. Coffees that those shops are serving were grown with a lot of energy and attention, their journey from the plantation to the roastery controlled meticulously. The baristas are then presenting them with pride and with a lot of knowledge. It is one of the main parts of their presentation, the best item on the menu, what (almost) all the customers come for.

Although coffee is the wake-up-and-function beverage for many people, and a pick-me-up dose for some others, it is not the drink for everyone. And it is not the only speciality product that the cafes, carefully selecting their menu items, choose to serve.

Green tea tasting

There are more and more businesses that understand that it is important to deliver speciality across all boards. This includes a variety of beverages that would open the world of taste and flavours to not only coffee, or caffeine lovers, but also to people who are not into coffee at all. Some customers just want a delicious, clean, refreshing, smooth drink. For a growing number of customers, this is tea.

Need for continuity in the channel of quality

Shawn Barber, the co-owner of Companion Coffee and Tea in Berlin, Germany, presented his passion for tea as well as his knowledge of it, at the Roaster Camp 2017. He opened his presentation called “Building Authenticity Through Tea” by stating that he sometimes sees a “lack of continuity” in the chain of quality within the speciality coffee businesses.

What Shawn meant was precisely the unlevelness in the way the speciality coffee and tea are presented at many cafes today. He presented two reasons he has for serving good tea at Companion cafe: one of Shawn, the business owner, and the other of Shawn, the barista. We went back to his presentation to understand quality tea better.

Companion Coffee & Tea at Voo Store, photo – Voo Store
White Forest Tea from Pathivara, Nepal

Quality tea brings authenticity

Why is it worth serving quality tea at your cafe? For starters, thinking of how much we as an industry care for the producer of our coffee, it is only right to appreciate the hard work of those producing all of the other food and beverage ingredients we like to serve and consume ourselves.

Shawn’s first point was that serving a quality tea adds authenticity to what the business is trying to achieve. In his experience, this has brought only positive feedback at their cafe in Berlin.

Making bad tea sucks

Looking at another reason for making quality tea, instead of the bad one, Shawn said: “Making bad tea sucks.” The effort, knowledge and work that the barista puts into making good tea, as well as coffee, is all worth it if it gets across to the customer. That can only happen with the quality tea, though. Why?

Because serving bad tea is like passing an item between the barista and the customer, in exchange for money. “It is like selling someone a bag of Haribos at a convenient store,” Shawn continued his explanation. As there is no skill required to serve and sell bad tea, there is no passion to go the extra mile either, and hence there is no appreciation for the whole service.

The world of tea is as varied and as interesting as coffee. With its many crossovers to the way coffee is grown and produced, cafe businesses have got a great opportunity to introduce the quality product to their customers. The path for quality tea has been already paved by hours and hours of baristas’ presentations and introductions of different coffees and their taste profiles.

At Companion Coffee & Tea

Basics of quality tea and how to understand them

There is some key information that will allow us to understand quality tea better. As with coffee, it all starts at the farm level.

Shawn illustrated the quality of tea on the smallholder farmers’ teas in Nepal, where he bought Companion’s first teas. The farms are biodynamic, some of them have shade trees and in many cases, the farmer is also the producer of their teas.

What does it mean? The tea farmer also takes care of all the processes that the fresh tea is put through, all at the same farm. Buy processing the tea, he is taking on the role of a coffee roaster as we know it from the speciality coffee industry. A tea merchant like Shawn will be buying a finished product, and his only responsibility is to present it at its best, delivering all the necessary information to the customer.

Tasting of Emerald Green tea in Nepal
Jun Chiyabari, Oolong tea from Nepal

How is tea collected at the farm?

The pickers pick leaves and top shoots from the trees. Hand-picking two leaves and the bud (top shoot) is a standard of high-quality tea. Sometimes, one leaf and the bud are collected.

Alternatively, the only picked part is the bud. This picking gives us a needle tea, such as a silver needle, or a golden needle.

How is tea produced?

When we buy green tea, do we realise how it differs from black tea? The differences between green, white, oolong and black teas are only in the way the teas were processed at the farm level. They can come from the same plant, and even be grown and picked at the same time of the year.

What are the key processes of tea production?

  • Withering = reduction of the moisture content in the fresh tea leaves
    Leaves are put on mash trays and blown cold/warmed air through them. Sun withering is one of the natural ways of withering.
    Withering is the key process that makes the leaves malleable and allows the producer to further process them.
  • Rolling / Bruising = Working off the leaves that will change their shape and colour, making them look like a crushed spinach leaf, for instance. When the leaf is bruised to a desired percentage, it is then fixed and dried.
  • Fixing / Kill-green process = flash-heating of the leaves in order to kill the enzymes that allow for the oxidation of the leaves.
  • Drying = Final drying process of the teas.
Shawn Barber presenting at the Barista Camp 2017
  • Green tea

    After picking, the leaves are withered shortly, and then fixed and dried.

  • White tea

    Leaves are withered and dried quickly after so that they have no time to oxidise. White tea that was processed quickly will thus look fairly green.

  • Oolong tea

    This type of process is the most misunderstood of all tea categories. When you order an oolong tea, you should specify what type of oolong you are having. It differs by the percentage of oxidation, for instance.
    After withering, the tea is allowed to oxidise, it is not being fixed. Often, the leaves are rolled or bruised.
    Oolong is everything between white and black tea, and there are many types.

  • Black tea

    Black tea is processed the same way as oolong, with 85% of the leaf oxidised.

We’d encourage everyone to open the curiosity door to the world of quality tea. Explore them with the Companion crew, if you can, or look for your local tea supplier. Once sipping on a freshly brewed quality tea, you will understand how much there is yet to discover about it.