How Chicago Restaurants And Cafes Ruin Perfectly Good Tea
By Melissa McEwen in Food on Apr 2, 2014 3:20PM
Tea is gaining in popularity, but a good cup of tea is still hard to find in Chicago. Many places offer high-quality loose leaf tea and then ruin it. Here’s how to wrong a good cup of tea and a few places that serve an excellent properly-made cup.
By tea, I mean drinks made with camellia sinensis, not herbal teas/tisanes made with other plants like rooibos or mint. The four main types of teas you’ll see are green, oolong, black and white (there's also yellow tea and dark tea, but that's another story). They are all delicious in their own ways. And they can all be totally ruined.
Here are some of the worst crimes against tea that I see all too often:
Burn it: Green, oolong and white tea leaves are far more delicate than coffee grounds. Pouring super hot water on them is painful for the leaves and painful for your taste buds as it usually leaves the tea bitter and destroys its more delicate flavors. Places that make tea should invest in variable temperature equipment that allows them to brew green tea at about 175° F, oolong at 190° F and white at 155° F. Such equipment has decreased in cost over the past five years and you can even get a variable temperature kettle for your home for only about $50. Or you can just use a simple thermometer.
Cramp it: Teas need room to breathe. When you stuff a bunch of leaves into a tiny tea steeper like a “tea ball” or one of the many novelty tea steepers on the market, it prevents the tea from infusing all its flavor into the water. Local tea researcher Tony Gebely says "The more the water is in contact with the complete surface area of the tea, the fuller the flavor will be of the resulting brew."
Oversteep it: Any of these teas can be ruined by oversteeping. Leave the tea leaves in the water too long and it’s just like burning it, except here even black tea isn’t immune. Often coffee shops hand you a cup with the bag merrily adrift in a sea of increasingly black boiling water. Good luck removing that without burning yourself before it over-steeps. Many places that do tea properly have tea timers that are used to properly time the steeping and some won’t hand the tea over to you until it’s done. Of course this takes time, but not as much as you would think. The first steeping for most teas should be around 2-3 minutes. The first? I’ll explain more in the next item.
Waste it: Many high-end restaurants are now serving expensive premium teas that cost $10-$40 a cup. High quality leaves are meant to be steeped multiple times and each steeping has a unique quality. Some teas don’t reach peak flavors until their second or third steeping. But I’ve seen many restaurants simply throw the leaves away after the first steeping. Or use French press devices meant for coffee or tisanes that leave the poor leaves in a murky swamp of water which will mean the next steeping will have over-steeped qualities like bitterness. These should only be used when ALL the liquid is poured out after the steeping time.
The consequences of all this are cups of tea that don’t taste very good, and some will try to obscure this reality beneath a cascade of sugar, flavorings or cream. Good tea shouldn’t need those things. It should taste good with or without them.
Sadly, many of the worst cups of tea I’ve had have been at fancy restaurants that wouldn’t dream of ruining coffee. As tea becomes more popular, they should invest in staff training and in the right equipment to give their premium leaves a chance to wow diners.
I always take note when I run across places that do tea right. Here are a few that I’ve found:
Think Simple Foods (770 N. LaSalle): a sunny new cafe in River North. They'll steep your tea right and if you enjoy your tea there, they'll resteep the leaves for you.
Caffe Streets (1750 W. Division St.): They might be known for their coffee, but they won't hand over your tea until it's been properly steeped.
Next Door (659 W. Diversey Pkwy.): This oasis for freelancers serves a cup of tea that they time for you.
Dream About Tea (1011 Davis St., Evanston): a great place for more exotic teas, they are happy to show you how to properly prepare all of them.
Nada Tea & Coffee House (1552 W. Fullerton Ave): Specializes in Japanese green tea. Your tea comes with its own timer, so use it wisely.
Chava Cafe (4656 N Clark St): A variety of great teas are available here and they'll steep them well for you.
Know any other Chicago bars, restaurants or cafes that brew a proper cup of tea? Let us know in the comments.