Why Berlin is the Capital of Bad Tea
Although Berlin is quickly becoming a coffee mecca, it remains the capital of bad tea. British World War Two soldiers entering enemy territory were provided with important instructions from the Foreign Office. In the section ‘How the Germans Live’, soldiers were warned that although Germans ‘are quite expert with coffee’, they ‘don’t know how to make tea’. I can imagine Churchill in the War Rooms––his tea service poised on a silver tray alongside a map of troop movements, his cup rattling––mulling over Germany’s descent into barbarous fascism, its rampant militarism, and bad tea-making skills.
Coffee was so unimportant to British wartime strategy that British and Canadian soldiers didn’t even include it in their field rations. A Tea-Milk-Sugar combo followed them to the front while Germans ripped open their kit package of Milchkaffee across the frontlines. You would think that Allied occupation would have a lasting effect on German liquid consumable culture––but I think it’s fair to say that Americanisation (the Yanks, after all, also had coffee in their ration kits) prevented a proper reform of German tea culture.
If you want to get a British expat, or her Commonwealth cousin, properly ranting, then just mention the state of tea in the German capital. Get that person to tell you all the things the locals get wrong.
The problem starts when you choose your tea. In Berlin, you are invariably given the infuriating option of ‘Assam or Darjeeling’. Never mind what grade of Assam you are being offered. Most likely it will be low-grade, made of particles or ‘Dust’. This will be confirmed when your tea is presented in an industrially-produced teabag. It is found floating in a shallow coffee cup, in lukewarm water taken from the espresso machine. Milk has been added right away. In its puddle, the bad tea cannot infuse. Your cup tastes of bleach and paper rather than the plant known as tea. You drink a few sips of cloudy tepid milky-paper water and hate everyone and everything.
In fact, things are so bad in Berlin these days that I carry my own premium leaf tea in my coat pockets, so that when I’m in a local hipster café, I can do a quick switch of the lousy teabag. Some Anglo-expats don’t order tea when out in Berlin––because ‘it’s your own damn fault if you order tea, you know already it will be bad’.
The failure is not simply that bad tea offends my taste-buds and discredits the establishment that prepares it. Bad tea offends on a more spiritual, metaphysical level. My Scottish grandmother, with her Victorian sensibilities, is offended. She loved her grandchildren, and when she sees me sipping tea in Berlin, she rolls in her grave, and she screams.
Compare Berlin tea preparation to my grandmother’s method, my dear friends. One of the peculiarities of growing up in a former British colony—in my case Canada––is that traditions are more tenaciously held and raised to the level of religion, an effect perhaps of living far from the metropole. Crusty Anglos in the ‘Canadas’ employ a nostalgic, quaint, method for brewing tea, which is instantly recognizable worldwide to those acculturated to Imperial tea habits, from Pitcairn to Ceylon.
Yes, Berliners, I’m going to tell you how to make a good cup of tea because––with all due respect––you need a little help: (If you are absolutely sure you know how to make a proper cup of tea, then you can skip to the asterisks below)
- You need to choose a good tea. I start with the obvious, which is obviously not observed here. I will focus on black and flavored black teas, since the preparation of green and herbal would require another blog post. For beginners: a premium loose-leaf tea that’s hand-picked, with a percentage of tea tips (fresh shoots) is unlikely to disappoint you. Famous names such as Assam, Darjeeling, Ceylon, are on their own not very helpful when they consist of so many different grades. What kind of Assam are you getting? A slow-infusing, fine, whole leaf? Or an excellent broken-leaf tea, that infuses more quickly, producing a bolder cup good for the morning? Are you drinking a ‘tippy’ tea, that is more delicate? Is that tea ‘Golden Flower’, with tips picked early in the season? Or is it made with large leaves (‘Flowery’)? These designations explain acronyms such as: TGFOP1 (Tippy Golden Flowering Orange Pekoe, finest quality within the grade). Which ‘flush’ a tea is depends on when it is harvested (for Assam: first flush in Spring, or the second flush harvested later which is finer and less astringent). All this is a matter for exploration, and the more you explore the more ridiculous the choice of being offered ‘Darjeeling’ or ‘Assam’ in a Berlin café will seem to you. I’m also amazed by the bad tea selection in Berlin supermarkets. You will normally be forced to go to a tea-specialty shop, or to KaDeWe, or Mariage Frères at Galleries Lafayette, to find premium loose leaf tea.
A note on flavoured tea: I know many people who think flavored teas are barbarous, and that Earl Grey should be approached like some tropical pestilence needing eradication. I don’t think so: the Russians have shown us just how creative you can be with Bergamot (and citrus). But be a purist if it makes you happy. There are plenty of pure black-tea blends to keep you busy for the rest of your life.
A note on teabags: Does all this mean you should never drink tea from a bag? No, there are tea companies that produce high-quality teabags––properly packaged to preserve flavours, in, say, cloth and Muslin bags (Kusmi does this). But most teabags are horrific, consisting of low-grade ‘Fannings’ (particle), or ‘Dust’-grade tea. You’ll understand what this means if you tear open your normal tea bag after it’s infused. If it’s bad, you won’t see individual or broken tea leaves. Instead you will realize you’ve consumed something that looks (and tastes) like dirt.
Use a large porcelain teapot for black tea, and have your tea ready, in a cloth tea strainer (those metal infusers never did it for me, and I hate anything that tastes of paper). My grandmother always used a spoonful of tea per person and one for the pot.
- Prime the teapot. Tea needs to be infused at the right temperature. Pouring boiling water directly into a stone cold teapot risks reducing the water temperature sufficiently to spoil the tea. My grandmother warmed her teapot up in advance: filling it with boiling water, swishing it around, then emptying it, and then repeating the procedure so the porcelain was piping hot. You can also use extremely hot tap water to prime the teapot if your pipes provide it. But my grandmother, I think, had two kettles going for this purpose. Ensure you boil fresh cold water for the tea itself. Water for tea should never be reboiled (or else it loses its dissolved oxygen) and it should be used at the moment it boils, not when at a rolling boil (same reason, the tea will taste flat if the water loses dissolved oxygen). Berlin water does not have chlorine, and so is good for making tea.
- Infuse the tea. When your water has just boiled, the tea must already be in the pot. Add water to the tea, not tea to the water. Do not stir. Leave it to infuse for as long as the grade requires (longer for full-leaf tea). For most tea, 3 minutes is about right; then remove the infuser.
- Serve your tea. I serve my tea from the pot into bone china teacups. Serve immediately once the infusion has completed.
- Milk in tea: Yes, you are adulterating the fine flavours of tea by adding milk. Whether to add milk or not is a matter of taste, but for me, a good cup of black tea in the morning has milk. There are a few guidelines to observe here: use cold milk, quality milk (not UHT), and add the milk to your cup after you pour your tea (the debate over milk-in-first or last has been settle recently by scientists). But realize not every cup of tea can stand up to milk. Many afternoon teas, like darjeeling teas, cannot. Nor would you ever add milk to a green tea. Adding milk to a tea that isn’t dark enough for it is something of a small crime.
Now, you might argue that I am unrealistic if I expect this level of complex tea-making to be performed in a Berlin café (it’s called a café, not a tearoom, after all). But I tell you that you are wrong. Coffee culture in the Hauptstadt––all those hipsters carefully sourcing their single-origin beans, weighing them carefully on their scales that double for cocaine, and carefully adjusting the temperature of their ostentatiously expensive espresso machines––indicates that businesses are capable of taking time over the complicated business of hot beverages. And I’m all the more offended when offered a lousy teabag in a cup of tepid water in an establishment that spends time extolling the careful scientific preparation of their coffee blend. A sign of my desperation is that I will be reasonably satisfied by a tall cup made from loose tea, in a sleeve filter, prepared at the right temperature (see photo at top of article). Pure joy is being presented with a proper pot of well prepared fine tea and separate cup. You see, I’m not asking for very much.
Which brings me to my follow-up post. Stay tuned, because I’m going to shame Berlin cafés that make ugly tea. And praise those who are bringing Germany out from the shadows. In the meantime, dear Berliners, next time you are in a café please be very annoying and ask the establishment questions such as: ‘is the tea full-leaf or broken?’ ‘do you serve your tea in a teabag?’, ‘do you serve it in a pot?’, maybe even, ‘You have Assam? Do you have GFBOP Assam?’
But in the end, my embattled cousins, the sad truth these days in Berlin is that the most necessary question is (always, always) to ask for the milk on the side.