The Road Warrior’s Tea Kit

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Face it. You can’t find good tea anywhere on most business trips and hot water is a contradiction in terms globally. So, Warrior, arm yourself. You need to take with you some basics that are compact, convenient and simple.

For five decades, I’ve been a Road Warrior – six million miles on American Airlines alone, and around seventy countries. So I feel qualified to offer some personal advice on how to get good tea whether you’re in a hotel palace in Rio, a conference center in Tokyo, or an airport motel of indeterminate location and quality.

You face three challenges. The first is the water, the second knowledgeable service, and the third the unpredictability of what tea you will get.

The Challenge: Water and service.
The Road Warrior response. Bring your own heater.

Coffee is king in restaurants, not just because it is by far the most ordered drink but because it is easy to set up. There are plenty of  published surveys and interviews with managers and staff that make it very clear that tea is a nuisance for them. Few either know or care about its special needs.

Their water source is the shared coffee heater, which maintains a temperature of, typically 200°F. The staff keep the coffee pots full and move around serving and topping up customers. Tea demands a special range of temperatures for blacks, greens, etc. The server offers just “hot” water from pots that have at least traces of coffee odors that tea absorbs quickly and easily and may have cooled to as low as the 130 degrees many coffee drinkers prefer.

Travel with your own heater. Bring it into the breakfast room or office meeting if you can or brew your own tea and carry the mug in. Don’t even bother trying to use the coffee maker in your room to heat water that you pour onto the tea bags provided. At best, you will get a tepid dribble. Above all, do not risk the  water on a plane. Ever. Surveys consistently show that only about one in eight of the heaters are cleaned at best once a month and all are breeding grounds for a truly disgusting petri dish of bacteria.

The best heaters are the small cordless plastic kettles that fit onto a base plate with a fast heating element. They generally have an 8-cup capacity, which makes them larger than the Lone Warrior needs. You’ll need a soft briefcase-type attache bag if you want to carry yours into a conference or office.

Avoid the immersion heaters that fit into the cup. They show a very high failure rate, lack the oomph to get the tea really hot and have a very short cord length.

I’ve had no problem taking my heater just about anywhere. You can generally find an outlet for it close at hand and out of sight. Experts recommend eyeballing the water as it gets hot. When you see the initial small bubbles start to appear, the temperature is about 85C (180F). As they get bigger — “fish eyes” — then it’s 90-95C (195-205).

Challenge: The best container.
Response: Buy a tall tumbler and small infuser

Always have your own cup/mug close at hand. The best choice is the tumbler that you’ll see taxi drivers in China carrying in their car through the day. It’s made of a strong ceramic  or double-walled glass that helps keep the tea warm. A general principle for warrior equipment selection is: don’t have anything that sticks out: spouts, handles, infuser baskets. The classic tall tumbler shape holds 1-2 cups and is better than the squat mug for packing into your travel bag.]

You need an infuser. There are many of these, ranging from disposable tea pouches – a do it yourself tea bag – to metal baskets that fit into the cup, tea balls, spoon shaped tea holders, and strainers. Some advice: Go beyond KISS – keep it simple, stupid – to KISSSNM – simple, small, spacious, non metallic. Tea balls constrain the space for the tea to expand, metal is not the best material for tea, non-simple dangling hooks, lids, handles and big strainers don’t improve the tea and make the infuser more cumbersome. The best overall choice is a wire mesh basket that fits into the top of the mug and rests on it so it is both easily removable.

Challenge: The tea.
Response: Bring your own, selected for travelling.

You can never count on the tea being fresh and select even in the hotel that makes everything elegant. You have to bring your own but need to pick ones that suit travel not home preferences.

Tea is a high margin item for a restaurant. It can charge $2-3 for a standard branded bag and just pour water on it. But it’s low volume. Tea drinkers expect choice, so there will generally be a quasi-wooden box holding the usual range of bags: breakfast teas, lots of flavored ones, and a mix of herbal teas. It will be stale. Not, may be but will be.

Here’s a figure that isn’t generally discussed concerning tea bags is expiration date. Only a few firms “best used by…” and then almost always on the transparent wrapping. The average is two years. Most of the typical restaurant’s stock will be replenished on an ad hoc basis. Many will not have any airtight envelope and the box will be stored on a shelf.

I bring a variety of around six loose leaf teas in small tins or jars with very tight lids. The lid is key, for commonsense reasons of avoiding spillage and also to keep the flavors locked in. Glass is dreadful for long term storage since light is one of its prime spoilers but for a short trip, it’s fine. it’s easy to get hold of baby food space saver size jars that hold up to eight spoonfuls of leaf.

For blacks, I avoid ones that are susceptible to the attack of the bitters. Ceylons and Assams, no. Nilgiri is my preferred choice. It’s an undervalued tea. Nepalese teas are excellent in quality and price. These teas hold their flavor well and are tolerant of temperature and time variations in brewing. My advice for all your teas is bring ones that are a little bit peppy so you avoid the bland and the flat that comes from often having to improvise and rush.

White teas are surprisingly good in this regard, though pricy but half an ounce won’t hurt your finances and will improve your day. I bring some Silver Needle. There’s always a tricky aspect to green teas. Too bland, or too bitter. I haven’t found a reliable one. So much can go wrong in the brewing and they get cold quicker than blacks and oolongs.

Oolongs are robust and reliable. I bring several, usually a bold Ti Guan Yin, preferably from Taiwan. Add a Jasmine Oolong and, maybe one of the now standard vacuum-packed 10 gram fairly high oxidation Wuyi or Alishan.

This works for me. Your choices may be completely different. My main advice is simple make them. I love tea and don’t want to give up the pleasures it provides. Travelling involves compromise after compromise unless you take the offensive. The alternative is abject surrender, bowing your head and numbing your taste buds to yet another wretched Earl Grey in a Styrofoam cup of lukewarm water.

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