The plight of tea drinkers in a coffee-addicted city

Neelima Choahan
It can be hard to get a good cuppa in a city renowned as the coffee capital of the country.
It can be hard to get a good cuppa in a city renowned as the coffee capital of the country. Photo: oykuozgu

Ever been to a quality restaurant and ordered a cup of tea at the end of your meal, expecting to get a fine blend, only to be served a tea bag worth 50 cents with some hot water?

Welcome to the coffee capital of Melbourne, where tea – and tea drinkers – often receive second-rate treatment. 

But there is a group of people who are trying to change that. 

Time for a cuppa with Yun Zeng, owner of Wild Yunnan Tea.
Time for a cuppa with Yun Zeng, owner of Wild Yunnan Tea. Photo: Pat Scala

For the first time, Melbourne is hosting the Australian International Tea expo designed to spread the word about Camellia Sinensis (the tea plant) to a city largely addicted to the coffee bean. 

Sharyn Johnston, who is behind the expo, says their aim is to educate consumers and the industry.

"I would like to see tea being treated exactly the same way as speciality coffee," Ms Johnston says.

There are thousands of artisan teas out there that are just not being experienced, Sharyn Johnston says.
There are thousands of artisan teas out there that are just not being experienced, Sharyn Johnston says. Photo: Getty

"There are only a handful of chefs and ... roasters who are actually interested in serving good quality tea in their restaurants.

"They are so focused on their coffee that they are not actually putting the same emphasis on their tea."

She also wants to place Australia and Australian tea brewers on the world stage. 

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Ms Johnston hopes that Melbourne will soon boast tea sommeliers.

"We still walk in and get an English breakfast, which could be $1 or a $100 breakfast blend, or a chamomile, peppermint, or Earl Grey. That's our classic tea menu in Australia," she says.

"We need to change that, because there are thousands of artisan teas out there that are just not being experienced." 

She says current Australian attitudes towards tea are similar to how people drank wine 20 years ago, not realising the versatility of the beverage.

"[We are] just getting people to ... actually serve nice quality teas to customers and give them some different offerings," Ms Johnston says. 

"We can take a white tea and we can spritz it and it becomes like a champagne when it is chilled.

"Some of the teas can be taken down to room temperature and served in a wine glass ... and you forget that you are actually drinking tea because it has got some amazing flavours in it."

Chinese-Australian Yun Zeng, who is holding a masterclass at the expo in puerh – a wild tea from Yunnan – says there is a growing appreciation of tea thanks to its health benefits. 

But Ms Zeng, who is a third-generation tea grower, says tea bags have "ruined" the market for quality teas. 

"A lesser quality of tea is being spread worldwide and people don't realise they can be drinking really fine tea. But the finest tea is often loose-leaf tea, it's not in a tea bag," she says.

Sharyn Johnston's tips for making a perfect cup of tea

  • Understand the tea and its type - the darker it gets the more it can stand steeping and higher water temperature 
  • Have the correct water temperature: 80 degrees for lighter tea, boiling for black tea 
  • Use fresh water and high quality tea 
  • Measure correctly: For black tea use 2.2 grams to 2.5 grams of tea to a 100 millimetres of water. Less for lighter teas 
  • Steep for three to five minutes