better tea in coffee shops, paper cups, tea and paper cups

Get Better Tea in Coffee Shops: 5 Tips to Order (and Serve) Tea in any Coffee House

It’s time to get better tea in coffee shops. There are some kind-hearted baristas doing well. But until we get tea houses on every corner, these tips will get us tea lovers through the day.


Are you a tea lover living in a coffee house world?

Are you a barista who works at a coffee house that serves tea too?

If either of these describes you, then you likely want the best experience possible for yourself or your customer.

We can get better tea in coffee shops. Tea lovers and kind-hearted baristas just have to do a few things.

I live in Sacramento, CA, where coffee shops, houses, and cafes are sprouting everywhere. I’ve been to pretty much all of them for coffee and tea. What I’ve learned is that while there are some darn good coffee being brewed at these cafes, their tea game is (mostly) weak.

Want to strengthen your tea game? Click here to learn 5 Rookie Tea Mistakes (and how to avoid them).

A few of these coffee houses try to cater to tea lovers. They want to draw in tea lovers and give them something they’ll enjoy while their friend grabs their mocha. I understand that their tea isn’t always going to be fantastic. Their first passion is coffee, and tea is a side game.

But for me, tea is my passion, and coffee is an occasional thing. If I don’t like the tea, then I’ll keep going to new places (and dragging my friends along) to find a coffee house that has tea I enjoy too. It’s so not fair that my friends can grab their quality coffee here in Sacramento, and I’m stuck with crappy tea bagged tea in a paper cup full of water that’s too hot.

The variation between the quality of tea service at coffee houses means that it’s up to you to ensure an awesome tea experience. It can really make a difference in a person’s day.

You can get better tea in coffee shops. Here’s how.

Here are 5 tips for tea addicts to get better tea in coffee shops.

1. Use quality porcelain cups or mugs.

Paper cups change the taste of tea, and makes it more likely to commit sin #2.

Think about what’s in a paper cup. It’s paper, but it’s coated with plastic or wax to keep the cup from leaking. It makes sense that those different elements would affect the way the tea tastes. Tea has delicate aromas and flavors that are more easily overpowered by cups than coffee might be.

The taste of tea is compromised with paper/styrofoam cups. Placing a plastic lid over may hide the taste/aroma of the paper cup, but it also hides the aromas of the tea, so now you can’t really enjoy the tea at all.

better tea in coffee shops, paper cups, tea and paper cups

The environmental impact is also something worth thinking about. It’s more common to add recycled content to the paper now, but the cup still needs to be coated with Polyactic acid (a biodegradable plastic) rather than polyethylene (another plastic that’s not so environmentally friendly). Most cups are coated with Polyethaline, so it’s uncommon to recycle or compost these cups – it’s difficult to separate paper from plastic. And these cups have to find their way to a composting plant to begin with.)

2. Don’t steep too long.

Here’s another example of how using a paper cup can lead to sin #2, which is steeping tea too long.

It seems that each time I’ve ordered tea without the barista asking — or me specifying — that it’s “for here,” the shop places a giant bag of loose leaf tea (sometimes it’s a tea bag with tea fannings/dust – yuck!) in a paper cup.

Please don’t ever place a giant bag of loose leaf tea in a paper cup. 

I had this experience the other day at a nice coffee shop. They’re well known in Sacramento for their coffee. However, their tea game needs improvement.

The tea was in a paper cup (see sin #1). She didn’t hear that I specified the tea was “for here.” So what I got was a 12 ounce paper cup filled with hot water and a giant bag of golden monkey tea. This is one of my favorite teas and was high quality.

When you have tea served in a tea bag in a paper cup, there’s a couple issues.

First, taking the tea bag out of the paper cup is a challenge because the water is hot, and there’s no place to put the tea bag.

Second, it encourages the customer to leave the tea bag in the tea cup, which leads to really bad tea.

Third, coffee houses can save money because you only need 2.5 to 3 ounces (or about two teaspoons depending on the tea) per 8 ounce cup of water. Too much tea can also lead to a bad cup of tea.

[Pro-tip: you can over brew iced tea too. After writing this post, I went to one of my favorite cafes to get iced tea. It was awful. They boiled water and let the tea steep too long, which is easy to do if you’re making iced tea. Click here to find out how to make the perfect iced tea. It’s easier — and tastier — than the old-fashioned way.]

The service was great, so the barista was really nice when I asked if she could place the tea in a mug.

She placed the already brewed tea in a real porcelain cup, and she placed the tea bag into a teapot. (More on this in #3.) She placed more water into the pot for a second brew from the leaves.

It was nice that she made an attempt to make my tea experience better. She definitely gets an A for effort.

It really wasn’t her fault. It was the coffee house’s fault because they could learn to…

3. Use the right brew tools.

In the example above, the kind barista placed the tea from the tea bag into a teapot. There are a couple things that are no-nos here.

First, leaving high quality tea leaves tightly wrapped in a tea bag doesn’t allow the leaves to expand and for the customer to get more steeping from the leaves.

Second, the bag was submerged in the water, so I had to stick my fingers into the hot water to remove the tea bag before it overbreed the tea.

Third, there was no place for me to place the tea bag I removed, so I precariously perched the tea bag on the ledge of the teapot.

get better tea in coffee shop, brew in mug, tea pot

These may seem like the whining of a tea snob, but these are the practical things a tea lover thinks about when he or she orders tea. The barista was doing the best she could with the brewing tools her shop offered. My dream coffee shop would think about these things when serving their tea.

What’s the idea tool for allowing the tea leaves to brew while you or your customer sips some yummy tea? A teapot that allows the leaves to expand to get the most flavor and steeps out of the tea and allows the customer to control how long the leaves are being steeped.

A simple brewing tool is one like this Brew-in-Mug or this teapot (above) that allows you to take out the Brew-in-Mug steeper. See the photos below to see what they look like.

This simple tweak gives the best experience for the tea lover. Tea addicts will pay more for a great tea experience.

My favorite spots that use the right brew tools are Temple and Tupelo’s in Sacramento and Mischka’s in Davis, CA.

Learn some simple tweaks to make your tea experience better. Click here to get the free guide “5 Rookie Tea Mistakes (and how to avoid them).”

Another simple tweak is to…

4. Use the right temperature water.

I went to one of the up and coming high end coffee shops in Sacramento not too long ago, and they are truly making an effort to satisfy their tea customers. But, they’re not quite there yet.

They are curating some very good loose leaf teas, and they’re using nice tea pots that allow you to take the tea leaves out of the water when you’re ready. I even went to one of their tea tasting classes when they started carrying tea. The owners are aware of the need for different water temperatures for the teas.

However the attention to the water temperature. isn’t making its way to their baristas.

The barista (who’s a hard worker and nice, BTW) placed my silver needle leaves in boiling water then said he’d bring the tea when it was ready because it takes about 4 minutes.


He probably thought I was a nut, but I told him I’d take the tea now, thanks.

White tea steeps for a short time (approx 30 seconds to a minutes on the first steep) in water that’s about 175 degrees. That’s basically boiling water then waiting for it to cool for about 5 minutes.

For coffee shop owners, try steeping all your teas at a lower temperature like 175-185. There are lots of kettles out there that make getting the temperature right easy. That may make it easier for your baristas. Then you just have to tell your customer that they should brew their black teas a bit longer.

Want to learn more about tea? Click here to learn about 5 Rookie Tea Mistakes (and how to avoid them.)

Here’s a quick and easy temperature guide for you.

Light teas (white and green and light oolongs): Brew in 175-185 degree water for 30 seconds to 3 minutes depending on the quality of the tea.

Darker teas (dark oolongs, darjeelings, black teas): Brew in boiled water for 30 seconds to 3 minutes depending not he quality of the tea.

5. Brew quality teas.

A coffee house doesn’t need to have a huge selection of teas to make a tea lover happy. All you need are a few quality teas that the baristas know some key facts about.

A sample tea menu could include one or two teas from each of the 6 kinds of tea. (Get a quickie guide to learn about the 6 teas by clicking here.)

It’s wonderful when the baristas know (or can read) where the tea comes from and what the main characteristics of the teas are. For instance, does the oolong have more floral notes or is it a roasted oolong? Is the green tea more grassy or sweet? Is the white floral or have notes of freshly baked bread? What’s the difference between a 1st and 2nd flush darjeeling?

There are several coffee shops in Sacramento that get their menus right (and have baristas who try to get their tea service right). I’ll name Temple Coffee Roasters, Insight Coffee Roasters, and Old Soul Co. as my favorite places in terms of their tea menus.

better tea in coffee shops, loose leaf tea versus tea bag tea

Here’s my dream sample tea menu (all loose leaf quality teas, of course):

Lighter teas:

White – I like Silver Needle because it’s a high quality tea, and it’s pretty much expected as an option when you’re in a place serving tea.

Green – Pretty much any spring green like a Bao Zhu or Bao Hong.

You can get fancy and add a matcha, but that takes more work, so I understand not wanting to carry that at a coffee house.

Oolong – My personal favorite right now is a milk oolong, which is more on the green tea side than a darker oolong. You may want to add a roasted oolong as well.

Darker teas:

Darjeeling – 1st flush is the highest quality darjeeling because it’s the first pick of the season, but a 2nd flush is delicious as well.

Black – Golden Monkey is a crowd pleaser. It’s easy to drink and is delicious. If you’re adventurous, try carrying Golden Horse; it’s a more savory and toasty black tea that is incredible.

Pu’ehr – Earthy and grounding, you can get numerous steeps in a very short amount of time; they should only be steeped about 30 seconds. Increase steep times as you continue to steep the leaves.

Click here to read how a freshly plucked tea leaf becomes each of the different kinds of teas we brew.

BONUS: Tips for baristas serving tea.

Ask the customer if they’re familiar with tea generally or the tea they’ve ordered in particular? Tea addicts love learning about teas, and love it when someone shows an interest in making their tea right.

If they are familiar with loose leaf tea, ask them if they’d like it for here or in a to go cup.

If they’re not familiar with loose leaf tea, explain:

  • where this particular tea comes from
  • what it’s qualities are
  • how long it’s supposed to steep in what temperature water
  • why you suggest that if they have time to sit down with their tea that placing it in a teacup or mug with a teapot (taste profile changes in a paper cup, easier to regulate the steep time of the water in a teapot) – maybe they’ll be in a hurry, but they may think of stopping by next time and trying it the way you’re suggesting. It may also pique their interest, and they’ll want to learn more about tea.

Last point, no need to use a ton of tea. It takes about 3 grams (about 2 teaspoons) of tea per 8 ounce cup of water to make a cup of tea that can be re-steeped multiple times.

Are you a server or newbie tea lover, click here to take a peek at 5 Rookie Tea mistakes (and how to avoid them). You’ll find more ways to give better information to your customers.

How do you improve your tea experience when you’re in a coffee shop? Let me know in the comments below.



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2 thoughts on “Get Better Tea in Coffee Shops: 5 Tips to Order (and Serve) Tea in any Coffee House

  1. IngridG2014 says:

    You know what I dislike? It’s when you order tea at a regular restaurant and they bring you a cup of hot water and a tea bag on the side! 🙁 Like, what am I supposed to do with that? I suppose it’s slightly good in that you can somewhat “steep” your tea at the table for as long as you like, but there’s no way to pour the hot water over the tea bag!

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