Tea or coffee plus water, what's so complicated? Just boil! One of my favorite television scenes is a brief moment in Breaking Bad. In the scene, Gail, the new expert meth cooker in town, creates a scientifically perfect cup of coffee for Walter White, the show's champion meth cooker and protagonist. With a custom made series of tubes, hoses, beakers and of course... water, Gail shows the finer points of the coffee making art form. It's brilliant to watch and I'd assume, taste. If you've ever woken up on a plane to some tea or coffee, you've undoubtedly found something far less scientific that is in fact barely distinguishable as tea or coffee, you can blame science and a few man made problems...
So... what's the answer? The answer is that tea and coffee are generally below (any) standards in the air because of two main factors, one of which is nearly unavoidable, the other, rather unpleasant and the third, because airlines are cheap. We'll start with the unpleasant one. Water quality on board airplanes, unless from an unopened bottle can be borderline toxic. The water tanks used on board to make your cup of tea almost always contain "gunk" like sediment and bacteria, which is seemingly unavoidable over time despite efforts to clean them up. Although they are regularly cleaned by bleach and other chemicals to ensure we don't become zombies, they are... full of chemicals and bacteria which compromise taste, and my interest in ever drinking tea or coffee on an airplane again.
The second? It's just unavoidable scientific principles! At altitude on a pressurized aircraft, water boils at a cooler 90* Celsius, creating a less pleasant or powerful brew effect, often causing bitterness and other taste profiles we tend not to enjoy. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 XWB are the first modern planes to pressurize in a way reminiscent of the lower altitude were used to, creating a more earth like environment While simultaneously bumping up the boiling point. Not only does the tea brew at a more natural temperature, we are also in a less hostile environment with more humidity, where we are able to taste finer nuances with a greater sense of smell. If you're in search of a good brew, flying new planes on a top carrier are your best bet for now.
You can't however blame it all on the bleachy water or pressure though. Airlines are notoriously cheap on their coffee and tea purchases. With the exception of a few select carriers including Singapore, Austrian, Qatar, Turkish and Asiana, who are the only airlines offering hand drip coffee up front (nice), you're almost all but guaranteed to get some stale old budget beans and tea bags. In fact, the only cup I can ever recall having was aboard French boutique airline OpenSkies. The French love their coffee, especially coffee served to passengers in business class.
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