One of the most frequent questions I'm asked is — "My group is planning a tea party fundraiser. How do I make tea for 150 people?" My tentative answer — "It's very challenging." To be honest, 'tea' is meant for smaller, intimate gatherings — but if your heart is set on serving tea to a huge gathering, here's how to approach it.
While it's possible to serve tea to a large crowd, it can be a logistical nightmare to brew individual pots of tea for each table, keep it hot, and hopefully avoid over-steeping. The service staff required for a large group is one person solely dedicated to tea preparation for each table plus another person to manage the hot water urns, warming tea pots, and filling the filters with appropriate amount of loose tea for each tea pot, and timing the steep.
The best way to steep loose tea for a very large group is to use large envelope-style tea bags and have several sources of hot water ready to go. And a note of caution — if you use one of the larger electric coffee urn appliances to heat water, make sure it's never been used for coffee.* We always keep our urns for hot water separate from those that have been used for coffee service. You'll also need a few timers to avoid over steeping the tea.
What's the best tea to use?
Another important factor to consider is the kind of tea you'll be serving. Most teas become bitter very quickly and do not hold well. If I'm serving black tea, I prefer to use a premium quality oolong. It is one of the few teas that isn't bitter or full of tannins and is much more forgiving if over-steeped. One of my personal favorites is our Black Dragon Earl Grey, a blend of oolong with a light bergamot flavor and jasmine flowers.
On the other hand, you might consider serving an herbal tisane and avoid the bitterness problem altogether. I prefer botanical blends made with rooibos since it adds a nice 'body' to the beverage. However, just be sure to select a blend that pairs well with the food you're serving and avoid overly fruity blends.
If you are serving a group of under 50 guests, it is possible to make hot tea and hold it for a short time in a large urns. Here's my tried and true method:
How to Make Tea for 50 people
What you'll need:
55 cup electric coffee urns x 2
Filtered drinking water (do not use tap water)
Quality cheese cloth (several large sheets)
Tea (preferably loose oolong or an herbal blend)
Large plate (for cloth 'tea bag')
Large tea pots for each table, plus back-ups for second servings (you'll need two large tea pots per 8-10 seated at tables)
Tea Pot Warmers with tea candles for each table (optional, but nice for keeping tea warm)
(1) Heat drinking water in the urn until boiling hot. This may take up to an hour or longer, so plan accordingly. And if you plan to serve more than one cup of tea per person, be sure to start the second urn of water heating shortly after the first urn.
(2) Measure about 1 cup (4 ounces or so) of loose oolong tea or herbal blend. Using several layers of large squares of cheese cloth, place the tea in the middle of the cheesecloth. Gather the ends of the cheese cloth to create a large, loose bag and enclose the tea. Tie the top securely with a very long piece of kitchen twine. (The long twine 'tail' will help immensely when it's time to remove the bag from the hot water.) The larger, loose bag allows for circulation of water around the leaves and for the expansion of the tea leaves.
(3) As close to serving time as possible, place the large 'tea bag' into the urn, securing the string 'tail' at the top with the lid. Cover and steep tea for five minutes, and then carefully pull the bag out. Be sure to have a plate close by to catch drips and hold the wet tea bag after it's removed from the urn.
(4) Urn can be placed on buffet at this time, or it can be decanted from the preparation area into warmed tea pots and placed on the tables.
Tea parties of 10-12 people are a lot of fun and a delightful way to enjoy a variety of teas with each course of your menu, if you desire. But if planning a large event with many guests, it's best to consider setting up a beverage service like professional caterers do.
*If you must use an urn that has had coffee brewed in it, I have discovered it is possible to remove most of the coffee residue (oils) with meticulous scrubbing using Oxyclean. Fill the urn almost to top with water and heat to boiling. (Don't over-fill the urn, since the Oxyclean will foam up a bit when added to the hot water.) Add 1/2 cup of Oxyclean and let the urn to soak for a few hours. Scrub inside and crevices well with a stiff brush and rinse several times until the inside of the urn gleams. It will require several rinses to remove all of the Oxyclean. I usually use a little vinegar in the last rinse just to be certain it's rinsed very well and there's no residue of the cleaner. Turn the urn upside down to initially dry on top of a towel. Then, turn over and allow the urn to air dry completely or a few more hours before storing.