Coffee and Tea Services Aloft: Elevate the In-flight Passenger Experience

PT 5 M minute read
Coffee and Tea Services Aloft: Elevate the In-flight Passenger Experience

This is a post by author Roger Leemann. Roger is the senior vice president of Culinary Operations for Air Culinaire Worldwide, headquartered in Tampa, Florida, with kitchens in Aspen, Colorado; Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; Dallas, Texas; Denver, Colorado; Las Vegas, Nevada; London, U.K.; Long Beach, California; New York, New York; Paris, France; San Francisco, California; Seattle, Washington; Van Nuys, California; West Palm Beach, Florida; and Washington, D.C. Also, Air Culinaire Worldwide provides in-flight catering services at hundreds of airports around the world via hundreds of catering partners. Roger is an expert on catering menu development and training for business aviation operators and can be contacted at

While a seemingly mundane consideration, coffee and tea services aloft are an important part of the overall in-flight passenger experience. It’s always best to offer a range of different coffee/tea options and to consider creative options, in terms of beverage preparation and service aloft.

The following is an overview of what you need to know:

1. Each country/region has its own flavor preferences

Each region of the world has its own coffee and tea flavor/style preferences. Coffee beans are roasted differently in different regions, and the ratio of coffee beans to water differs from country to country. In Europe and Brazil, very strong, espresso-style coffee treatments are popular, while in North America the flavor is more bitter due to heavily roasted beans. Tea choices vary from light herbal teas to stronger black teas, which are traditionally steeped longer. No matter where in the world you’re flying, coffee and tea services are typically offered with breakfast, after dinner, or with dessert.

2. There are four basic techniques for preparing coffee

There’s steeped coffee, such as Turkish coffee, for which coffee grounds are boiled in water and then strained. There’s the North American drip version for which water is poured over the coffee and filter. Vacuum-style coffee preparation is used with fine, espresso-type beans. There are also steeped-vacuum preparations, a combination of the latter two techniques. Different grinds of coffee are used depending on the preparation method. For drip coffee larger grinds are used, while espresso preparations employ finely ground beans.

3. Tea considerations

There’s an endless variety of types of teas available, and tea services aloft can be highly popular elements of the in-flight service. A steeped tea generally takes from 30 seconds to a few minutes to create just the flavor you want. The longer you steep tea, the more bitter it will become. Loose teas come in all flavors and can be mixed with dried fruits and/or other flavor enhancing ingredients. Teas have differing amounts of caffeine and antioxidants and come in a wide range of flavors. It often makes an effective presentation to steep loose tea and then add certain dried fruits – such as raspberry or mango.

4. Flavor and brewing considerations at altitude

Lower temperatures will boil and steam water when at altitude. As teas are more delicate and subtle, they do not require as hot a water temperature as for coffee preparation. When you brew tea, it’s ideal to use a max water temperature of 180°F (82°C), while 212°F (100°C) is best for brewing coffee. Specialty coffee machines for airborne applications allow for optimum water temperatures. Taste buds are affected at altitude, and you’ll lose about 20% of your ability to detect salt while at flight level. In general there’s always some loss of taste in flight. For this reason stronger coffee and tea flavors do better at altitude. A plethora of tea flavor profiles are available, and you can actually pair teas with every course of an in-flight meal. White teas and herbal teas can be very subtle, while dark and traditional black teas go well with more heavily flavored entrees. Herbal teas, brighter in flavor, can be used to clean the pallet between meals.

5. Coffee/tea service considerations

When planning in-flight catering, consider passenger preferences, galley capabilities, and types of heating equipment onboard. You can make a coffee or tea service as elaborate or simple as the passenger’s desire. For simplicity of service, however, many operators choose to use coffee “pods” as these can be disposed of easily without the need for washing coffee pots and getting rid of loose coffee grounds and/or filters. It’s always important to be mindful of any passenger allergies and preferences. Make sure to know if anyone onboard is allergic to nuts or is lactose-intolerant. Know if they have certain sweetener preferences. Within the realm of sweeteners, there are loose sugars, sugar cubes, an assortment of artificial sweeteners, honeys, and even sugars crystallized on stir sticks to choose from.

6. Consider serving etiquette

The norm – in the Middle East and other regions – is to serve coffee/tea with the right hand and from the right side of the passenger. In Japan, however, it’s traditional to serve tea cups using both hands. Note that different regions of the world have their own standards regarding who should be served first and how much to pour into a cup. In order to deliver the best possible coffee/tea service aloft, it’s best to know what your particular passengers expect. Having a French press onboard is always a good idea in case there’s an issue with coffee not being delivered with your catering order.

7. Cups (vessels) and garnishes must be considered

Passengers often have particular preferences in terms of cups/vessels for coffee/tea service. Some prefer large mugs while others prefer smaller cups of thinner, fine china. Tea connoisseurs usually want clear cups so they can clearly see the tea. Garnishes for coffee/tea services vary by region, and it’s important to consider and specify a “set-up kit” when ordering catering. A coffee/tea set-up kit may contain milk, half and half, and assorted sugar options, as well as lemons/limes and other citrus options for tea services. In the Middle East, it’s common to serve dates with coffee or tea in place of sugar sweeteners. Ensure you have a selection of at least six different types of teas onboard and caffeinated and decaffeinated coffees, as well as spare coffee filters and coffee pods (depending on type of coffee service passengers prefer). Coffees and teas have long shelf lives and can be kept onboard for a while – so it’s best to maintain a variety of coffee and tea options in the galley.

8. Coffee is usually provided by the FBO

In many parts of the world, where they’re available, Fixed-Base Operators (FBOs) will be your best pre-departure source for water, hot coffee, and ice. At international locations your ground handler may recommend different sources for coffees and teas. Be aware that certain types of coffee/tea – and particularly certain brands – may not be available at all international locations.

9. Know how to elevate the coffee/tea service experience

Rather than serving traditional pre-packaged tea bags, consider a range of loose teas, using a strainer, attractive cups/vessels, and side flavors. It’s often effective to serve coffee ice cream or fruit sorbets as side dishes along with a coffee or tea service. Fruit sauces or purees and/or a selection of dried fruits can go a long way toward enhancing the presentation/flavor of an onboard tea service.


Why not kick it up and elevate the level of your next onboard coffee/tea passenger service experience? With a little extra pre-planning – and a creative presentation, along with alluring garnishes – an onboard coffee/tea service presentation may become one of the high points of the passenger experience.


If you have any questions about this article or would like more information on coffee and tea service, contact me at

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