top of page

Recent Posts



Tea vs. Coffee: The battle for the cup Part 5

Can't we all just get along?

There seems to be a general rivalry that has developed and persists between the worlds of Coffee and Tea. This seems somewhat logical, considering they are both usually served during and after meals, both usually share the same supermarket space, and both are developing gourmet markets from more commercial pasts.

Such tight competition is sure to bring animosities. To win the market, these industries have tried their hardest to put as much distance between each other as possible. Coffee often plugs its ability to energize, while characterizing tea as a drink for the ailing. Tea, on the other hand, boasts amazing health benefits, while painting Coffee as a stomach-destroying poison. In this next lesson, though, we'll put aside our differences and discuss the similarities between the two hottest drinks available.

We'll begin at the most logical place: their origins. Both Coffee and Tea have legendary pasts. Tea, as discussed in a previous course, was discovered by the ancient Chinese ruler Shen Nung, when a fateful leaf fell into his boiling water. The similarly serendipitous story of Coffee dates back to late in the first millennium, when an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi noticed that his goats began to act unusually frisky after eating berries from an unfamiliar plant (coffee "beans" are actually seeds from coffee fruit). Curious, Kaldi picked one of the berries and popped it in his mouth. Full of energy and zest, he told of his discovery of this tree to local townspeople, and coffee's fame soon spread.

Amazingly, the history of the two followed nearly identical paths.

Coffee and tea were introduced to England within years of each other.

The first coffeehouse in England was set up in Oxford in 1652 by a Jewish man named Jacob, at the Angel in the parish of St Peter in the East in a building now known as "The Grand Cafe". A plaque on the wall still commemorates this and the cafe is now a trendy cocktail bar.

Coffee houses were hubs of business and trade news, and patronized entirely by men. As coffee houses were places of sobriety and moderation, they were known as locales for discussions about literature, politics and art. One would go to a coffee house to read newspapers, hear the latest trade news, and to see friends. Most coffee houses had a distinct character and clientele, and every profession, trade and class had its coffee house of choice.

In 1662 Catherine of Braganza of Portugal married Charles II and brought with her the preference for tea, which had already become common in Europe. Tea was a rare luxury and a social nicety for the rich. As tea was Catherine’s temperance drink of choice, it gained social acceptance among the aristocracy as she replaced wine, ale and spirits with tea as the court drink. Both were first enjoyed under the reign of Charles II (nicknamed "Milk and Sugar Charlie" for his fondness for these additions to both the drinks).

In 1667 Thomas Garraway, the owner of a coffeehouse known as Garraway's, was one of the first to serve tea. According to Garraway's advertisements tea in Britain had only been used as a "regalia in high treatments." He advertised it as a medicinal drink, capable of curing almost anything, and charged £6 to £10 for a pound. His coffee house was a center for mercantile transactions, and he sold tea both by the pound, and prepared tea. Soon all coffee houses were offering this optional, competing beverage.

Catherine of Braganza's choice of tea was instrumental in the popularization of tea in Britain. Because tea was introduced primarily through male frequented coffee houses, there would have been far less social acceptability for women to drink this beverage had it not been for her example.

Catherine of Braganza's use of tea as a court beverage, rather than a medicinal drink, influenced its popularity in literary circles around 1685. By 1686 tea was selling in markets, and the English East India Company considered it to be a part of their regular trade. It was no longer only a specialty item brought back by a ship's captain for personal use or the drink for the rich and famous.

The amount of tea imported increased again in the first half of the eighteenth century. From 1650 to 1700, Britain imported about 181,500 lbs of tea. In the 1750's about 40 million lbs of tea were legally imported to Britain. However, as the smuggling trade was active in the eighteenth century, and it is very difficult to estimate how much tea was actually imported and consumed.

It has been suggested that tea gained popularity over chocolate and coffee in the late 1700's because it was more patriotic to drink tea, as it came from British colonies, whereas coffee came from the non-British Arabia, and chocolate from the Spanish and Portuguese controlled Americas.

Another reason tea became more popular than coffee lies in the nature of its preparation. Coffee grounds can only be used to make coffee once, as reusing grounds yields coffee with a far inferior taste. Tea leaves, however, can be used several times without a marked taste difference, although the resulting beverage is weaker than the original infusion. Until tea dropped in price in the middle of the nineteenth century, members of the working class in Britain bought second hand tea leaves from the bourgeoisie and let the tea steep longer to compensate. The amount of tea used can also be reduced, and a weak cup of tea is far more palatable than a weak cup of coffee. The price of tea per pound is always higher than that of coffee, but a smaller amount of tea is used per cup than coffee, making it more economical.

Thus the battle began.

Now, let's examine the two scientifically. Both Tea and Coffee plants are members of the evergreen family. If allowed to grow naturally, both will become trees. However, both plants are pruned so they can be easily harvested (tea is kept much shorter than coffee). Both plants produce a drink whose flavor is influenced by the growing conditions, such as soil condition, moisture, surrounding vegetation, etc. Both Coffee and Tea have been naturally imparted with a chemical that provides stimulation, caffeine. Finally, both use very similar methods of preparation.

In the U.S., coffee is the #1 hot drink. This title was usurped from tea relatively recently, following the explosion of coffeehouses, led primarily by Starbucks. 20 years or so ago, when all that was widely available was low-grade, instant coffee, the market was relatively equal. Slowly but surely, several pioneering coffee roasters in the late 60's and early 70's started spreading a simple message to Americans: "you need to be drinking better coffee. Really now, people, this is just sad." These roasters have been able to educate consumers that something better is available and accessible. Now, thanks to growing and tight-knit online tea communities and courses such as Tea-nology and the Living Tree Company, similar tea educations can even the playing field.

It is important to note that, worldwide, tea is still #1 (not that this is a popularity contest).

In light of these many similarities, we will suppress the urge to end this with a "tea is better" bias. As passionate as we are about how the superiority of tea, there are coffee lovers out there who are equally fanatical.

Whatever drink you may prefer, make sure your choice is based on quality. Both industries have been marred by their respective stale, instant, convenience-driven muck. By supporting vendors who are striving for quality, you'll raise the bar for the trade as a whole.

bottom of page