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tea vs coffee

Can't we all just get along?

There seems to a general rivalry that has developed and perpetuates between the worlds of coffee and tea. This seems somewhat logical, considering that they are both usually served 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 touts its ability to energize, while characterizing tea as a drink for the sick. Tea, on the other hand, boasts amazing health benefits, while painting Coffee as a stomach-destroying poison.

Both Coffee and Tea have legendary pasts. Tea 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 seven years of each other. 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 1652, the first coffeehouse opened in England - the same year the first tea samples arrived to the country. Tea, however, became the favorite due to the fact that it was easier to make.

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. Both plants produce a drink whose flavor is influenced by the growing conditions, have been naturally imparted with caffeine, and 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. Twenty 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.

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 you choose based on quality. By supporting those purveyors that are striving for quality, you'll raise the bar for the trade as a whole.