Shall we take a break from politics and debate something a little more important? My thesis is that, for a wide variety of reasons, tea is a better drink than coffee. Indeed, I view tea as the greatest drink in the world (and it is, in fact, is the most popular beverage after water. Cite. Please see this cite also for the health benefits of tea.).
By tea in this essay I mean Camellia sinensis and not herbal “tea” or any other type of infusion.
Before I go through the many ways in which tea is superior to coffee, let me begin with several
Whether one likes tea or coffee or both is a matter of personal preference. I adore both but prefer tea overall. Naturally, if you don’t like tea at all, you won’t find it to be superior, though you may recognize that it has many of the advantages detailed below. I would ask anyone here who says s/he doesn’t like tea, however, to try more of the many hundreds of varieties and see if there isn’t one that pleases. Most Americans are familiar with rather cheap Ceylon-based tea such as Lipton. IMO even such teas are usually quite all right, but there are others that taste vastly different from them, so all tea should not be judged by their example.
My second concession is quite a large one: My very best coffee experience (double espresso at the Four Seasons in NYC) beats my very best tea experiences (various different types of tea that hit the spot at different times). Further, I would say that a mood for a very good espresso combined with the genuine article is, for me, the best beverage experience.
But please do not make too much of this concession. A perfect espresso cannot come into being about unless bean, machine, and other factors are just right. IOW, it’s a hard thing to create, and I don’t have the machinery to do it myself, whereas I can buy truly great teas at a reasonable price and make them myself at any time. In short, coffee for me can be better than tea but usually isn’t.
My third concession is that good decaffeinated tea is pretty much an oxymoron. The decaffeination process seems to destroy the flavor. In fact, I’ve never found anything better than simple decaf Lipton. On the other hand, decaf coffee is nearly as good as regular. Since I am rather sensitive to caffeine, the sad fact is that I much more often drink coffee these days than tea! (I am drinking a cheap but delicious Keemum from China right now, however.)
The above concessions, I should think, demonstrate my commitment to frank and honest debate. Now please allow me to make my case for tea as the world’s greatest beverage.
Some of tea’s greatest advantages have nothing to do with flavor. Tea just happens to be a very practical beverage in every way.
Tea is easier to make.
All you need is the leaves, a pot to boil water, and a cup. A teapot helps, but millions around the world simply put the leaves in a cup and pour boiling water on them. Tea is arguably the simplest beverage in the world to make after water from the tap. Disposal is also simple and fairly mess-free: you just dump the leaves. The tools of tea-making clean easily and are in essence good forever.
Coffee, on the other hand, is a pain to make. You must grind it yourself or take a quality hit. It is slightly harder to measure than tea. Special equipment is needed to make it. Dumping the filter is theoretically simple but often involves a cleanup of grounds that overflowed the filter, etc. The coffee apparatus itself requires cleanup and gets yucky after awhile.
Such are the comparative mechanics of tea- and coffee-making, but there is also the matter of success and failure. I will grant that making Darjeeling requires skill, since you’ve got to bring out the flavor without letting it get too bitter. But, in general, it is hard to screw up tea. If you steep it and it’s bitter, simply dilute with hot water. If it’s not flavorful enough, simply pour your tea back into the teapot and steep some more. If you didn’t use enough tea to begin with, add some more and resteep. Certainly, there is some distinction made as to what temperature of water goes with what types of tea. Boiling for black and Oolong, less hot for greens and whites. But the truth of the matter is that if you pour boiling water on greens and whites, you won’t ruin them or even reduce their flavor all that much.
Coffee, on the other hand, is easily flubbed and harder to correct afterward. If you use too little coffee or too much water, resulting in weak brew, there is nothing to do but dump it and start over fresh. If you make it too strong, it can be diluted with hot water but not so successfully as with tea. I will not even get into espresso-based drinks; making them well is an art requiring considerable skill in working with the coffee, milk, and machinery.
It is also easier to make just as much tea as you want. A small cup or a large pot. Tea is also faster to make than coffee.
Finally, I will note that it is much easier to produce tea than coffee. There are trees. You pick the leaves. There is a drying/kilning process, and, more rarely, a simultaneous smoking process (lapsang souchong!). Sometimes a few other specialty processes (rolling of gunpowder, aging of pu er, etc.).
From my readings, making coffee is big, involved process involving trees, picking, dehulling the cherries, drying, roasting, etc.
In addition to its cheaper price, the ease with which tea is produced in bulk and made by the individual has concrete implications for world consumption. It is a drink that even the poorest can afford, since they require no special equipment to make it, they can drink it quite diluted if need be (to save on costs), and even the fact that it is based on boiled water kills the nasties in the water and supports good health.
Tea is stored much more easily, longer, and more successfully.
According to Wikipedia on coffee,
I have seen this sentiment elsewhere, and my own experience reflects this: store coffee as skillfully as you may (in the fridge, etc.), but it goes bad quickly. In fact, it not only loses its flavor but begins to taste qualitatively worse, as noted in the quote above.
In short, you must use coffee quickly after roasting or you take a quality hit. If you don’t store it carefully in the fridge or freezer, then you take another hit. In any case, you can’t store it for very long without it tasting awful. The upshot of this is that we rarely drink coffee at its best, even if it is of purportedly high quality.
In contrast, how simple a thing tea is! You put it in a metal can and stick it in a cabinet. In general, you can store tea for up to a year without it losing much or any flavor, and some varieties may be stored quite a bit longer. Further, tea doesn’t taste rotten if it’s a little past its sell-by date; it merely loses some flavor. The upshot is that anyone can buy tea, make it him/herself, and drink it at its best.
Tea is basically less expensive.
A full analysis of the relative expense of tea and coffee is complicated by the fact that there are some very expensive teas (thousands of dollars a pound) whereas there are no coffees that cost that much. Further, the quality of the leaves and beans available varies at each price point.
But let’s put it this way: Very cheap tea is of better quality and cheaper than very cheap coffee, and very good tea costs about the same as very good coffee.
The first is easy to demonstrate. You get either tea or coffee as cheap as you want to get it: huge bags of Chinese Oolong or mammoth cans of generic grind. The difference is that the tea will still be drinkable whereas the coffee at that price point will be nasty. Better tea is available cheaper.
Very good tea and coffee are roughly equivalent in price. A 1 lb. bag of Keemum Concerto is just $33.00. (This is not the keemum I’m drinking now; it’s even better. A tea with tremendous flavor and character. Adagio is just a great site and great tea store. I am not affiliated with them in any way; I just love their wares and service.) Now, tea is not very dense, and 1 lb is a huge amount of tea. They say it costs $0.17 a cup. I think that’s a very high estimate, since that is just 12 cups per ounce, which seems very low.
According to this cite, gourmet coffee tends to cost about $0.12 to $0.25 a cup. Hence, good tea and coffee are roughly similar in price.
Tea is more healthful.
Tea is chock full of vitamins and healthful compounds. Green tea and black tea have different, healthful compounds. Tea is said to reduce cancer risk, etc. There are studies that show benefits to coffee, too, but these benefits are not as large. Coffee does not offer vitamins AFAIK.
Tea production is better for the environment.
I have no cites, but based on what I know tea production seems less environmentally impactful.
Tea is a thirst quencher.
Tea can be drunk both for pleasure and as a source of water, whereas coffee, for the most part, cannot. This small point has enormous implications for worldwide tea consumption.
The upshot of all these practical facts is that tea will tend to be more popular in poor countries (which it is), and both beverages will vie for popularity in the developed world (which they do).
Matters of taste and opinion
Billions can’t be wrong: Tea is, on average, a more enjoyable beverage than coffee.
On average, tea tastes better than coffee.
The reason for this is simple: the manipulation of the tea plant to produce the final product is not very complicated. There is (for most varieties) no complicated roasting or processing involved, and the product keeps well. The result is that a cheap, thin Oolong served in a plastic glass in a dive Chinatown restaurant is an unimpressive but drinkable thing.
For opposite reasons, cheap coffee made without care is nasty, nasty stuff. The coffee sitting out for hours at your local oil change place is a liquid nightmare. Bad beans (lots of robusta, although robusta gets a bad rap I think), bad roasting, lengthy storage at room temperature, bad drip maker, and time sitting out all combine to create an unpotable, thick, black bullion.
Tea tastes better under a wider range of circumstances.
Tea tastes good hot and cold. It tastes fine at room temperature. It tastes fine after it’s been sitting out overnight. It tastes fine after being steeped twice or three times. It tastes fine thin and diluted.
Coffee is a more particular beverage. It too tastes fine hot or on ice, of course, but it tastes bad at room temperature. It is undrinkable if it is too thin or boiled down. Here’s a hint, however: Turn the hot plate (i.e., the coffee maker itself) off immediately after the coffee is made. If coffee is on the hot plate for even ten minutes, it will become burnt, bitter, and nasty. Instead, allow the pot to cool and heat each cup up thereafter in the microwave (about 30 to 45 seconds a cup–test carefully before chugging!). Even coffee that is left out overnight is potable if prepared in this way.
Tea offers a much wider variety.
There is a variety of coffees, but I would not consider it wide. I’ve tried a bunch, but they all seem like variations on a theme. I’ve even tried a 100% robusta coffee, but the difference between that and an Arabica (a different species) is not so great as the difference between two fairly different Chinese greens (same species).
Tea, on the other hand, offers a stupendous variety. First, you have many different regions: China, Japan, India, Ceylon, Africa, not to mention several other Asian countries. Second, you have the different types: Green, Oolong, black, white, pu er, etc. A cup of first flush Darjeeling tastes absolutely nothing like a Chinese pu er. Even among just the Formosa Oolongs one can find incredible variety. The world of tea invites years of exploration at a reasonable price. It’s a great hobby.
Tea offers a better caffeine buzz.
It may be true that, based on the amounts and concentrations that people generally drink, tea has less caffeine in it than coffee. But for the tea connoisseur, this is unlikely to be true on a practical level. Certain tea plant varieties just have ton of caffeine in them. Nor do green teas have less caffeine than black: it’s the same amount of caffeine per same leaf of tea, so the tea variety and the concentration at which the tea is drunk will determine the level of caffeine.
I have been much more buzzed out on tea than I ever have on coffee. Drink the right variety of tea at a high concentration, and you will absolutely be flying. I have had tunnel vision, giddiness, and an overall feeling that I can only imagine is what speed is like.
I haven’t seen any research, but I do think tea offers a different type of caffeine buzz. If I drink a lot of tea, the buzz seems to go mostly to my head, and it troubles my heart a lot less (I am prone to PVCs). When I drink coffee, I seem to get less of a head rush and much more crankiness in my heart and body.
There may be very good scientific reasons for this. Tea may deliver caffeine to the bloodstream differently or the chemicals in it (or lack thereof) may affect how the body processes the caffeine. In my experience, tea offers an overall better caffeine experience. BTW, I am not recommending high doses. I drank too much, and it really affected my sleep and overall body feeling. But for reasonable doses, I think the quality of the experience is better. If you want caffeine for a bit more pep at times, tea is the way to go.
For all the reasons above, I think tea is a better beverage than coffee. But I would like to explore a few additional points.
Tea is the “real thing,” not frickin’ Coke.
The fact that Americans drink so much Diet Coke and other chemical soups is a real shame on our culture. We just don’t know better, I guess. Tea is a cheaper, easier, and more environmentally sound beverage, but still we stick with the fake-o concoctions in aluminum cans. What a joke. (And I’m guilty of it myself. Nor are other countries necessarily better: Japan drinks gawdawful canned coffee in copious amounts.)
Tea is a real, organic beverage; its flavor is naturally complex. Even cheap tea is suitable for the sophisticated palate.
America has become somewhat coffee-smart but is still tea-stupid.
With the advent of Starbucks and palates that can appreciate its relatively good flavor, America has become somewhat coffee-smart. Undoubtedly our education will progress soon with consumption occurring sooner after roasting and with more knowledge of coffee varieties.
But America is still incredibly tea-stupid. The same Starbucks that has educated the masses about good (or at least mediocre) coffee serves tea at a high price in cheap little bags (Tazo, I think). The problem with tea bags isn’t that the tea in them is therefore bad, it’s that they are wholly unnecessary and wasteful. A real tea shop wouldn’t take the easy route of just buying the Tazo bag box and setting it out; it would select its teas carefully, buy them in bulk, and prepare the tea in such a way that the customer can choose the length of steeping (those tea cylinder things aren’t bad at all).
A variety of other influences is preventing Americans from seeing tea for what it really is. Green tea is promoted by health food stores, which is fine, but almost no understanding of green tea connoisseurship is conveyed. In effect, people get the idea that green tea is a generic type of medicine, when in fact the variety of green teas from various regions is astounding, and green tea is one of the most exciting and “cool” types of tea out there.
The bottled teas available in the US are atrocities that give Americans a great misimpression about tea’s nature. There are a lot of faux brands like Republic of Tea that try to make you think their sweetened concoctions are organic, good for the environment, healthful, whatever; but they can barely be labeled tea; they are more like Gatorade.
That said, sometimes the plain ol’ ice tea available out there is fantastic. For some reason the basement cafeteria in the University of Chicago had some of the best burgers and ice tea I’ve ever had. The tea had an excellent flavor and depth with a hint of smoke; it was just a blend that worked.
Sadly, Japan drinks a lot of tea but is still tea-stupid. Japanese tea is rarely sold in a whole leaf form but instead is chopped up and bagged. A whole faux marketing vocabulary and tone has been overlaid on the produce so that it is very hard to tell what is what, or the quality of anything. There are also very few people in the know to provide trustworthy recommendations. Hence, I would often shop at Mariage Freres in Ginza, which sells no Japanese tea except a few flavored forms, and ended up almost never buying Japanese tea while in Japan. Tea culture is further dumbed down in Japan by the prevalence of bottled teas (green, black, sweetened, etc.).
Tea is better than coffee and will make your life better. Drink more tea.