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The History of Coffee vs Tea: Nine Things to Know

Flavor, caffeine, history - here's what you need to know about the world's most popular drinks.

by Suzette Hammond | July 18, 2022

Coffee and tea have existed side by side for years on my table as best buddies. I would drink my coffee and have a pot of tea going at the same time, and there was not a thing at all that was weird or conflicting about drinking coffee and tea side by side.

Coffee and tea, much like peanut butter and jelly, have a unique affinity and shared history in countless cafes and homes across the world. Where one goes, the other follows, pretty much always. With this in mind, we thought it would be fun to explore some of these similarities - and differences - that make tea and coffee taste the way they do.

Whether you're a tea drinker or coffee drinker, on the coffee front, we have you covered on all things coffee subscriptions and coffee equipment. With that said, start up a kettle and let’s dive in!

1) All coffee is coffee, but not all “tea” is tea

Let’s start at the beginning. When we say “coffee,” we’re generally referring to the fruit (and the seed of that fruit) of specific plants, those in the genus Coffea. So just by saying “coffee,” we have this shared understanding. Whether you’re drinking cold brew, black coffee, instant coffee, or decaf coffee, these variations all come from the same plant.

With tea, it’s a little different. Colloquially speaking, in the United States, “tea” can basically mean any collection of leaves, bark, twigs, roots, seeds, etc., that is steeped in hot water. However, that verbiage is not entirely accurate. Botanically speaking, tea does actually refer to a specific plant, just like coffee.

This plant’s name is Camellia sinensis, and from this one plant, we’re able to produce thousands - THOUSANDS, y’all - of types of tea, that can all be organized into six categories:

  1. Green tea
  2. White tea
  3. Yellow tea
  4. Oolong tea
  5. Black tea
  6. Dark tea (fermented teas)

That's one mighty tea leaf.

Think of these categories as the base recipe for types of cookies. You have your base recipe for chocolate chip cookies, or gingersnaps, drop cookies, etc. These doughs have defining features that make them what they are, but any baker can play and make their own unique spin on that type of cookie. The same is true with tea.

So what about all that other stuff that gets called “tea”? Plenty of other countries and cultures have unique local words for them, which is really convenient. They don’t confuse things by calling them “tea.” Unfortunately, in America (and the limits of English), we ended up calling it all “tea.” Whomp whomp.

But you can do your part to ease this confusion by calling them “herbal teas.”

Basically, if it’s from Camellia sinensis, it’s tea, and if it’s from anything else, it’s herbal tea.

2) Coffee is a fruit; tea is a leaf

Both coffee and tea are evergreen shrubs, but that’s where the botanical similarity ends.

The beverage that we call coffee is made from the finely ground seeds of the coffee cherry. Coffee is a tropical fruit, which has some inherent limitations. One, it only fruits once a year. Two, it only grows in tropical areas, primarily in the equatorial bands around Central and South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

Tea, on the other hand, is subtropical, which means it can grow in pretty much all the places we find coffee and far beyond (see below).

Tea is not a fruit - it’s made from leaves. Specifically, the newest sprouts on the plant’s branches and stems. In some climates, the tea plant will keep producing new leaves year-round or nearly year-round. This means that many tea farms get to harvest leaves multiple times, whereas coffee producers really just get one shot each year.

3) Tea grows in nearly all the areas coffee grows, and MUCH more!

Did you know that in some places, you can visit a coffee farm and a tea farm on the same plot of land? It’s a pretty wild experience to say “hello!” to your coffee friend AND your tea friend in the same field. Here’s a quick list of places around the world where you can find tea-growing:

  • Asia: China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka
  • Africa: Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda
  • South America: Colombia, Argentina, Brazil
  • Oceania: Hawai’i, Indonesia, Java, New Zealand
  • Continental US: Washington, Oregon, California, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, South Carolina, and more!
  • Western & Eastern Europe: Scotland, Wales, Portugal, Spain, Georgia
  • The Middle East & Central Asia: Iran, Turkey

Whew! - and that is by no means an exhaustive list. Needless to say, there’s a reason why tea is the second most consumed beverage on Earth, next to water.

Your Best Brew Awaits

4 ) Coffee and tea were folk medicines before they were beverages of hospitality

Coffee’s roots are in Ethiopia, where hundreds of varieties of wild coffee - countless numbers of which remain uncatalogued - still grow today.1 It’s believed coffee arrived in neighboring Yemen sometime between the sixth and fifteenth century (dates vary by source). Interestingly, coffee was adopted in Arabia during this time as a traditional herbal medicine. It was some time before grinding and roasting beans as a beverage ritual took form.

The history of tea begins in Southeast Asia, in the area where far eastern India (Assam and Nagaland) meets China, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos. This rich, biodiverse area is also full of varieties of wild tea that are just beginning to be studied.

Similarly to coffee’s origin story, tea’s first relationship with humans was also through medicine - and food. Harvested leaves were boiled into soups and served with rice. Tea was also consumed as a health tonic. It wasn’t until the mid-7th century (760 to 762 CE), when the prolific Chinese poet Lu Yu published his treatise, “The Classic of Tea,” that a uniquely refined tea culture began to take hold in China. This culture was based in arts, poetry, and reverence for nature, and eventually spread across Asia over the centuries.

5) Arabica & Robusta versus Sinensis & Assamica

In the coffee trade, there are two main coffee plant species. The main type that we talk about in specialty coffee is Coffea arabica. The other is Coffea canephora (more commonly referred to as Robusta).

Tea also has two main varieties, Camellia sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. Assamica (or just assamica for short). Geography fans who’ve been taking note - yes, assamica is named for Assam, India.

How these two varieties are regarded in coffee or tea is entirely different.

In coffee, Arabica and Robusta are not considered equals. They serve two completely different markets. Robusta is grown for the higher yield commodity market and is not graded for the same quality-focused customer base as Arabica. Though some specialty roasters are starting to experiment with carefully grown and sourced Robusta, you’ve likely never even experienced a cup of it in a specialty cafe.

In tea, though, sinensis and assamica are very much considered equals. They just have different environmental needs and offer different flavors in the cup. Sinensis is uniquely suited for cooler, northern climates, whereas assamica thrives in warmer, tropical climates. But both are equally loved by tea folks, and if you’ve any amount of tea at all, you’ve likely enjoyed both types.

6) “Specialty coffee” and “specialty tea” don’t mean the same thing at all

In the coffee industry, “specialty coffee” specifically refers to Coffea arabica beans that are graded on a codified scale of quality, ranking at least an 80 on a 100-point scale.

The term “specialty” for tea is not as regulated as it is for coffee. (partly, this is because tea is not traded on the C-market like coffee.)2 There’s no official 100-point scale. Further, given the enormous diversity of the global tea marketplace, no one completely agrees on how to describe what the term means, either. It’s a “you know it when you see it” type of thing.

For our purposes, we can say that “specialty tea” essentially means high-quality tea that’s designed for an audience who enjoys a sensory-rich experience and supports tea as an artful craft. This is in contrast to commercial tea destined for the bottom shelf of the grocery store, often in tea bags. (important note: not all tea bags are of poor quality. The issue is the tea inside, not the delivery mechanism - an article we’ll explore another time!)

7) Coffee and tea are both caffeinated, but not in the same way

In general, coffee is often quoted as having around 95 milligrams of caffeine per eight ounces.3 Caffeine content is substantially lower in tea than it is coffee, ranging from 14 to 61 milligrams per 8-ounce cup.4 However, with tea, there’s a much greater variability depending on the way the tea is brewed.

Surprise! Did you think I was going to say “depending on the type of tea” just then?

Nope, turns out that’s a big ol’ myth that needs to just stop going around.

The type of tea — green, white, black, etc. — actually has relatively little effect on the caffeine level. The biggest difference comes from brewing.

Hotter water and longer steep times are going to soak out more of that caffeine. Some folks like their English Breakfast tea at a two-minute steep, where others enjoy a five-minute steep - and they’re each drinking two very different cups of tea, in terms of caffeine.

8) Caffeine in tea may affect you differently than caffeine in coffee

When it comes to caffeine, folks tend to report less of a “crash” feeling after drinking tea compared to coffee. Again, coffee has way more caffeine, and the average American’s coffee consumption tends to be in much higher quantities than their respective tea consumption.

Green tea and white tea have an added benefit, thanks to an amino acid called L-theanine, which exhibits strong antioxidant-like properties.5 L-theanine slows the absorption of caffeine and also assists the brain in producing alpha brain waves - patterns that are seen during states of calm, alertness, and focus.

9) Tea gets rebrewed; coffee does not!

Both coffee and tea are prepared in delightfully creative and nuanced ways. There’s one significant cultural difference here, though: tea people rebrew, or resteep, their tea leaves, whereas coffee grounds are single-serve only. You make a pot or a cup, and then you toss them. So where does this difference come from?

Traditionally, tea is not really enjoyed in the large Western teapots and huge mugs of our living room-like coffeehouses. Tea is prepared using much smaller vessels, often just three to five ounces, and reinfused several times. With each small cup, the leaves open up a bit more and new expressions and aromas are released into the freshly poured water. For a tea person to be served an already prepared cup of tea - no leaves, no tea bag in sight - is quite a letdown!

So, definitely rebrew those leaves, friends. At least two to three times. (how far they go depends on the type of tea.) You’re not being “cheap” or rude - resteeping is a beautiful part of tea culture.

Tea recommendations for coffee friends

Want to get started enjoying some tea? The world of tea is awesomely enormous, and I truly believe there’s a tea out there for every coffee lover. Here’s a quick suggested start:

Enjoy bright florals and crisp, juicy textures?

Try an Oriental Beauty oolong or a summer season Darjeeling black tea. Both are renowned for their expressive, perfumy bouquets. Great for washed Ethiopian lovers.

Enjoy fresh greens and steamed veggies?

There’s not really a coffee equivalent to this profile, but if you enjoy your veggies and appreciate the aroma of being by the sea (or even just eating really good sushi), you’ll likely adore Japanese green teas like Sencha or Genmaicha.

Enjoy smooth, earthy, loamy flavors?

Indonesian coffee lovers, nothing beats a shou Pu’erh in this category. Pu’erh is an earthy, fermented type of tea, and “shou” is the variety, yielding a cup that’s as dark as your favorite morning brew. This type is often the first one I’ll recommend for coffee lovers who are really new to tea beyond a Lipton bag.

Enjoy nutty, toasty, warm flavors?

Central American coffee lovers know these origins for their perfection of coziness and daily drinking enjoyment. Coffee you don’t have to be in a “mood” for; they’re just always excellent. In the tea world, we often encounter these flavors in classic black teas from China. My go-to favorites in this area are Keemun black tea from Anhui, China, as well as Dianhong from Yunnan, China. Smooth, cocoa-like, nutty, and soft, jammy notes.

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