Coffee or tea? A national choice

19 May

Why does one nation choose coffee and the other tea? The British, Indians, Russians, Chinese and Japanese are all tea-drinkers, while the Italians, Americans, Spaniards, Germans, Scandinavians and French seem to prefer coffee. The Arabs invented coffee, the Turks disseminated it, but both groups swing slightly in favor of tea, a Chinese invention. The Irish follow the British in their habits, as do the Polish the Russians, and South Americans prefer coffee (when they drink either), following the example of the Portuguese and Spanish colonists.

I’ve wondered why a nation picks one over the other and have come to no clear conclusions. In some countries, like the US, coffee is classier than tea (though tea’s making a huge comeback) because it costs more, requires more processing and equipment. In England, however, tea will always be classier, and will always be a stronger expression of patriotism and status. Coffee does seem to be the more democratic drink, when you look at the nations which prefer it. Coffee drinkers abound in places that never had, or have toppled, their aristocracies, or were always quite egalitarian to begin with, whereas tea is the choice of nations with a history of centralized aristocracies and a lack of regional competition, like England, China, Japan and Russia.

Climate is another factor. Scandinavians drink the most coffee and Canadians drink a lot. So do Americans where it’s coldest and rainiest, but in the sunny Arab and Indian lands choose tea, which can help to relax you in the warmth. Then again, Southern Europeans don’t really drink tea, but love coffee (I think it might also be a personality thing at work), as do their colonial descendants.

Oddly enough, both of these drinks are rarely drunk in Africa or South America. A little bit in SA (they prefer their unique yerba maté) but considering their output, you’d think they’d enjoy it more. Coffee there has not really ever caught on as a national habit. Nor in Africa, where it originated, and is widely grown. And in India, it actually took the British popularity of tea to make tea once again a national pastime, but the Indians didn’t like it the soft British way, nor the even more delicate Chinese way. Like everyone else, they had to modify it to fit their tastes and make it their own: they liked to add lots of sugar, honey, spices, heavy milk, and served it hot and intensely brewed. And this has caught on in Southeast Asia as well.

Which would just be too vulgar for the Japanese, who are now spreading the super light powder tea matcha around the world.

Europeans couldn’t handle coffee or tea the original Asian ways (coffee with a lot of grain and strong, with no milk or sugar) so when they sent the Turks packing back to Anatolia they added milk and sugar and filtered it to soften the bitterness. They did the same to tea, but for some reason never really liked green tea, which they thought too grassy-flavored and weak to drink (and it didn’t keep well on voyages). But today, Europeans can’t understand American coffee, which they think is too weak. They don’t seem to get that you have it to be able to drink it over a long period of time, while you work or converse.

Me? Well, I prefer the intensity of coffee to tea, especially an espresso or a cappuccino, which are really the perfect ways to drink the stuff, but I like tea on occasion, plain black, or a fancy cup of matcha is always good. But more than anything I drink regular American drip coffee because, for some reason, unlike an espresso, which can knock you out a few hours later, it lasts quite a while and keeps you energized for a long period of time. It might also have something to do with nostalgia.


Posted by on May 19, 2011 in Culture, Food


3 responses to “Coffee or tea? A national choice

  1. The Analyst

    August 27, 2012 at 6:09 am

    Canadians drink a lot more coffee than tea and slightly more coffee than Americans, but Cancuks also drink a hell of a lot more tea than Americans as well.

  2. ned

    November 22, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    What? No mention of Cuban Coffee? Seems a little odd.


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