The United Kingdom loves its tea, but if Oliver Cromwell’s head hadn’t ended up on a spike, coffee might have remained the country’s most prevalent pick-me-up. And while countless half-completed screenplays have been penned in the world’s 30,000-plus Starbucks locations, cafe culture might not have spread throughout the globe if Islam permitted its adherents to imbibe alcohol.
Collectively, coffee and tea have been credited as catalysts for everything from the Enlightenment to the Opium Wars. Tracing the fascinating history of these caffeinated beverages touches on brain chemistry, the emergence of global capitalism, and deep-seated cultural beliefs, both edifying and destructive.
The Origins of Tea and Coffee
The origins of both tea and coffee have been mythologized. According to a Chinese legend, tea was discovered by Emperor Shennong around the year 2732 BCE. As the story goes, the emperor was boiling water beneath a tree when the wind blew some leaves into his pot. The plant infused into the liquid, and when he sipped it, he was filled with a pleasant, energizing sensation.
The tree from the story was Camellia sinensis—a plant native to the borderlands of north Myanmar and southwest China. All “true teas” come from this plant, which is why herbal teas like chamomile should technically be referred to as infusions or tisanes.
Coffee doesn’t come from leaves, and it technically doesn’t come from beans, either. The source of all things coffee is the fruit that grows on the tropical coffea plant. These so-called coffee cherries are small and red with a hard, stone-like core. The “bean” we use to brew the beverage is actually the fruit’s seed—there are usually two inside each cherry.
Legend attributes the adoption of coffee into human diets to a goat herder named Kaldi around 850 CE. Sometimes the story is said to take place in what is today Ethiopia; other times, in Yemen. The gist of it is that Kaldi’s goats started dancing one day after nibbling berries from a coffea shrub. Kaldi tried the fruit for himself and experienced the plant’s stimulating effects.
Thrilled about his discovery, he brought the coffee cherries to a nearby monastery or mosque. The people there didn’t share his excitement: After calling the fruit the devil’s work, they tossed the berries into the fire.
As the coffee beans roasted, the skeptics were intoxicated by the scent and regretted their decision. They crushed the beans by stomping out the flames and added the grounds to hot water to preserve them, thus brewing the world’s first pot of coffee. After giving it a try, they decided that the drink’s ability to keep them awake for hours of prayer canceled out any satanic properties it may have had.
It's a charming story, but no version of it has ever been verified by historians. When coffee writer Ken Davids performed an unscientific experiment to gauge Yemeni goats’ interest in coffee cherries, he found they preferred dried grass and the leaves of the local qat tree. Davids did note that he later saw goats in Ethiopia happily eating coffee tree leaves, but the lack of contemporary accounts of Kaldi’s exploits casts the story into some serious doubt.
Coffea arabica vs. Coffea canephora (a.k.a. Robusta)
Still, the myth—if it is a myth—points to a real part of coffee’s history. Coffea arabica, the most popular species of the plant, probably did originate in the plateaus of Ethiopia, where it continues to grow in the wild today.
The other most popular species of coffee is Coffea canephora, often called robusta. It’s cheaper to produce and contains significantly more caffeine than arabica—that high caffeine level might actually help ward off pests. For many years, the Western coffee world has considered robusta an inferior product, which is why you’re much more likely to see a higher-end coffee bag brag about containing 100 percent arabica beans. Industry opinions may be evolving, though, as more professionals come to recognize the two species as distinct, but not necessarily better or worse.
Robusta, for its part, has long been enjoyed in some of the countries in which its grown, like Indonesia and Vietnam (where its tendency to taste more bitter might have helped give rise to the delicious iced coffee drink sweetened with condensed milk called cà phê sữa đá).
How the Tea and Coffee Get Made
Making coffee on a large scale is complicated by the quirks of the coffea plant. It ripens unevenly and the arabica plant, especially, grows on steep terrains, so harvesting coffee cherries at peak ripeness often has to be done by hand.
That’s why it’s not unusual for coffee farmers supplying some of the world’s largest corporations to earn less than $3 a day. To stay competitive, these farmers often have to sell their coffee cherries at a price that doesn’t match the labor required to cultivate them. Because much of the product’s value has historically been seen as arising later in the production process, those farmers often don’t have much leverage to negotiate with.
Once coffee cherries are harvested, they get processed and dried to remove excess moisture. At some point (it varies depending on the processing technique being employed), the fruit is removed. Then, the beans get roasted.
Somewhere around 400°F they start releasing an oil called caffeol, which is partly responsible for the rich taste and fragrance we associate with coffee. Coffee also develops its deep brown color during the roasting process.
Roasted beans are ready to be ground, and ground beans are ready to be brewed into a cup of coffee—or espresso, or a pumpkin spice latte, or whatever your preferred coffee beverage is.
Green tea, white tea, oolong, and black tea all come from the leaves of the same tea plant, Camellia sinensis, but the ways those leaves are prepared can create distinct beverages. The leaves that become black tea are crushed before they’re dried, which exposes the chemicals in their cells to increased levels of oxygen.
During oxidation, the chlorophyll that makes plants green degrades into pheophytins and pheophorbides, which gives tea leaves a black or brown appearance. Other compounds like lipids, amino acids, and carotenoids break down as well, changing the flavor profile of the plant.
Tea manufacturers know when to stop the oxidation process to achieve the flavor and aroma they want for their product. To make green tea, they stop oxidation early. Oolong is semi-oxidized, and black tea is considered fully oxidized, which gives it its bold flavor. White tea is made from young Camellia sinensis leaves that haven’t fully opened, and they’re oxidized the least of the four main varieties you’re likely to encounter at the local market.
The Science of Caffeine
Both coffee and tea have caffeine to thank for their popularity. The natural stimulant is found in both the coffea plant and Camellia sinensis, and thanks to coffee and tea’s global success, it’s the most widely consumed drug on Earth.
Though it feels like it wakes you up, it would be more accurate to say that caffeine stops you from getting sleepy. The chemical is similar in size and shape to an inhibitory neurotransmitter called adenosine. Throughout the day, adenosine builds up in the brain and makes you feel tired. When you drink coffee or tea, caffeine settles into the receptors shaped to fit adenosine, which blocks the neurotransmitter from getting in and bringing down your energy.
And because of the layout of the brain, dopamine has an easier time reaching its receptors when caffeine is present. This compound is known as the “feel-good hormone,” and it could explain the buzz you feel after your morning dose of caffeine.
A standard 8-ounce cup of coffee contains around 95 milligrams of caffeine, which is more than double the 47 milligrams of caffeine in an average cup of black tea. That could be a mark against coffee if you’re afraid of headaches and jitteriness—or it could be a plus if your main concern is getting through the first hour of work without falling asleep at your desk.
Coffee and Tea in Religion
It may not have taken long for coffee to get from Ethiopia to Yemen, given the proximity of the two countries. Like the monks from the legend, Sufis in Yemen really did use coffee to get through nighttime prayers and devotions.
Like coffee, tea was seen as something sacred following its discovery in China. Buddhist monks were drawn to it for the same reasons that Sufi monks drank coffee: It kept the mind clear and alert for extended meditation sessions. Just the process of pouring water and brewing tea became a spiritual, meditative act for followers of Buddhism.
Tea vs. Cha
The word tea comes from the Chinese word tu, which means “bitter vegetable.” Tu also gave us the Mandarin word cha, which first appeared in print circa 760 CE when a Chinese scholar left out a cross stroke when writing out the character for tea. Today, the word for the drink used in almost every language derives from one of these two terms.
In general, whether a Western country says it drinks tea or cha today depends on whether it traded with China by sea or land centuries ago. The Dutch East India Company imported its tea from an area of China where they called it something like tey. From there it traveled to Western European countries like France, England, and Germany. But not Portugal—they had their own trading links with China in a region where people said cha. That’s what the Portuguese call the drink to this day.
Central Asia also picked up cha. According to University of Pennsylvania Professor Victor H. Mair, it seems that cha got adopted by the Mongol Empire, which used Persian as a common language. In Persian, cha got an alternate form—chai, which spread throughout much of Asia.
Today, chai and tea are two words for the same beverage, so when you ask your barista for a “chai tea” you’re technically repeating yourself. (The spiced drink you’re looking for actually corresponds pretty closely to a beverage called masala chai in India.)
Coffee quickly spread throughout the Muslim world. It played a social role as well as a spiritual one when coffeehouses emerged in the Islamic world during the 16th century. These businesses became community hubs where men from all levels of society could come together and discuss important topics. In a culture where alcohol was banned, coffeehouses functioned as community taverns. The drink was even called kahve, which is sometimes said to be an Arabic word for wine.
Coffee had some hurdles to overcome before it would be embraced in Europe, though. Because it was viewed as a Muslim product, xenophobic Christians branded it the “bitter invention of Satan.” Catholics called upon Pope Clement VIII (1536-1605) to condemn it officially, but he was said to have had a surprising reaction when he took his first sip. He reportedly said the devil’s drink was delicious, and proposed cheating the devil by baptizing the beverage.
That story is almost certainly a myth, but it reflects real concerns about coffee consumption at the time in Europe. Still, despite those misgivings, the drink’s popularity skyrocketed.
Unlike beer, which had been the continent’s morning beverage of choice, coffee boosted energy levels and sharpened the mind. Drinking coffee quickly became a social activity as well as a way to start the day. The coffeehouses that originated in the Ottoman Empire began popping up across Europe. By the mid-1600s, there were 300 such establishments in London alone.
Much like today, coffeehouses were places where creative minds went to find inspiration. Some were known as “penny universities”—establishments where patrons paid a penny for their coffee and had access to free reading material and intellectual conversation as a bonus.
Some argue that the cross-disciplinary exchange of ideas facilitated by coffeehouses helped foment the intellectual revolution known as the Enlightenment. In The World of Caffeine, Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer discuss how a coffee club in Oxford counted among its founding participants Edmund Halley, Isaac Newton, and Hans Sloane, whose personal collection formed the basis of the British Museum. According to Weinberg and Bealer, the three men “are said to have dissected a dolphin on a table in the coffeehouse before an amazed audience.”
Economist Adam Smith worked on The Wealth of Nations in a coffeehouse, meaning the beverage didn’t just affect the global economy—it arguably contributed to one of the most influential books in the history of economics itself. Sometimes the buildings themselves even made history: the original London Stock Exchange started at a coffeehouse.
Vienna also saw the rise of a vibrant coffee culture around this time. Legend has it that when the Turks tried to take the Austrian capital in the Siege of Vienna in 1683, they left behind a bag of coffee beans. That bag was the seed that sprouted the city's centuries-long love affair with the beverage. Today, Viennese coffee houses are thought of as extensions of people's homes. Guests are encouraged to take their time and drink in the atmosphere alongside the expertly-made brews.
Today, tea is as British as William Shakespeare or Mr. Bean, but it wasn’t accepted into the culture immediately. By the time tea arrived in Europe in the 17th century, coffee had made significant inroads among the continent’s caffeine connoisseurs.
Portugal was much quicker to embrace tea. The country had a direct trade route to China via its colony in Macau, and it was viewed as a luxury by the Portuguese upper class, including Princess Catherine of Braganza. Her future husband, Charles II, was busy restoring the Stuart Monarchy in England after five years of Oliver Cromwell’s rule as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. Two years after ascending to the British throne in 1660, Charles married Catherine in a politically advantageous arrangement.
When Catherine came to England, she brought her fondness for loose leaf tea with her. She didn’t introduce the beverage to the country, as is sometimes claimed, but the new queen was a trendsetter: Drinking tea quickly became an indicator of luxury and class.
It would be more than a century before tea became the drink of the people. Though royals and nobles could afford the stuff, high taxes made it prohibitively expensive for the majority of the population. Soon an illegal smuggling market grew to meet the nationwide demand for cheap tea. William Pitt the Younger put an end to this when he reduced the tea tax from 119 percent to 12.5 percent upon becoming prime minister in 1783. Britain’s legal tea market exploded, and tea smuggling was no longer lucrative—in Britain, at least. (Hold that thought for later.)
Camellia sinensis wasn’t being grown in England, which meant all the tea consumed by the country had to be imported from China. The British and Dutch East India companies were already trading goods with China for silks and spices, so they were able to transport massive amounts of tea at a profitable rate.
But while China had plenty of goods that Britain wanted, the British didn’t have much to offer in return. To rectify this, British merchants began smuggling opium into China to make illegal trades. The tactic worked—for a while, at least. By 1839, opium was funding all of Britain’s tea. The drug was so popular in China that millions became addicted to it, which predictably angered the country’s leaders. This led to the Opium Wars, which were fought between 1839 and 1842 and again between 1856 and 1860.
Britain and its allies were victorious in both conflicts, which led to international trading practices that were favorable for Western countries. And the Opium Wars were hardly the only time the tea trade had massive ramifications for geopolitics—for example, take what happened in Boston Harbor in 1773.
Six years earlier, Britain had passed the Townshend Acts, which taxed colonists for essential goods like tea, paper, and glass. Most of those taxes were repealed soon after, but the tea tax remained intact. In 1773, the Tea Act gave a tax break to the East India Company on tea sent to America. This was meant to help the fortunes of the struggling company, and it would have brought the price of tea down for colonists. So where’s the problem?
Well, much of the tea being consumed in the colonies at the time was actually being smuggled in. Some of the founding fathers, including John Hancock, were allegedly merchants-slash-smugglers bringing Dutch tea into the colonies. The Tea Act would have undercut this illegal activity, perhaps, habituated Americans into accepting British taxation. As historian Benjamin Carp laid out the argument, “You’re going to seduce Americans into being ‘obedient colonists’ by making the price lower.”
A political group called the Sons of Liberty took action. They boarded ships dressed as American Indians and dumped 340 chests of tea into the harbor. The destroyed goods were worth £9659, or roughly $1.7 million today. This marked the colonies’ most overt act of defiance yet; in response, England passed the so-called Intolerable Acts, which eventually helped escalate tensions with the colonies into full-on war.
Coffee vs. Tea
You might read that the revolution irrevocably turned America away from tea and towards coffee. It’s not that simple, but there is an element of truth there. For a number of years, tea was seen as unpatriotic in the colonies. John Adams noted in a 1774 letter to his wife Abigail that he was now drinking coffee. As he said, “Tea must be universally renounced. I must be weaned, and the sooner, the better.”
But America got over its aversion to tea pretty quickly after achieving independence. Adams himself started drinking it again, and America began trading tea with China, producing great wealth for many traders.
In fact, it took a number of factors to convert Americans from leaves to beans. According to most food historians, the War of 1812 led to a rise in tea prices in the States. Around the same time, Brazil—located not so far from North America—was becoming a coffee powerhouse.
Brazil built a massive industry, largely on the backs of enslaved Africans. In 1800, the country reportedly exported 1720 pounds of coffee. By 1820, that figure was nearly 13 million pounds, and by 1830, it was 64 million.
Increased immigration to the U.S. from coffee-drinking countries, as opposed to tea-loving England, may have also helped shift national tastes. But the primary factor in the caffeinated conversion was probably the cost advantage of Brazilian coffee. By the mid-19th century, coffee’s popularity eclipsed tea here in the States.
Of course, there are many Americans today who love tea, and an increasing number of Brits enjoy coffee, but those old inclinations have proven surprisingly durable. And the cultural implications of the two drinks can go beyond the simple coffee/tea dichotomy.
In Britain, the way one takes their cuppa is said to correlate with social status. Historically, commoners drank the strongest brews while the aristocrats enjoyed weaker (but better-tasting) tea. The so-called “builder’s tea” of the British working class was so bitter that it was often sweetened with sugar. That’s why, as anthropologist Kate Fox said, “Taking sugar in your tea is regarded by many as an infallible lower-class indicator.” The weak tea poured in upper-crust tea rooms was perfectly palatable on its own, which is how unsweetened tea gained its fancy reputation.
It’s roughly analogous to the difference between a single-source cup of black arabica and a “regular” coffee in New York City, which is generally made with deli-quality java and a healthy dose of milk and sugar.
Tea and coffee have been pitted against each other throughout history, but their similarities may be greater than their differences. And no matter what you drink at home, your loyalties may go out the window when you’re jet lagged in a foreign country, craving a hit of the world’s most popular drug.
This story was adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube.