Some of us prefer coffee, others tea. What does our choice of brew say about us?
Nineteenth-century French novelist Honoré de Balzac reputedly drank up to 50 cups of coffee a day towards the end of his (short) life. He sometimes had to eat dry coffee grounds to get his requisite kick. George Orwell was so concerned about inconsistent tea brewing technique amongst the populace, he published the essay 'A Nice Cup of Tea', which explained in minute detail how best to brew the quintessential cup.
These guys were passionate about smoko.
They're not alone: we tend to form strong, lasting bonds with our preferred hot beverage. But how do we first venture into a relationship with tea or coffee? What compels us to commit to the leaf or the bean, and what does that say about us (beyond the fact we need them to function come morning)?
As a teenager, I drank milky Bell tea accompanied by marmalade on toast. It was what my mum liked – a habit that I knew wasn't going to win me any cool points. The popular kids drank coffee.
My first date with coffee was disappointing. At the Red Eye Cafe in Whanganui in the spring of 98, I was anxious to conform to the rituals of the group and completely unaware of what to order. So I requested what my new friends were having – a huge, frothy bowl of coffee – and wondered how something so fragrant could taste so bitter.
So, coffee lost on the initial taste test. But coffee also had a bad rap, which made it enticing. There's an old Parisian phrase about the orders given before an early morning duel: "Pistols for two; coffee for one." For those wanting to shoot someone before breakfast, coffee was the drink of choice. The tea drinker, in contrast, may have been more willing to sit down, delicate porcelain cup in hand, and negotiate a truce.
Those who err on the wild side appear to be drawn to the bean. A 2012 UK study observed that, "Despite the possible health benefits, caffeinated drinks tend to come along with some less healthy choices." Especially for coffee drinkers: researchers found that people who drank coffee exclusively were more likely to smoke than people who drank both tea and coffee, or only tea. They added: "Smokers may choose coffee because of the higher caffeine content, as smoking increases caffeine metabolism."
The findings get worse for Team Coffee: "Tea drinking was associated with a greater likelihood of being in work."
But what of the hybrid drinker, who swings both ways? Typically, these sorts open with a coffee then ride out the rest of the day on tea. (Initially, whenever I tried to drink a coffee, I'd break out in a sweat. Drinking tea, with its mellower hit, was less embarrassing.)
Coffee, apparently, is the weapon of choice for surviving the middle years between youth and retirement – the bit where kids often feature. From that same study: "Those that drank tea, but not coffee, were more likely to be over 70 or under 30 years, while those that drank coffee only were more likely to be between those ages." A Roy Morgan analysis of Australian coffee drinkers adds more fuel to the theory, finding that not only does having children increase the need for parental caffeination, but "consumption increases with the age of the kids".
It was becoming a parent that compelled me to give coffee another shot. I had a young, sleepless child and I was house-sitting a place with a huge espresso machine. It rose from the bench like an unholy chrome organ, hissing and inspiring reverence. The moment was one of moth to flame – the machine brought me great joy and a moderate level of alertness.
The machine also showed me that the medium is the message when it comes to preparation. Espresso is aggressive: first the coffee beans are roasted, then we grind, tamp, and force pressurised steam through them. Compare that to boiling the kettle and waiting for some tea leaves to steep, wisps of steam spiralling upwards while you wait. Tea, by its very nature, is contemplative.
Eschewing tea for coffee felt like a departure from my own personal history, which featured afternoon teas with grandparents, and silver teapots filled with Bell loose leaf on cold mornings. Tea has a significant level of Anglo-nostalgia on its side; historically, it was our drink of choice – in 1900 we were second only to Australia in world tea consumption. Nowadays, tea's still got the numbers: last year we brewed 657 million litres of tea versus 455 million of coffee.
But statistics had nothing to do with how coffee and I eventually became close. It was the familiarity that evolved out of ritual: I started taking a little glass jar of ground beans to work every day to make a plunger coffee. Then a senior teacher would narrow her eyes at my little jar and say, "You and your fancy beans."
There was wisdom in her mockery. In a busy school staffroom at morning break, you have mere seconds to grab a cup, flick in a teabag or some instant, and douse it with hot water from the Zip. Using the plunger was cumbersome and slow. Coffee aficionados look down their nose at instant drinkers, but here it worked in reverse – my method went against the grain of its environment. For the path-of-least-resistance hot drinker, tea or instant coffee will win every time.
If you're wondering how many people drink instant coffee these days, the answer is heaps. In 2014 we brewed 288.5 million litres of instant versus 166 million of fresh coffee. That's 63 percent instant, creeping up a couple of points since 2009.
Which means coffee's first wave is competing with its third, the latter being all about an artisanal appreciation of the bean. The first wave saw a popularisation of coffee brought about by instant; the second was about better beans, home espresso and Starbucks. Now, you take the time to find out where your brew comes from, and then you worship it in a sacred drinking ritual involving glass orbs that look like light bulbs full of coffee. Tea doesn't have any fancy movement names, but I've heard there is a political party in favour of it in the US.
Does taste alone have much to do with which drink we come to align ourselves with? Maybe not – with the right amount of milk and sugar you can get used to just about anything. Musing on why she initially shied away from coffee, British journalist Eva Wiseman writes that she use to believe coffee drinkers drank the stuff despite its taste, not because of it: "coffee-drinkers had scaled a grown-up wall I would never climb, had overcome that vile mud taste… The coffee-drinker, I thought, was too busy to be concerned with small matters like joy or flavour." That was until she got hooked on milky, sweetened lattes – or "tepid milkshakes".
As I see it, you end up liking what you grow accustomed to. And what motivates you to grow accustomed to tea or coffee (or both) could be anything: A need to impress others. Childhood conditioning. A ritual you hold dear. The degree of alertness required for any given day. The default available option.
Or love. My own coffee habit was cemented by the fact my partner adores coffee but doesn't like to drink it alone. She would rather go without and yawn the day away than consume it solo. At first, I was touched. I thought it was a romantic form of social resonance, that sharing coffee together elevated us to a magical zenith. But now I know it's just that our multi-cup plunger doesn't brew a single so well. I was merely aiding her habit, while fuelling mine. But that's fine. I acquired two loves for the price of one.
This was originally published in Sunday magazine on 29 March 2015.