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American Caffeine History: A Tale of the Bean & the Leaf

Although our nation was colonized by tea drinkers from England, when dissent about taxation kicked off the Boston Tea Party, angered Americans dumped 92,000 lbs of tea overboard into the bay to reject the goods along with the taxes with the now famous rallying cry “no taxation without representation!” While there had been a whole list of taxes the British levied on the colonies, public outcry led to almost all of them eventually being repealed—except the tax on tea, which came to be seen as a symbol of the power England imposed over the colonies. The colonies drank just over a million pounds of tea a year, though much of it was smuggled in by the Dutch East India Company (or VOC) to circumvent the British taxes. 

tea vs coffee


Not willing to give up, and desperate to save the British East India Company, the British government allowed tea to be exported tax free to the colonies, meaning the tea traders wouldn’t have to pay taxes to the government, but the tea act remained, meaning the taxes came out of the colonial’s pockets. With British tea now even cheaper than the smuggled tea, the soon-to-be Americans revolted, storming a British tea ship and throwing the tea into Boston harbor. This incident became known as the Boston Tea Party—an event that would lead to the revolutionary war, and to my knowledge was the largest cold brew tea ever made. The tides had turned. It was at that point that our country became a coffee drinking nation. It was around this time not-yet-president John Adams said on the matter “I have drank coffee every afternoon… and I have borne it well. Tea must be universally renounced, and I must be weaned from it.” [1] Coffee quickly became a symbol of rebellion from the monarchy as well as a new cultural symbol of the thinkers and activists.

Now, nearly 250 years later, the tides are swinging in the other direction in the US. The younger generation is drinking about as much tea as they do coffee. The driving force is largely the growing availability of delicious premium teas, the growing knowledge of how to make good tea, and the growing awareness of the health benefits of functional botanicals and herbs—and it certainly doesn’t hurt that a cup of tea is generally quicker and easier to brew than a cup of coffee, with nothing but a mug, some hot water, and a timer necessary. 

As a nation, we are no longer “tea people” vs. “coffee people”—it is more widely accepted that we can drink both, and we might do so within a day. In fact, both tea and coffee are drunk by more than 50% of Americans daily. Some people start the day out with coffee, then move to tea for their afternoon pick-me-up (for a lift without the crash), while others (typically younger Americans) go out for coffee in the afternoon and unwind with a cup of green or herbal tea later [2]. Tea has also gained traction with many in the tech world who want a sustained energy lift to aid focus, without the jitters, crash, or acidic stomach known to accompany coffee for many. This alert-chill vibe is created from the combination of caffeine and L-Theanine, an amino acid in tea which is actually relaxing, and can reduce anxiety [3]. But no shade here – you do you. And when you do tea, we are here for you.

A silver lining about our lack of historical tea culture in the states is that we are not married to a legacy of low-quality tea bags (which are common in Britain, sorry guys!). A cultural shift towards valuing more high quality beverages in recent decades has given Americans the opportunity to make a quantum leap into premium tea alongside our premium coffee when forging our own tea culture. In 2021, American tea culture is filled with the best varietals from around the world and creative blends in a limitless array of flavors, and draws upon the traditions of many different tea cultures from all corners of the globe, as we tend to do in the great melting pot of America. In fact, while we imported twice as much tea by weight in 2015 than we did in 1991, we imported four times as much by value [4]. While iced tea has probably existed in some form or another for centuries, it’s popularity exploded when hot tea was cooled to make it more palatable during the heat of the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair (and a couple years later, the popularity of iced coffee followed in its wake). Our options have grown dramatically over the years—with trade restrictions with China lifting in the 70s, a whole new selection of teas became more widely available, and nowadays it’s not uncommon to see Japanese matcha or Indian chai over ice, both with an American spin.

What’s for sure is that while Americans love tea and coffee, tea is finally getting its rightful place right alongside coffee in the public eye. America’s top chains serve both, and it’s becoming increasingly rare to find a coffee shop that doesn’t sell tea. There are numerous potential benefits to tea and coffee: drinking coffee or tea may be linked to lower risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease [5], and a cup of either straight is miles better than sugary energy drinks. So go out and drink more of both (minding your caffeine), and if you’re an avid coffee drinker, consider a cup of tea next time you’re looking to wet your whistle!

 

References:

[1]“John Adams to Abigail Adams, 6 July 1774,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0087. [Original source: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 1, December 1761 – May 1776, ed. Lyman H. Butterfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963, pp. 128–130.]

[2] Foley, Sinead. “NCA Releases Atlas of American Coffee.” NCA, National Coffee Association, 26 Mar. 2020, www.ncausa.org/Newsroom/NCA-releases-Atlas-of-American-Coffee. 

[3] Yoto, Ai et al. “Effects of L-theanine or caffeine intake on changes in blood pressure under physical and psychological stresses.” Journal of physiological anthropology vol. 31,1 28. 29 Oct. 2012, doi:10.1186/1880-6805-31-28

[4] Kennedy, Evan, "Trends in U.S. Tea Imports: 1991-2015" (2017). Honors Theses. 2884. https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/honors_theses/2884

[5] “Health Benefits Linked to Drinking Tea, Harvard Health Publishing, 1 Sep. 2014, https://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/health-benefits-linked-to-drinking-tea. Accessed June 14th, 2021.

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