Among the most emotive and delicious binaries in life, coffee and tea are perhaps the most frequently encountered, and arguably, the most intense, or shall we say heated. While most may dismiss these differences as individual or idiosyncratic, there are serious debates, even scientific ones, about people’s preferences for one beverage over the other. The arguments run the gamut from the genetic to the mythic It is fired by the awesome power of Mother Nature, and is therefore, irresistible.
The tea lover can point to Asterix in Britain and say that their drink is the magic potion with the same effects, not say much easier to make. In Bernard Shaw’s Apple Cart, the characters abandon deciding the fate of their country because it is tea time! And there is the gracious tea ceremony in Japan, and high teas everywhere. What the future holds out for the beverages is in the tea leaves—we just need to read them. In more modern times, tea has come to mean gossip or talking dirty about someone, in an expression such as “spilling the tea”, having the same purport as washing dirty linen in public. Pop singer Beyonce spilt her tea when she publicly shamed her husband for his escapades. But what of the people who drink them—are they distinguished by any unique characteristics?
Fortune Favours the Coffee Drinker
Coffee drinking is genetic, with at least six genes making you a coffee drinker—you drink it because you are what you are. Giving up coffee for you is as easy as running away from yourself. While it is more addictive, the tendency also positions you to make more money in all walks of life compared to the tea drinkers. And yet, you are more relaxed, stretched out under a mental cabana as it were. The tea drinkers are slightly higher in stress, though, paradoxically, they are the ones who are more calm. Perhaps tea drinkers do not care so much for money as job satisfaction because they do not need incentives to drive them unlike the other clan of humanity.
Believe and live
Tea drinkers are relatively flexible in their beliefs. The coffee person is something of a fanatic, willing to defend the indefensible, even when groggy with sleep-deprivation. Like Oliver Goldsmith’s school master, though defeated, they argue still. They are more into tradition and rules—they would be quite unhappy if you sent an SMS that reads, “C u 2morrow” and would prefer you had said, “See you tomorrow”. Coffee persons are therefore more likely to be Grammar Nazis, pedantic if you want, about orthographical grammatical errors. They will kick you out for philistinism in their bias towards conservatism. Their belief in punctuality is, however, somewhat tenuous—the tea person is more on time, while the coffee person is panting in the race against it. It is a kind of Fabianism, (perverted Fabianism, but, please excuse it if possible). Perhaps because of this, the tea drinker is more casually dressed—and will, perhaps in turn, excuse your linguistic shenanigans—while the coffee person is more modern and stylish in an unconventional way than the other is. It could also be that the constant running and the more rigid belief system make the coffee person more lachrymose—the Vale of Tears is just one step backwards.
Talking through and under hats
Coffee lovers converse with you—you can say some, but you will have to listen too. The coffee lover tends to take an aerial view of life and will, almost as a second nature, philosophise—and end up being a little abstract and impersonal. Tea lovers revel in telling tales, tall and traditional, folklore and the fantastic. The tea guzzler will work out a philosophy and live it out, while the coffee aficionado is still grinding his ideas. If you want memories, personal anecdotes, and the like, seek out the tea man. The coffee cat would rather slog alone in their room immersed in books that they have piled up, propelled by their caffeine. This workstation matches the tea drinker’s story room. The coffee person is a workaholic flies at night as well. One reason could be that tea lovers are organised and systematic. The coffee drinker’s work is bricolage. They do not talk much—until they start. Then the caffeine can dispense free advice playing the counsellor and Agony Aunt. The tea person is more into comforting, despising the I-told-you-so attitude that is the bane of friendship, the salt that is indignantly and self-righteously rubbed into the wound. Speaking of comforting, the coffee lover offers it in a different way. You can get a perfect illustration of what in psychology is called abreaction—put your problems into words and expel them. The coffee lover will receive them stoutly—they make patient and excellent listeners, a difficult art these days. Having listened to you with such resoluteness, they come with an analysis, and the advice that is of a piece with it.
“Your words are yours until you speak them”
Coffee lovers are political animals and they are, therefore, politically correct. Call it the refusal to call a spade a spade, leave alone adding an epithet before the word, the coffee person does not trample up on feelings. But if an understatement is more effective, a polite understatement would perhaps make it more effective? The tea lover, meanwhile connects words with reality and speaks them out—too bad if you are prudish or queasy. But the coffee lover is great if you need some marathon company. They may occasionally pepper the talk with some tongue-in-cheek remarks, otherwise tending to keep their opinions to themselves. Consider the French. They have cafés serving coffee at every street corner. The great philosophers like Jean Paul Sartre would often sit in a café, talking with friends, and even writing his tomes of philosophy, when he would be alone, as his famous saying illustrates: “Philosophy is like a blind man in a dark room searching for a place cat which is not there.”
Gusto for gustation
The expression has been so frequently used that a tea party has become the only description for eating and drinking that is not a regular meal. It may sound lofty and more serious when it becomes high tea when light items like cakes and muffins are added, and a large group of people come to the party. There is not coffee party to match. Could it be that the tea people are more gregarious? The British count their gift of tea drinking to the world on the same level as their gifts of electricity, the steam engine, the computer, television, and radar—inventions without which modern civilisation is all but unimaginable. Here they consume a variety of eatables, including eggs and the like. It is a ceremony that can at least theoretically level everyone—the Lord and the labourer, the patrician and the plebeian, and the rules of commensality are thrown out of the window in tradition-bound Britain. But the good fortune of drinking tea was for the elite—in Alexander Pope’s famous poem, The Rape of the Lock, Belinda, the rich protagonist is suggested to be a great drinker of tea. Over the drinks, the tea person will talk as if it were a rainy day, unlike the coffee person whose windows of opportunity to talk are somewhat crepuscular—it is either morning or evening. They inhabit the twilight zone when they drink.
The peripherals like the cakes around the tea hint at the food habits of the tea drinker. They love their food, and at least for the nonce, it seems that they live to eat, which of course, is not true. That also explains why, in some countries, tea is considered a digestive and is taken after a heavy meal—much like the betel leaf sweet quid (meetah paan) that we savour.
We are what we believe
It takes all kinds to make the world, and coffee drinkers and tea drinkers add to the variety and pep up life. But in the end, we know that humans and their lives are complex, not to say complicated, and life follows its own logic. Most drinkers of one beverage also at least occasionally savour the other, and find a welcome in each others’ domains. At some point of time, we behave in ways different from our characteristic features, and that is natural too. Like our faith in such things as astrology and weather prediction, there is a foundation that works usually, but there are glaring examples when they fail miserably. We take them in our stride and move on. The rut may be a comfortable for the wheels of daily life, but we do venture out into the open, taking the road not taken, and feel glad that we did, even finding a tale to tell down the ages—reminiscent of the tea drinker. But if we need someone to listen to it, we need to invite the coffee drinker.
Variety is guarantee to longevity
The more variety of sources of happiness and necessities one has, the greater the guarantee of survival. The domestic cat has more survival chances than the majestic lion that has a limited diet that is fine tuned by Mother Nature to escape. Here, the coffee lover is at a distinct disadvantage. The tea lover happily visits other eateries and the like when the opportunity presents itself. The coffee lover is left with a narrow focus on their favourite beverage. One cannot but sympathise with the coffee lover who finds no place to find this elixir of life. The tea person on the other hand tends to be happy with one significant other while the coffee person has something of a roving eye. Oddly, coffee aficionados are home birds, but the tea lover has wanderlust. They broaden their travel plans if possible, and would love to go on a pilgrimage to a Darjeeling or other tea garden-rich places. The sight of a natural jungle seems to put off a coffee person who prefers a concrete jungle—perhaps the reassuring coffee house is an urban feature by definition. Travel is low down their priority list. Practical and pragmatic, they may choose to travel for business—idle travel is just not their cup of tea. That of course would be heresy.
We all drink to the lees
Tea drinkers are valetudinarians by instinct—different kinds of tea have varied health-benefits. Green tea keeps one lithe and agile, and also rescues you from a runny nose. Ginger tea is your saviour when you have a head ache or your facial muscles are feeling raw and tender. Tulsi tea too has many health benefits. The antioxidants in the drink are the closest we have to an elixir—they help delay ageing. Coffee is not so drinker-friendly as it causes coloration of the teeth (not that the drinkers care), and what is more, coffee goes famously with such sinful snacks as doughnuts—bad company, beyond doubt.
Tradition has familiarised us with bed tea, but coffee is presumably available only off it. Tea lovers tell the world to wait as they take their time while the coffee lover relies on their drink to be the energiser. Quite naturally, because coffee people are night owls while the tea person is careful about the circadian cycle—Nature has night to switch of the lights so sleep can recharge the body. Coffee militates against this great function of Nature by being a stimulant, a violation of her rules, however necessary the violation may be, as your boss can appreciatively aver.
Coffee Person or a Tea Person: So who are you?
Thinking of the world in binary terms is a kind of McCarthyism, and denies the humanity of our nature. Fortunately there is no Cold War between the coffee drinkers and the tea drinkers, though a secret mutual contempt need not be denied. One may suspect that between themselves, they despise those who add milk to their favourite drink or those who do not. After all where is the flavour of the tea or coffee when milk is added? Such heretics do thrive among the groups themselves. The milky tea of the Iranian version is a favourite in Hyderabad. The purist Chennai coffee person has the ritual of working up some barm by pouring it from one glass into another from a height. The cups and the mugs are as rich in variety as any item in crockery. The rituals of making them are as sacred and inviolable as the religious versions. The experience in either case is quite simply, heavenly.
Whatever drink one may prefer over the other, this seems to be the Age of the Beverage.