Are you a tea or a coffee person?
In Britain, the answer used to be very predictable. The British were world-renowned as a nation of tea drinkers. The Luftwaffe’s bombs might fall on London, floods might ravage the North, but somewhere a kettle would be cheerfully boiling ready to offer homely reassurance via a cup of tea.
But nowadays tea has lost some of its social cachet – along its flowery tea cups let alone the pots of sugar cubes. It just seems terribly old-fashioned alongside the new, sleek and stylish coffee bars, usually owned by Americans, which sell not so much a drink but a whole way of life. Coffee is trending, while tea is depressing.
But then, to be honest, most British tea is not very good stuff. I’ve long ago abandoned the variety known as ‘British Rail’, which is weak, sour and, almost invariably, served with skimmed or long life milk when you consume it in cafés, or indeed, trains. These days, instead, I go to some trouble to get super, high quality leaf teas from a venerable family-run company based in the Yorkshire Dales and drink it at home.
There’s no doubt about it, I’m a tea person. In fact, as I write this, I am having a cup of tea, so ingrained has become the habit. But that’s me and elsewhere, increasingly crusty old tea drinkers are vanishing to be replaced by a new species – metropolitan coffee lovers.
Conventional, ‘British Rail’, tea is a black tea, meaning dark, oxidised tea leaves that produce varying degrees of the golden brew. But green tea, oolong tea, herbal tea, and others are becoming widely drunk too, along with various kinds of artificially flavoured teas like raspberry, blueberry , chocolate, caramel… the list is as long as customers are gullible – but that’s me speaking as a tea traditionalist as you may have guessed. To me, even Earl Grey (which I quite like in a way!), being ordinary tea flavored with oil from the rind of bergamot orange, is an affront to tea-standards, but nothing like as much as that caused by serving tea with semi-skimmed milk. This is milk in which the cream has been removed and replaced with cheaper ingredients, and it tastes like it too. Milkless, pure, black tea is elegant, but white tea made with milk substitutes is just awful.
But does my love affair with tea have more to do with psychology than any actual taste criteria? There’s an interesting story about the sociology of food and drink that suggests that it just might be more the former than the latter. It concerns how Nestlé some years back hired a psychologist, Clotaire Rapaille, to advise them on how to turn the Japanese away from being a nation of tea drinkers (in their case, green tea) to being a nation of coffee lovers. Rapaille’s method, which was astonishingly indeed, scarily successful, was to subtly introduce coffee flavourings into children’s food. This created subconscious associations between the taste of coffee and the comfort and security of those early childhood days.
Reassuring things, as Rapaille understood, are nearly always drawn from childhood memories. And their influence goes way beyond developing preferences for certain kinds of food and certain favourite drinks to determine a whole range of cultural preferences and even moral values.
That’s how it comes to be that the British love their sweet, chocolate coloured, milk ameliorated cuppa; the Japanese really only want tiny porcelain cups of green tea in the garden in the afternoon, and Americans sip tea in paper cups with ice on the way to the office.
Perhaps it’s this flexibility that explains why, despite the rise in coffee bars, and the fall in tea purchased in the UK, the statistics are entirely on tea’s side. It’s become a $15 billion market, far and away the the most widely consumed beverage in the world. If, post-Brexit, meaning following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, the British are left with just one remaining claim to ‘greatness’, it will surely be that it is the largest tea-importing nation in the world!
Add to which, new ‘alt teas’ (alternative teas) have been propelled by health-conscious customers persuaded by the impressive range of health advantages claimed for tea – from preventing cancer to curing various diseases from diabetes to Alzheimer‘s (you name it!) and even because of its anti-ageing properties. Indeed, so healthy has the tea name become that pharmaceutical products based on it are under development.
I associate these kinds of healthy teas with, well hippies. I like the exotic dried leaves that you buy in hippy shops – but with the possible exception of peppermint and maybe lemon verbena, they seem to taste uniformly awful. But that’s just me, huh!
The story of Clotaire Rapaille explains how, for a new generation of Japanese, coffee became a part of normal, everyday life. But it also illustrates the wider truth that what ‘we like’ has less to do with taste buds and more to do with brainwaves. And so too does the answer to our original question: are you a tea person or a coffee person?
Every cup is a little social statement on its own…
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