By Brian Min
Feature photo by emueses
It started with a Gloria Jeans iced coffee back in high school as a late afternoon pick-me up and ended with a severe bout of insomnia. Several similarly sleep-deprived incidents later involving coffee consumption and it only seemed appropriate to finally make the switch to tea.
Mention tea and one likely conjures up images from a Jane Austen novel and the Victorian mythos surrounding a traditional English tea service, complete with cucumber sandwiches, crumpets and daintily going “pinkies up” while holding petite porcelain cups. Or worse, an incredibly lengthy and formal Japanese chaji and the ceremonial preparation of matcha, further pervading the misconception of tea being a decidedly delicate, feminine and old-fashioned beverage.
Then again, one is just as likely to meet an English football hooligan singing along to “Come On All You Reds” as he puts the kettle on, and if the growing popularity of kombucha culture is any indication (as bearded hipsters trade SCOBYs like baseball cards), then the notion of exclusivity with tea resonates poorly with both gender and class. Predating coffee by at least four centuries, tea is steeped in global culture as strongly as a cup of Korean ginseng tea. Argentinian gauchos sip yerba mate on the Pampas while herding cattle, the Chinese down pots of jasmine and chrysanthemum tea along with har gow and char siu bao, and the Somali greet guests with fresh batches of spiced shaah hawash. So why is it that America continues to have a difficult time comprehending tea beyond a Starbucks chai latte or an aging box of Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime hidden in the recesses of the kitchen cabinet?
There’s a unique and wholesome quality to coffee in America, perhaps from a patriotic pride stemming back to residual resentment from the Boston Tea Party. It’s the beverage of choice for blue-collar America, the working grunt and the disenfranchised artist. American coffee has been branded as “the best part of waking up,” “good to the last drop,” and even Seattle’s Best, if by “best” you mean the working-class subsidiary to its yuppie brethren in Starbucks. Coffee is wonderfully dark, rich and robust, but it’s coffee’s distinct bitterness that provides its soul, inspiring thoughts of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and Black Hawk Down’s overzealous grind aficionado, Specialist John Grimes.
Still, one can argue that America has effectively bastardized coffee, diluting it with artificial flavor syrups, powdered non-dairy creamers, and chocolate syrup, stopping just short of turning it into a diner milkshake or topping the abomination with a maraschino cherry. It also wouldn’t be far off to propose that American never understood coffee before the Starbucks era either, relying mostly on instant “flavor buds” and Maxwell House’s loathsome International Cafe series. Only lately have the States been giving the bean its due diligence, learning to differentiate the subtle nuances between regional varieties, understanding the roasting process, grind texture and even how it’s brewed. Compare a cup of Chicago’s own Metropolis Coffee with one from Dunkin’ Donuts and you’ll start to understand how far the country’s come with their joe.
Arguably, the transition to tea on account of caffeine is contentious since tea tends to contain as much, if not, more caffeine as coffee (so perhaps the issue is psychological?). Still, the health benefits of tea are substantiated and numerous, and quite frankly, tea tastes better. Beyond the sheer volume of flavors, colors and scents, there exists an intrinsic connection with tea that reaches far beyond a demitasse of coffee after a meal. Then again, that just might be the Jane Austen talking.
Whether you’re drinking tea or coffee, support your local businesses and vendors. Rishi Tea (Milwaukee, WI), Metropolis Coffee, Shui Tea, Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, Alterra, Anodyne (Milwaukee, WI), Ipsento Coffee House and Roaster and Coffee Ambassadors.