Extraction Obsession: Tea vs Coffee


Tea Tasting

I was in Mexico recently for the Specialty Coffee Convention in Mexico City where I hosted several Coffee cuppings and was therefore fortunate enough to be invited to a Tea tasting. First off, it was a wonderful experience. I used to be utterly immersed in the world of Tea and when Coffee came along things changed. It was nice to have some exposure to tea.

During the tea tasting, I noticed some things that have been on my mind. Tea and Coffee are two very similar plants as far as history, bodily effects, method of extraction, etc. They are in fact eerily similar. I think caffeine, or in tea theine (which by the way are the exact molecule simply discovered by different scientists in different plants), is the culprit of this similarity. Yet I was flabbergasted at the ease of process the man leading the tasting showed. No scales, no timers, no thermometers, no machinery. Nothing to precisely measure things that we are obsessive about in coffee. If I could extract coffee the way this man extracted tea, my life would be much simpler.

I approached him at the end and inquired about his rudimentary methods. His response: “Man, ultimately, it’s just leaves and water.” I couldn’t believe it, he was right. And the tea? Amazing.

Here is my conclusion, possibly false and completely unintelligent;

The fact is that tea has a much more prolonged history than coffee. Maybe not to the Western world, in which they are equally as young, but in China tea has been consumed for over 4000 years. An average tea consumer knows, when he drinks his bag of Lipton, that there is probably better quality tea. And in fact there is; loose leaf tea. Not taking merit from some of the excellent bagged teas out there, but lets face it; high quality tea is loose leaf. And tea drinkers know that. So tea really has no present intention of creating a separation between its bagged and loose leaf self, because it already exists in the consumers eyes. The same is not for coffee however. A majority of people who drink coffee in this world are utterly unaware of Specialty Coffee and its intention. Specialty Coffee I believe tries very hard to establish the distinction between its fresh, sustainably sourced, small batch roasted self and its stale pre-ground counterpart. I think because of this, we obsess about every minute detail to ensure that every single drop of coffee we brew is up to standards. All this in an attempt to showcase the previously mentioned distinction to our customers. And hey, Im all for that.*

Maybe, when Specialty Coffee is more recognized, we’ll admit that its just seeds and water.

But for now Coffee is:  Meticulously cultivated plants that are carefully processed, roasted with love, ground with much imprecision, and then brewed with an enormous amount of calculable error.

* The only reason I am not for all this measuring is because we might be alienating customers from brewing coffee at home. Which I believe is a great way to cross the Commodity-Specialty bridge for them.

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