Why do Americans prefer coffee to tea?

Will Americans ever drink tea with the same passion or devotion as coffee? Two recent articles both claim Americans will never love tea as much as coffee for the same reason: tea is all about slowing down, whereas coffee’s great appeal lies in the way it speeds things up. But is this the real reason? A bit of historical perspective may be in order.

In There’s a Reason Americans Don’t Like Tea, for Heated, food writer Max Falkowitz argues, “Coffee in the American model is speedy and largely solitary; in any region where tea has a foothold, it acts as a mechanism for slowing people down and, in literal and metaphorical senses, bringing them together, be it a Turkish town square or Egyptian hookah lounge or a Chinese teahouse.”

Katherine Martinko, in Why Americans Will Never Love Tea as Much as Coffee, posted on Treehugger.com, writes, “At home, I turn to tea first thing in the morning as I’m easing into the day and in the evening when I’m winding down. Coffee is my go-to when it’s time to accelerate my day and increase alertness, and I drink a few cups between 8 AM and noon.”

Coffee is a highly social beverage, yet both authors failed to mention this component. Neither alluded to the third wave of coffee, which spurred the growth of coffeehouses in the United States (and in many countries around the world), and which plays up the notion of socializing, relaxing or unwinding as much as it is about drinking a good cup of coffee (albeit some better than others depending on the coffeehouse). Nor did they reference the term “let’s go get a cup of coffee,” which is no longer just about the physical consumption of coffee, rather it has evolved into an activity or occasion where people will meet in a coffee shop to talk — and drink, but it may not even be coffee. Furthermore, neither discussed the “coffee break” – the concept of which is to “take a break” from one’s daily activities – and is credited to being brewed in New Orleans, Louisiana (pun intended).

The reasons why so many Americans have preferred and may always prefer coffee to tea may have more to do with our history than a desire for a jolt of caffeine. At the Global Tea Initiative’s 5th Annual Tea Colloquium at UC Davis last month, Caroline Frank, PhD, professor of American Studies at Brown University, gave a historical perspective on tea in the United States. She highlighted a quote from English painter and social critic, William Hogarth, who observed in 1757 that “Tea is not considered manly in the US.” (Dr Frank also noted that iced tea was developed in the US by Lipton to specifically target the male audience.)

Inferring from Dr Frank’s presentation, American’s “aversion to tea” is historically related and can be traced back to two key factors: taxes and fear.

“Tea was a way of England enslaving America,” said Dr Frank, noting the tea-related taxes Britain forced on the colonies prior to the Revolutionary War. (The colonies had no representation in Parliament.)

In 1767, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, named after Charles Townshend, the British chancellor of the Exchequer, which imposed duties on British china, glass, lead, paint, paper and tea imported by the colonies. (Colonists had previously announced their intent to start manufacturing their own goods rather than paying taxes on imports.) These specific items were chosen for taxation because Townshend evidently believed the colonists would have difficulty producing them on their own. He estimated the tariffs would raise approximately £40,000, with most of the revenue coming from tea.

The Tea Act, passed by Parliament in May 1773, granted the British East India Company Tea a monopoly on tea sales in the colonies. Although it did not impose new tea taxes – it was designed to help the East India Company, which was struggling financially and saddled with 18 million pounds of unsold tea – radical leaders in America believed that the Tea Act was a tactic to buy support for the taxes already being enforced. Furthermore, the direct sale of tea, via British agents, would have also weakened local merchants’ businesses.

Without further pontificating on American history, the Tea Act was essentially the “straw that broke the camel’s back” in the colonies and started a series of revolutionary movements, which led to the Boston Tea Party, and ultimately, to the Revolutionary War.

Given this history, it is understandable why Americans may have refrained from actively supporting the tea industry for many, many decades. However, Dr Frank also posited that American’s dislike of tea may also be rooted in fear.

“Americans hailed from Puritanical backgrounds and Protestants had more fears than Catholics,” [who were predominant in European countries] she said. “In the 18th and 19th centuries, tea was the most powerful commodity, but, in America, tea had negative attributes: it was very expensive, and it was exotic not local — coming from Asia, mainly China.” Smallpox was the leading cause of death in the 18th century, and according to Dr Frank, Americans feared the products on the ships from China may be contaminated by smallpox, adding “even today many Americans are still worried about being contaminated by Chinese products.”

She noted that the tea market and tea consumption in the US grew after the Revolutionary War, but Americans were still drinking more coffee. “President Andrew Jackson [1829-1837] abolished the tax on coffee and Americans have been drinking more coffee ever since,” Dr Frank concluded.

So Americans may no longer “fear the exotic or unknown,” and have likely moved past the idea of tea not being “manly” (although the US tea market is still about 85% iced/ready-to-drink tea…), but will tea garner the same fervor or passion as coffee does? In my humble opinion, not for the foreseeable future. However, this could be partly attributed to failure by the foodservice and hospitality industries to offer quality selections and accurately prepare and present tea, but that’s a blog for another day.

  • Vanessa L. Facenda, editor Tea & Coffee Trade Journal. She may be contacted via [email protected].

Image excerpted from Dr Caroline Frank’s presentation at the GTI 5th Annual Tea Colloquium.

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