Coffee is the new tea

(or is tea the new coffee?)
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The person responsible for the whole thing was a ninth-century Arabian goatherd called Kaldi. Dulled by his employment, and abnormally sensitive to the changing temperament of goats, he fell to wondering why his flock showed signs of restlessness and hilarity when they fed on the berries of a particular evergreen shrub and eventually tried it himself. After a handful of berries he became "exhilarated". Without realising it, he was eating coffee beans. Kaldi was experiencing mankind's first caffeine rush. It is, frankly, tragic that he was in no position to go out and acquire a mobile phone and a Palm Pilot to go with it.

The person responsible for the whole thing was a ninth-century Arabian goatherd called Kaldi. Dulled by his employment, and abnormally sensitive to the changing temperament of goats, he fell to wondering why his flock showed signs of restlessness and hilarity when they fed on the berries of a particular evergreen shrub and eventually tried it himself. After a handful of berries he became "exhilarated". Without realising it, he was eating coffee beans. Kaldi was experiencing mankind's first caffeine rush. It is, frankly, tragic that he was in no position to go out and acquire a mobile phone and a Palm Pilot to go with it.

Kaldi evidently told his fellow herdsmen about it at the next goat husbandry convention, for word spread, and the make-you-happy beans were processed into caffeine essence. Arabs took the stuff in spoonfuls to keep themselves awake during long religious ceremonies. But - as every history of the beverage proudly boasts - it first took off as a popular drink in England, served in coffee houses in mid-17th-century London. Such was the quality of the gossip and caffeine-fuelled imagineering in those establishments, that some grew into grand concerns: Lloyd's of London started as Lloyd's Coffee House in the City, where periwigged shipping insurers used to meet and dream of becoming Names.

Through the next two centuries (with a clientele that stretches from Dr Johnson to Cliff Richard in Expresso Bongo) coffee bars were the coolest places in town to hang out - at least until the pubs opened. The trouble was, English coffee was not very good. A doctor called William Kitchiner, writing in the Regency years, complained that: "Coffee, as drunk in England, debilitates the stomach and produces a slight nausea... it is usually made from bad Coffee, served out tepid and muddy, and drowned in a deluge of water." English tea, by comparison, was just fine. It was seen as a remedy for everything from apoplexy to consumption but also - in its most genteel context, the extended tea party at 4pm - was considered the ne plus ultra of civilised living.

Today, a full-scale war is on between the two drinks. Rosie Lee and the grande latte are fighting for the honour of being the nation's favourite "hot drink sold outside the home". According to figures quoted in yesterday's Financial Times, while tea still just has the upper hand, accounting for 55 per cent of the 11 billion cups of hot stuff sold each year, coffee is about to overtake it as our national drink.

The most obvious growth area for the comfort drinker has been in the rise of modern coffee houses, most especially the Starbucks chain (which bought the Seattle Coffee Company for $55m two years ago), closely followed by the Coffee Republic chain, Costa Coffee and Caffe Nero. It is hard to tell whether the quality of the coffee available in such places has proved irresistible to the British palate or whether the shops themselves are what appeal. But there are now 300 coffee "boutiques" in the UK; trend-watchers say there is no reason why that figure should not rise to 1,000 in the next five years.

It is partly a class battle, of course. In 1880, tea was the prerogative of the upper classes (especially the new "empire tea" brewed by English people in Assam, Kenya and Ceylon, rather than imported from China), while coffee was a graceless sludge. Since the 1960s, tea has become the drink of choice for mug-wielding workmen, PG Tips chimpanzees and weary stall-holders in EastEnders, while coffee - the beans, the grinding, the hang-out cappuccino joints in Friends and Frasier - has become the ambrosia of the silver-tongued sophisticate.

Every British city-dweller has had to become accustomed, over the last two years, to the arch, Fifth Avenue jargon of specialised coffee-drinking: the chocolatey one (mocha), the milky one ( latte), the whipped-cream titchy one ( espresso con panna), the foaming one ( macchiato), the teeny-weeny one ( ristretto) and those irritating words for "big" and "small'': short, tall, grande, venti. It is a tribute to the pervasiveness of American culture that British people have uncomplainingly learnt to say, "Grahnday lah-tay," and, "Venti mow-ka," without being sick.

But there is no doubting the classy ambience of the modern coffee bar. My local Starbucks features swirly Sixties retro design on the walls and cool jazz on the speakers; it sells sandwiches, cakes, mugs, thermos cups and cafetieres; and a chalked-up sign in nursery handwriting bafflingly encourages you to: "Try a tall vanilla latte with an espresso-frosted fudge brownie." (To which one can only say "Why?") Nice, unpretentious local bourgeois sit in pairs at the tiny tables, reading the daily papers and visibly decompressing from the rigours of the day.

Giles Hilton, product director at Whittard of Chelsea, which has been flogging both tea and coffee since 1886, says: "All such places are offering is a variety of milky drinks, with a tiny amount of coffee at the bottom." Mr Hilton is in the vanguard of the new tea-coffee war. His company has been sending out press material headed: "Tea - the new coffee. Our national drink fights back." Though a self-confessed coffee addict, he is dismissive of the Starbucks phenomenon. "They are only offering one coffee: the house blend," he says. "You can't walk in and order a cup of Colombian or Java. It's one coffee and lots of milk. What we're trying to do is offer people more choice. At our T-Bar, there are 45 different teas - different leaves, such as Assam or Darjeeling, and lots of flavoured teas such as mango or cinnamon. We're expanding tea the way you expand wine. You're not just offering vin ordinaire. There's a lot of variety out there for people to try."

At Whittard's T-Bar, in Baker Street, one of a few tea bars that have opened around the country, things are not looking encouraging. The bar is a minimalist dream, in chrome stools and tables and plain wood floor. The range of teas features the expected Indian and Chinese varieties but also features unexpected and slightly disgusting flavours, such as sticky toffee pudding tea, apple crumble tea and Irish cream tea, as if taking its cue from the world of ice-cream, rather than Ceylon and Assam.

Of the handful of customers, only one is actually drinking tea. She is Helen Tuffrey, 32, a recruitment consultant from Derbyshire, down in London for the day. "I come to London a lot and I often come here to drink fruit tea, because I don't like tea or coffee. There's too much tannin and caffeine in them. This stuff's wonderful, though. For me this kind of place is perfect. I hold a lot of meetings in here."

Other customers are harder to please. Glenn Littlewood, 33, a sales manager from Manchester, is clearly in the wrong place. "I'm a coffee drinker. Coffee is seen as a much more sexy drink. Tea is an old man's drink. Saying, 'I'm nipping out for a cup of tea,' just does not sound very glamorous. And personally, I wouldn't touch some of these teas with a bargepole".

The bar's assistant manager, Bronwyn McNamee, is a little embarrassed by the lack of tannin fans. "A lot of people are drinking it now," she insists. "It's very healthy. It's much better for you than coffee. We get a lot of business from people coming in for a Whittard original, a mixture of Assam, Kenya and Ceylon."

At Peter's Pie and Mash shop, in Shadwell, east London, by contrast, sales of tea (35p a mug) outstrip sales of coffee (50p a mug) by two to one. They have no time there for "skinny bloody lattes". Had they heard that coffee was becoming more popular than tea? "Nah," said the proprietress, dishing up a helping of hot eels (£2 a bowl). "It's a traditional thing, innit? Tea's English. British people will never stop drinking it."

Maybe not, but they may find it being made over and marketed as something new. Advanced thinking in tea circles tends to stress its varieties of leaves, blends and brews, as if talking about wine. While coffee tastes just of coffee, tea can always surprise you with its delicate and fugitive flavours. Mr Hilton is proud of his ability to differentiate between 20 bowls of Darjeeling leaves by bouquet alone; he disdains fruit teas and Earl Grey and rhapsodises about the "lovely floral aroma" and "meadowy fragrance" of his favourite Indian brew.

Coinciding with the rebranding initiative is Brooke Bond's launch, two months ago, of four "single estate teas", the char equivalent of single malt whisky or limited-edition claret: they are expensive and lovingly packaged, come in boudoir-silk teabags and are described by their makers in terms of wine: the Soom tea is "elegant, fresh and slightly floral" and "has the clean character of a good Alsace wine", while the Seajuli variety is "velvety, buttery and substantial, with the body of a Shiraz".

Can that represent the way ahead for British tea? Will such a foray upmarket be enough to stem the tidal wave of coffee that threatens to engulf us? This is tea without milk or sugar, tea to be served in a glass and held up to the light, tea to have its bouquet sniffed. God knows what the PG Tips chimps would make of it. Or, for that matter, the crowd of latte-swilling wiseacres in Central Perk.

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