Coffee or Tea? (Differences Part 1)


Camellia Sinensis / Foto: Sila Blume 21.09.09

Two great gifts of nature and two high cultures

In small or larger social and family gatherings, just as in the various commercial venues, one of the most popular questions is “Coffee or Tea”? As they are both listed as hot drinks, both contain one of the most favourite drugs in the world, but also because the question seems to contain all available ‘hot drinks’ possibilities there are , one may overlook that besides containing caffeine, coffee and tea do not have very much in common. As plants, as culture goods and as drinks, they are worlds apart. Often enough one hears passionate drinkers take pride in their personal choice and at times they might even want to explain the reasons why one is better or finer than the other. They seem to me as comparable as bananas and potatoes are.

I love tea! A mouth full of an infusion with these leaves invites me to dwell upon a large cup of herbal soft taste. It is a synonym with drinking for a long while  to feel cozy and refreshed simultaneously. A cooling experience. While coffee is always accompanied by an explosion of dark, nutty, earthy and spiced combination of tastes. An experience for the palate which often mingles a few hours even though the cups are usually smaller and the amounts very often only enough for 3 sips.

Historically tea and coffee have much in common and culturally the may be considered as equal – depending on which part of the globus one is at home. However, as products of nature, coffee and tea have little to do with each other, and while in taste, aroma and quality their level of complexity is equally amazingly high, in their manufacturing processes and in the preparation as drinks, they are very different. Knowing that many tea drinkers will be disgusted with the following, one basic difference between the two is that in the preparation coffee is by far the more complex one.

Tea manufacturing

The main biochemical constituents found in tea leaves are polyphenols, soluble substances often called “tannins”. Through the processing of the leaves this substances are transformed and finally determine the strength, taste, body and colour of the tea. In addition to these substances, tea leaves contain caffeine, pectin, aromatics and enzymes.

As soon as the leaves are plucked, the manufacturing process must begin to use the very natural transformations the leaves undergo by having been plucked. Starting immediately not only takes advantage of that transformation but it conserves the transformation simultaneously. This process requires certain time and temperature limits, which at the end will determine the quality of the tea.

Out of the very same leaf and bush all three tea categories could be obtained: green, oolong and black. However, due to practicability and experience, many estates have specialised in a single one. Thus, generally speaking, green tea is produced in Japan, black tea in India and all three types in China.

To obtain green tea the tea leaves are steamed or heated for several minutes. This prevents the juices in the leaves from further transformation which leads to oxidation. The leaves are then dried after they have been rolled to prevent any further chemical change. When the infusion for individual servings comes, the vegetative process, which had been stopped, is set free and aroma and flavour come alive in the cup.

For black tea the plucked leaves are spread out to dry out. Then they are broken in this dried out stage, setting the juices free. This is the begin of the oxidation (fermentation) process. This oxidation state is conserved by drying the leaves with hot air. The oxidation gives the colour, aroma and flavour which are again set free the moment the leaves come in contact with boiling water when the infusion is prepared shortly before intaking the drink.

To obtain oolong tea the leaves are let to oxidize only shortly, thus obtaining some of the qualities of black tea while retaining those of the green tea as well.

In addition to these commercially traditional types, there is the white, the yellow and the post-fermented teas.

White tea is not obtained from the leave – as all other teas are – but from (still closed) buds. These are dried and do not go through the process of oxidation.

The yellow tea is dried to a slower pace than green tea. The leaves are let to sit longer in their damp state, thus becoming yellow.

One example of post-fermented tea is Shu Pu-erh tea. These large-sized tea leaves are kept dried for months or years, being ‘aged’ in open air, causing them to ‘auto-oxidate’ and thus to ferment through oxygen, humidity and microflora.


Coffea Arabica / Foto: Sila Blume 21.09.09

Coffee manufacturing

Some of the chemical constituents in roasted coffee are proteins, polysaccharides, oligosaccharides, lipids,minerals, chlorogenic acids, amino acids and caffeine. This is only a partial list of those compounds in roasted coffee that are soluble in boiling water. A complete list would add to over 2000 compounds.

Because it is common that one single tree – at times a single branch – carries blossom, green berries and ripped red berries ready to be picked, all at the same time, the coffee harvesting requires it be done by hand and selectively. Hence not the “striking”, but the “picking” method is necessary to get a better end product. About two thousand hand-picked berries are needed to produce one pound of roasted coffee seeds.

The berries may be processed wet or dry. If dry, either the fruit dries out on the tree or it gets dried out by the sun after it has been picked. After either method the dry skin gets separated from the seed. This may be done by a sort of grinding, done with stones, or with modern machinery where the seeds are hulled.

The wet method consists of putting the ripe berries into water baths, which serve to separate wanted from unwanted goods. Hereafter a pulping machine gets rid of the pulp and the seeds are ready for further processing. These seeds, still in the parchment (the thin protective layer around the seed) get separated by size to guarantee the proper fermentation time for each seed.

The fermentation process is short to avoid spoilage. As long as it is done properly, the fermentation does not affect at all the future quality or taste of the seed. This is actually an old system of getting read of the last gummy rests (called mucilage) adhering to the seed. It serves solely cleaning purposes. For a period of twenty-four to forty-eight hours the wet parchment coffee is kept in tanks, in which time the enzymes dissolve. Thereafter the coffee is thoroughly rinsed with clean water.

Now the coffee must be dried and this is precisely one of the most treasured pictures I carry in the memories of my childhood. The seeds are spread out on concrete patios (or flat concrete roofs) and turned regularly with wooden rakes for at least a couple of days, ensuring the drying takes place on an evenly. Now the green seeds would be ready to be roasted.


This shows a great difference between coffee and tea. Indeed, before these processing phases mentioned above, both are highly complex raw goods of nature. If they were not highly complex in their natural state, they would not be complex afterwards. The most significant differences, however, start after both products have been taken through the first manufacturing stages which make them ‘ready’ for individual preparation and ingestion.  Here coffee is clearly the most complex product. At this stage the coffee seeds have experienced not even half of the steps which make them ready for their intake as drinks. The still raw seed must now be exposed to further manufacturing steps which mean significant changes could and must occur. Not only the steps mentioned above are crucially important, but the proper storage is relevant before one of the most challenging and decisive steps takes place – the roasting process. Furthermore, if we do not know to which grade to grind the roasted seeds – according to the various methods available for the brewing of the coffee grounds – we will still have an array of possibilities between obtaining a fantastic cup of coffee and a complete waste of the arduous and long process.



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