Coffee Or Tea?

The Cultural Geography of Consumption

by Norman Berdichevsky (May 2008)

For almost two centuries, the coffee-tea dichotomy has been one of the firmest markers of the cultural divide between Britain and America. Many Americans/Britons can recall the pride felt as children when their parents allowed them their first cup of coffee/tea. This continues to be a right of passage into adult society. British and American folkways have diverged for the last two-and-a-half centuries and are a major source of humo(u)r on both sides of the Atlantic. Differences in speech, spelling, social graces, wit, political systems, hobbies, class attitudes, popular tastes in fashion, driving and road design, sports, and eating and drinking habits have all come to embody reciprocal stereotypes. America‘s successful revolution against the British Crown affected social mores and none more dramatically than in the switch from tea to coffee. The Boston Tea Party and its aftermath accomplished one of the few major changes in the popular taste for the two daily hot beverages which have become consumer staples the world over.

A traditional field of research interest for cultural geographers and anthropologists has been the study of dietary patterns, particularly what has been termed “foodways”, “the modes of feeling, thinking and behaving about food that are common to a cultural group.” Coffee and tea consumption have become deeply ingrained national habits and psychological traits. A brief glance at world-wide statistics reveal that almost all countries exhibit a preponderance of consumption for one or the other. The preferences that exist are not the result of familiarity with an indigenous product nor do they show any clear cut relationship with price. The introduction and diffusion of both these drinks in the major importing nations goes back no further than three centuries yet the two beverages have become an intimate part of social conviviality as well as an integral daily part of the work routine and relaxation.

Everyone who has traveled by air is familiar with the after-meal routine of the stewards (or are they servers, or stewardesses?) weaving along the cabin aisles asking their perennial question “Coffee or Tea?” Both provide a ‘stimulant’ that is not a result of pharmacological properties but the psychological effect which has become culturally established. The Red Cross in the United States serves coffee before anything else to disaster victims in order to calm them from the effects of shock. In the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada (minus Quebec), it is tea that performs the same function. During 1942, coffee was rationed for nine months (tea was rationed for the duration in the United Kingdom) and most civilians recall this period as their “toughest sacrifice” in World War II.

The Cultural Geography of Consuming Areas*

Tea is the overwhelming choice in the areas of Russian and Slavic culture in Eastern Europe. The only exceptions during the days of the Iron curtain were Romania, a Latin island in a Slavic sea and parts of Yugoslavia (Slovenia) where proximity to Italy had long resulted in a strong “western” influence, especially along the Adriatic coast. While under Soviet domination, the consumer habits of the East German population were under the constraints of the centralized economy which restricted coffee consumption. Following the collapse of the iron curtain, East Germans returned to their strong coffee preferences.

The coffee drinking world of Western Europe reaches its apex in France and Belgium with consumption ratios of more than 20:1 in coffee’s favor of cups consumed, followed by Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland. Denmark is also partial to coffee but its continental location and strong relations with Britain have resulted in a decisive but not quite as overwhelming lead for coffee. The same is true of Portugal which also had an extensive colonial empire in Africa, South America and in a few minor Asian territories. Coffee ascendancy is likewise still unchallenged in Spain and Italy, homelands of the espresso. Alone in Western Europe, only the Netherlands is very close to near equality in the consumption of tea and coffee.

More Than a Thirst Quencher or Nutritive

Both coffee and tea have served as more than just thirst quenchers. Neither can be considered as a nutritious drink (apart from the milk and sugar that may be consumed at the same time). The consumption of tea in Great Britain during World War II was heaviest directly after air raid attacks so that the government, which had already introduced rationing, appealed to the public to voluntarily limit consumption to the barest minimum during the daytime so as to have enough tea for the night when need was most critical.

The psychological effect of ‘calming’ is quite remarkable when physiologically, coffee and tea are supposed to be stimulants of the first magnitude. What is decisive is the sense of well being derived, which is clearly a function of culture. This close association between the drink and its social role has been upset only by violent revolution — as occurred in America in the 1770s when the hated Tea Tax became the prime target for all those who wished to end ties to monarchist Britain.

Cultural Foodways

Tastes in food consistently show more persistence and vitality than language or other customs of the ‘old country’ and often function as the strongest link of identification with the ethnic heritage of the past. One finds it very difficult to reject the food and smells of mother’s kitchen planted deep in the subconscious. The deep identification of these two beverages with national character is all the more remarkable since both are relatively recent introductions. No Europeans apart from intrepid adventurers and explorers had any familiarity with either beverage before the sixteenth century.

In December 1921, communist terror groups in Vienna went on a rampage to destroy that great city’s famed coffee houses which symbolized the smug self-satisfaction (gemutlichkeit) of the bourgeoisie and which was held to be incompatible with the proletariat’s way of life and ‘real’ needs. In June 1939, Italy was in the midst of a campaign to achieve economic austerity and self-sufficiency. The government-controlled press railed against coffee consumption in an attempt to threaten Brazil with the closure of the Italian market unless the Brazilians agreed to trade coffee for Italian goods on a barter basis. In this attempt to portray coffee drinking as ‘un-Italian’, the Fascist newspaper Piccolo, asked the rhetorical and satirical question ‘Did the Romans Drink Coffee?’

Tea as a British Habit

Before World War II, a tourist asked to list what appeared to be characteristic English idiosyncrasies would probably have enumerated driving on the left, the currency system of pounds, shillings and pence, the English system of weights and measures, the political power of the hereditary House of Lords, conservative fashions in clothing, music and design and an extreme partiality to tea. Many of these traditions date back hundreds of years but have crumbled and others may not stand the test of time much longer but no one would imagine an England without tea as its ‘national’ hot beverage drink.

The rage for tea in the U.K. had reached such proportions that it led to “Everything Stops for Tea”, a popular hit song of the 1930s, made famous by Mario “Harp” Lorenzo and His Rhythmics”……

Oh, A lawyer in the courtroom in the middle of an alimony plea,
has to stop and help ’em pour when the clock strikes 4:00
Its a very good English custom,
Though the weather be cold or hot,
When you need a little pick-up,
You’ll find a little teacup
Will always Hit the Spot!

The American tea trade is painfully aware of a prevailing American attitude that tea drinking is a ‘British’ habit that has to be overcome. Hugh Gibson, the American ambassador to Poland and a 1920s isolationist and xenophobe railed against …‘the tea drinkers, the boys with white spats, the freaks that must be weeded out of the American diplomatic service!’ This prejudice does not apply however to iced tea, an American invention that is regarded as simply eccentric in Britain. In the torrent of thousands of irate reactions recently sent to to the London Telegraph following the news that the government would recognize polygamy among Muslims resident in the UK and provide welfare benefits to such families as well as calls for recognition of Sharia law (sanctioned by none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury), the following remarks reached the ultimate level of damnation by offering “Congratulations to the Brits” with the message that “… is time You disappear from the Earth, along with your football, 5 o’clock tea and jam, thanks to your idiotic politicians.” Posted on February 4, 2008

The great American humorist, Will Rogers, on a visit to England in 1926, stirred up quite a controversy when he remarked that “England has the best statesmen and rottenest coffee in the world.” This statement engendered a lively trans-Atlantic debate. The Daily Express countered in its editorial column:

“An American humorist who has his serious interludes, lately observed that English statesmen are wonderful, English gardens lovely … but English coffee the worst in the world!”. His words have been re-echoed in New York where the newspapers are making considerable merriment at the expense of English coffee. We admit it is bad. Having admitted this and cleared our conscience, we are the better able to do justice to the almost incredible beastliness of American tea. Indeed, if English coffee is nasty, and it is, no impartial person can deny that American tea is horribly worse.”

Will Rogers would hardly dare express the same views, were he alive today. Tea has also progressed in America thanks in large measure to the technical advance of another American invention — the tea bag! Promoters of the tea and coffee trade spared no effort in intensifying those dearly held images of the preferred beverage that promoted their interests. A book about Twinings, the famous tea concern (The House of Twining, 1706-1956) explained that “The coffee drinking France of the 18th century produced the Encyclopedists and asserts that ‘..….Tea is less logical. it neither promotes sleep nor stimulates argument. Rather does it induce a sense of genial well-being which may well be the foundation for our ‘English genius for compromise’ … We are surely the least quarrelsome of all the nations of the earth, and in this happy consummation, the tea-table has undoubtedly played its part.”

Cultural Fashion in a Global World and Price

What happens when cultural groups with opposing food tastes clash? Tastes in food, like other cultural traits tend to be maintained unless modified by disruptive factors, primarily through the disorganization of traditional institutions that generally follows cultural contact and culture change.

This has occurred on a world-wide scale and has reflected the enormous wave of American influence. Although never in a position to challenge tea’s dominance in Britain, “smart” coffee shops and a growing taste for the beverage have become a part of the younger ‘smart sets’ scene in Britain and elsewhere round the world. Coffee consumption in Britain per capita has more than quadrupled since the end of World War II. Ironically, the price of coffee relative to tea increased over the same period.

Even earlier during the depression, American cultural exports to the UK including coffee’s many beneficial aspects had won a wide audience. The popular hit tune “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee” helped English speakers in both America and Britain to appreciate their common deternmination to ward off the blues of the depression by singing along with ….

Let a smile be your umbrella,
Oh it’s just an April shower
Even Johnny Rockefeller is looking for the silver lining
Mister Herbert Hoover says now is the time to buy
So Let’s have another cup of coffee and another piece of pie.”

The famous depression-era song was written by Irving Berlin when something like 98% percent of American families consumed at least a cup of coffee during the day with or after a meal including 15 percent of children between 6 and 16 years of age.  Big coffee companies were among the leading sponsors of radio shows such as The Maxwell House Show Boat that featured popular renditions of the song arranged by band leader Paul Whiteman, Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, Glenn Miller and band leader Phil Spitalny and his All Girl Orchestra who made the song equally popular across the Atlantic in Britain.

Whereas tea consumption was traditionally relatively higher along the East Coast and especially in the South where British traits from colonial times lingered, it too has ceased to be identified with a geographic area and has become more of an imitation of the perceived upper class/smart set habits.

The British taste for tea was a product first of the China trade under the East India Company’s monopoly and later of British policy which encouraged tea plantations in India and Ceylon. Coffee’s introduction into Europe was long delayed because a single major exporting area (Yemen) was under the control of Arab and Persian merchants. The eye-catching exception of the Dutch as the only West European people who show no clear preference of one beverage over the other can be explained by their colonial development of both crops during their possession of the Indonesian islands (primarily Java whose name became a synonym for good coffee) and coffee growing areas in their small islands in the Caribbean and off the coast of South America (Aruba, Curacao, Surinam).

The Role of Mercantilism

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the heyday of “mercantilism.” Imperial preferences for tropical products in general especially, sugar, coffee and tea functioned well into the twentieth century. The East India companies of the mercantile era played a decisive role in determining what was worth importing into the “mother country.” Until the Dutch managed to transplant coffee trees from Yemen to their colonial possessions in Java and Ceylon, the seaport of Mocha was the only producing area of commercial importance accessible to trade with Europe.

Later, the Spanish and Portuguese repeated the Dutch endeavor on a large scale by transplanting the two varieties of wild coffee, Arabica and Robusta from their African highland origin to Central and South America. The tea trade with China lasted for more than a century and a half before British planters in the 1830s successfully cultivated the wild tea of Assam and built their own tea plantation economy in India. Similarly in America, the British restricted all attempts by the colonists to cultivate the native sassafras tea. The colonists were persuaded to drink Chinese tea brought in British ships.

The greed of the East India company and its short-sighted policies led to the rise of smuggling tea to the North American colonies and the government’s efforts both to tax and to monopolize it. The result was more than the humorous anecdote of the Boston tea party. The thirteen American colonies were the best market for the East India company outside the mother country. Like all colonials, the Americans were in the habit of aping the customs of the metropolis so that tea was even more a symbol of polite society than in England. Americans consumed more tea per capita on the eve of the Revolution than the English.

Coffee in the United States

During the American Revolution, little or no tea was to be had at a time when new centers of coffee production in the West Indies and South America made coffee readily available as the patriotic alternative. The Boston Tea Party is usually mentioned as nothing more than a humorous anecdote but its significance was profound and affected American cultural mores as deeply as the impetus it gave to revolutionary fervor in New England and later throughout the thirteen colonies. Anti-tea literature and boycotts swept the colonies and provided an emotional catharsis which every would-be patriot could share in by switching from tea to coffee. Ireland’s separation from Great Britain in 1921 was too late however to bring about a major shift in taste preferences. Like the English and the Scots, the Irish are wedded to a “good cup of tea.”

Attempts by the East India company and other British interests to resume shipments of tea to America were handed a major setback by the War of 1812 by which time American merchant ships, anxious to avoid hostilities and the continued piracy by the Barbary pirates found it much more convenient and less risky to load shipments of coffee from Brazilian and Caribbean ports. American ships then began to ply the route to the Orient and engage in direct trade with China, and coffee decisively replaced tea as America‘s national beverage. Since then, tea has become identified with old English, aristocratic and “genteel” ways. Even successful attempts to grow tea in the American South could not win back the lost consumers who had acquired their permanent taste for coffee.

This American love of coffee has been immortalized in countless short stories, films, art (especially the work of Edward Hopper who immortalized a cup of coffee at the late night diner and automat). Songwriter, Lacy J. Dalton and singer Ella Fitzgerald combined their talents to make the song “Black Coffee,” a recognizable symbol of melancholy and longing in American life.

….Black Coffee, blue mornin’ Toast is burnin’ and the rain keeps pourin’ Bad feeling I’m losing you Black Coffee, green envy …Jealous of the way that you used to love me Bad feeling I’m losing you I don’t know if I can live without you…. …..Black Coffee, red warning No good news in the news this morning …. I don’t know if I can understand it. Don’t know if I can, know if I can If I could only think of one good reason to make this crazy love affair worth leaving. Oh,… you know that I would, you know that I would ….. I got this bad feeling I’m losing you ….Black Coffee, blue blue feeling…

Another American song to glorify coffee as the perfect compliment to an idyllic existence was performed by Nat King Cole; Teresa Brewer, Mel Torme, Ray Conniff, Gordon MacRae, Marlene Dietrich and Earl Hines who sang…….. 

You’re the cream in my coffee,
You’re the salt in my stew;
You will always be my necessity–
I’d be lost without you.

Brazilian-American Relations

The very close historic American-Brazilian relationship built around coffee exports was also highlighted in a hit number with crooner Frank Sinatra in his rendition of There’s an awful lot of coffee in Brazil…..

They’ve got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil
You’ll see no tomato juice,
You’ll see no potato juice
The planters down in Santos all say no no no…
The politician’s daughter
Was accused of drinking water
And was fined a great big fifty dollar bill.

While Brazil almost immediately declared war on the Axis after Pearl Harbor and even sent its own expeditionary force to take part in the Allied invasion of Italy, Argentina maintained close relations with Germany, Italy and Japan and waited until the closing months of the war to finally break relations. Its economy, devoid of any tropical products and based on wheat and beef, was a competitor of the United States and had no important trade relations based on coffee exports to cement close ties.

Globalization is Here to Stay

If globalization means anything, it is in the massive diffusion of what once were “national” habits and tastes for everything from sports to food and drink. Even a generation ago, few Americans who had never been to the Far East even knew what sushi was. Three generations ago, baseball was an American novelty that was scarcely known beyond the immediate Caribbean and Canadian borderlands. Today in a real “World Series”, the United States must reckon on the baseball prowess of the Japanese and Koreans as well as the Caribbean countries and cannot count on winning. Even within the same country, advances in technology and the appeal of national advertising have revolutionized popular culture.

Who could have imagined (beyond the confines of Mad Magazine) that Tampa Bay Florida would become the franchise of a Stanley Cup Winning NHL Ice Hockey team?! Many Americans and Brits have today advanced to the point where they can enjoy both beverages on appropriate occasions and there are connoisseurs of both drinks on both sides of the Atlantic – indeed, a major accomplishment of globalization!

* author’s note – see Figure 3-7,  Map of Tea and Coffee Consumption Outside the Major Producing Areas; p. 100; The Human Mosaic; A Thematic Introduction to Cultural Geography, Terry Jordan and Lester Rowntree, 2nd edition. Harper & Row Publishers. New York. 1979. The map is based on my article *”A Cultural Geography of Coffee and Tea Preferences” Proceedings of the Association of American Geographers, vol.8, 1976. pp. 24-29,

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