Tea and Coffee

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
Tea and coffee are the most widely consumed drinks in the world, and their popularity stems from the same source as that of herbs and spices: the plant materials they’re made from are crammed with chemical defenses that we have learned to dilute, modify, and love. Tea leaves and coffee beans have one defense in common, and that’s caffeine, a bitter alkaloid that has significant effects on our bodies. And they both contain large doses of phenolic compounds. However, they’re very different materials. Coffee begins as a seed, a storehouse of protein, carbohydrate, and oil, and is the creation of high heat, a robust epitome of roasted foods and flavors. Tea begins as a new, actively growing leaf, rich in enzymes, and is the delicate creation of those enzymes, carefully captured and preserved by minimal heat and drying. Coffee and tea thus offer two very different experiences of botanical inventiveness and human art.