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Tea or coffee?

Think back on all your formal interactions throughout life, and tell me that's not the most common opening line you've come across! I don't think I know anyone who would offer you anything but a tea or coffee as a conversation starter. Of course, if you have friends who draw inspiration from the life of The Dude, then a glass of White Russian could be on the cards!

There is something inherently comforting about a warm beverage. And no, the weather has nothing to do with this. Cold weather may enhance the experience multifold, but the inverse is not necessarily true.

But aren't tea and coffee basically similar?

Both are favourable drinks throughout the day. The general styles of consumption - black or au lait - is also common to both. Both drinks have suffered terribly bastardization across the globe with a barrage of flavours and additives. And, each beverage equally lends itself to social stratification based on prevalent culture.

And despite all those similarities, they could not stand further apart in a bunch of ways.

Let's start with the most obvious one - source. While one is a leaf, the other is a bean. And it may not seem relevant at first, but this difference has significantly influenced the subsequent complexities that we see in both beverages today. Coarse-ground, second-flush, medium-roast and other such intricacies are all a function of the source for tea and coffee, and of course, personal preference.

Another intriguing difference between the two beverages is the range of snacks that accompany them usually. For instance, tea happens to pair well with biscuits or scones or cookies. Coffee, on the other hand, is a tricky little bugger. While I'd argue that it's best had solo, at times, a piece of toast or a fresh bagel could spruce it up a bit. But these combos are not always set in stone and are highly temperamental!

Notably, as is the case with any tradition, these accompaniments and snacks are also a natural extension of our culture and history. For instance, if you travel across the northern part of India, you'll see that tea is the baseline drink for everyone. And, generally, a 'cutting' or half a portion of chai arrives hand-in-hand with a savoury snack like the samosa. Every stratum of society enjoys this beverage, and no one can ever say no to tea!

Coffee, on the other hand, is a young man/woman's hobby in the north. It's the hip alternative to tea about which the former generation is willfully ignorant! And since coffee is 'modern', the accompaniments are equally modern. You've got croissants and salted cookies to pair off with a good cappuccino or anything else that Starbucks or Cafe Coffee Day may deem an ideal companion!

This social rift between the two beverages also extends to special occasions in the north. Marriage arrangements are always discussed over tea, while the first 'compatibility check' is done famously over coffee. Mornings always begin with a cup of stiff chai, but the brave could venture into the coffee territory, come evening or late night.

However, take a detour to the southern regions of India, and you'll see a 180-degree shift in the beverage hierarchy. Coffee rules supreme here. It's a poor man's drink and a rich man's passion, a drink for the daily boost, as well as for special occasions. But unlike the northerners, no one in south India considers tea to be hip! 😋

And I think that the Indian tea industry is to blame partly for this. While tea exports grew and sparked a beverage renaissance in top locations worldwide, we neglected it in our backyard. Companies such as Starbucks, Third Wave, and Blue Tokai did their part to capitalize on an ever-increasing coffee customer base, but the next wave of tea arrived a little late. And even now, despite the best efforts by brands such as Vahdam and TGL, tea still has not attained the hip status that coffee has commanded over the last decade. Starbucks is cool, but Tata Cha is not.

But, while coffee or tea is a divisive question, the answer does reveal something more consistent about the respondent based on which camp they support. Anyone who chooses one over the other knows where they stand. They have a preference, they have a comfort beverage, and they are a creature of habit. Someone who says either is essentially a floater and an experimenter or really good at accommodating. They want to experience the best of everything, though at the risk of facing disappointment. And then there is a third category that says neither. And we all know what this category has always stood for - rebellion. 🙂

So, where do I stand? I think I'm a half-n-half based on the situation. Tea is my go-to beverage in most scenarios, but I DO love a good coffee when my wife and I are in a conversational mood. I also prefer a coffee when I travel because I cannot consume 90% of the feeble teas served commercially. Basically, I care a lot about how I take my tea, while my bar for a good coffee is considerably low.

But let me end this conversation with a parting thought that goes beyond the two beverages themselves. It does not matter what you like. When someone asks you for either, say yes, because both are usually a catalyst for a good conversation, and who says no to those!

Right? 🙂

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