Why Tea and Coffee Aren’t Made the Same

The main difference between where I keep my tea wares and where I keep my coffee equipment is one of scale. My coffee cabinet is constantly overflowing with products— ceramic pour-over cones, a plunger brewer designed by a Frisbee magnate, various grinders, a Danish immersion pot with a neoprene jacket, and so forth. My tea drawer, on the other hand, has only three brewers—a glass pot with a filter, a handled clay pot with a fine-mesh screen, and a lidded ceramic bowl, called a gaiwan—all of which rely on the same basic method: steeping.

Why is tea prepared in such a consistent style, while the market overflows with different coffee-brewing products? The easy answer is that tea production is a millennia-old practice in China, Taiwan, and Japan, with long-standing qualitative ideals that apply to farming, processing, and preparation.* In short, tea is well figured out. Coffee, by contrast, has spent most of its commercial life being grown in Central and South America, East Africa, and Indonesia, primarily to be shipped off to North American and European markets; it’s an export crop whose consumers have long prioritized low cost and high caffeine. Only in the last few decades has the specialty-coffee industry been able to focus on quality at every stage of the process, from farm to cup, which means that the same industry is still tweaking new ways of brewing coffee every year. (For more on that theme, I recommend The World Atlas of Coffee by James Hoffmann.)

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