It’s hard to put your finger on why, exactly, but there’s a difference between tea drinkers and coffee drinkers, and frankly, it might be that coffee drinkers are sexier, and that’s all there is to it. Who ever heard of a post-coital cup of tea, for instance, or tea rings on a tortured manuscript, or meeting a first-time date over a cup of tea? As far as I know, it’s hard to get high on tea.
These are both personal and cultural choices. If animals made these choices, cheetahs and eagles would drink coffee, and cows and duck-billed platypuses would drink tea. Predictably, I’m one of the wimpy tea-drinking types. If I were a coffee drinker, perhaps I would associate my morning beverage with slinking over in my negligee to finally ask the name of the tousled stranger with a cruel twist in his mouth who’s still slouching around my living room, rather than with squinting at the newspapers in a dumpy dressing gown with mismatched socks.
Centuries of cultural instinct apply. I’m told that my little finger stands to automatic attention when I raise my cup, which would look stupid if it were a cup of coffee, even though it also looks stupid when it’s a cup of tea. I’m low-energy and placid. I like to sit and watch the rain with my cup, not gulp caffeine between board meetings. I like High Tea with poncy little sandwiches and buttered scones. How could I possibly damn myself further? Oh yes, I like Joan Baez.
Worse: it’s not as if I’m open to experimentation. A cup of tea is unacceptable to me unless the water has been just shy of boiled, a pinch of long-leafed Darjeeling tea added, and the infusion steeped for exactly three minutes (timed with a proper kitchen timer) before being strained into a large cup in which I want to be able to see both each molecule of the liquid and the bottom of the cup, after which one may add two teaspoons of milk and one spoon of sugar. That is the Perfect Cup of Tea, and the only one I will drink.
Unless, of course, this particular concoction is not available. I have in my time, out of desperation, had to drink the most godawful sludge: yak butter tea in Ladakh, which many people pretend to like in order to appear culturally sensitive; salty nun chai in Kashmir, which even if it weren’t so pink would put me in the mood for a good vomit; dhaba chai, which is overboiled tea and milk carefully engineered to exactly that proportion most unflattering to each; masala chai, which should be thrown back into the pot and used to sauté onions for a curry that, if you’re lucky, will disguise its taste; and tea stall tea in Myanmar, which is red and thick and nothing short of weird.
If I’m really desperate I might even enjoy one or more of these, but I have to be desperate, and enjoyment might lie in pinpointing just how far short each falls of the Perfect Cup. A couple of respectable exceptions are possibly green tea or jasmine tea, though these are both to be downed medicinally rather than with real pleasure.
Coffee drinkers are equally fussy, with their interminable squabbles about beans and quantity and frequency; but less fusty, with their grinders and shining little machines and thin frames and nicer sunglasses. What really rankles is that it’s all so very seductive. When I’m in a coffee-drinking land I turn my back on my tea-drinking cohort without a second thought, and imagine myself to be edgy and sophisticated; but at the end of the day I’m a platypus, and you can’t hide that for long.