It recently dawned on me that comparing coffee to tea is a bit like comparing the Beatles to the Stones; they are both frequently pitted against each other, ostensibly indicating something fundamental about the person who prefers one over the over. These comparisons, however, are both flawed and irrelevant. The Stones come from a blues tradition, whereas the Beatles are pure pop. Sure, they’re both music, but you may as well be comparing Bach to bluegrass. The same can be said of coffee and tea, two caffeinated beverages offering two disparate experiences.
For me—though equally delicious—coffee is a crutch, tea a meditation. If coffee contracts time, tea expands it; coffee gets me through a tired morning whereas tea relishes a calm afternoon. If forced to choose between these two relationships, who is ultimately more important? The friend who’s got your back in a street fight, or your co-pilot on a day trip to the seaside?
This question is one that the British, for whom tea is sine qua non, would never think to ask. Though my friends across the Atlantic tell me that coffee is becoming increasingly important in London, we all know it is tea that has besotted the British for centuries. The English have proven time and again that tea is something worth fighting for; tea is the reason Hong Kong was colonized, the impetus behind the Opium Wars, and the catalyst for the Revolutionary War. Would it be surprising if the British indignation over the waste of tea into the Boston Harbor were considered an even greater offense than American tax evasion?
Compared to artisanal tea, artisanal coffee has been on the scene in a big way for much longer. The wisdom of the 90’s decreed light and medium roasts for the faint of heart. Serious coffee drinkers consumed dark French roast or perhaps Peet’s Major Dickason’s blend. Ethiopian coffee farmers were getting the short shrift, making less than a dollar a day while Americans and Europeans were paying around $4 for a single cappuccino.
Along came Blue Bottle in 2002, whose carefully selected beans from around the world are roasted in six-pound batches and who proselytize selling coffee within 48 hours of roasting. With the new standards for small-yield and fair trade coffee bean farms and medium roasting methods came a slew of various elaborate ways to express the bean. There’s the drip (or “pour over”), the French press, the AeroPress, the Moka Pot, the Chemex, the Nel Drip, and the Siphon (basically a coffee bong with an artsy bamboo paddle).
Craft coffee has osmotically influenced tea fanciers. There are purveyors of only single-harvest unscented tea—Tranquil Tuesdays. Of rare, handcrafted, fresh whole leaf teas—Teance. Of spunky blends and everything under the sun—Aroma Tea Shop. And then there’s the ritual: the perfect teaware, the ideal temperature of the water, the proper steep time for any given leaf. Boutique teashops and salons have sprung like daisies all over the country, offering hundreds of heretofore unknown teas and paraphernalia.
Whether you prefer Mick and Keith or the Fab Four, below is a list of boutique coffee sources that Start Me Up and tea sources that Don’t Let Me Down.