Everything Stops for Tea

Elsie mug from Pottery Barn.

Text by Bruce Richardson • Photography by Marcy Black Simpson

I had the pleasure of setting up a backstage tea bar at a recent performance of one of my favorite a cappella groups Manhattan Transfer. As a college music student, I wore the grooves off the vinyl listening to their recordings that featured tight harmonies with jazzed-up rhythms. 

One of the quartet’s classic hits from 1975 was “Java Jive,” which included this famous chorus: 

I love coffee, I love tea
I love the java jive and it loves me
Coffee and tea and the java and me
A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup (boy!)

What I found from talking with these veteran singers was that as they matured, their preferred beverage became tea rather than coffee. Before, during, and after a performance, they now look to tea to soothe their vocal chords, and they love the fact that tea has less caffeine than coffee. After all, professional singers need their sleep when they’re on stage night after night.

I speak weekly with coffee drinkers who want to move to tea. Some are looking to the health benefits of tea; many are trying to wean themselves from caffeine; and others are drawn to the tea culture. It’s not surprising that numerous coffee drinkers see tea as a possible antidote to their busy lifestyles. They often use coffee as a stimulant throughout the day, and now they are looking for a beverage that will help them ease into a more calm and reflective—yet alert—state of being. 

I usually ask my aspiring tea drinkers these questions: What time of day do you drink coffee? Do you add milk to your coffee? Do you drink coffee sitting down or on the go? Have you tried a tea that you like?

Armed with that information, my tea recommendations for coffee drinkers generally are these:

Breakfast tea with milk. Use a CTC (cut-tear-curl) grade of Assam tea. These tiny tea nuggets yield a dark, malty, full-flavor liquor that steeps quickly and takes milk very well. If you are a single-origin coffee drinker, try a single-estate TGFOP Assam or a Yunnan.

Morning tea on the go. Drop a tablespoon of English Breakfast or a Ceylon FOP into a French press travel mug that will steep and stay hot for hours as you travel to the office.

 Tea at the office. Keep a generous supply of tea bags handy to share with your co-workers, or, better yet, make your tea with a large mug that has an infuser basket. This way of steeping will give you a strong cup of tea that matches the coffee your taste buds once knew. And easy-to-drink Sencha or Lung Ching are two popular green teas that will help you move into a healthy tea habit—just be sure to keep them away from boiling water.

Late-afternoon or evening teas. Caffeine stays in your body six to eight hours. As the day winds down, look to herbals that will satisfy your craving for a hot beverage without keeping you awake at bedtime.

Coffee and tea cultures are two different mind-sets. I’ve often said that the only two things they have in common are a cup and hot water. But we tea folks are always happy to welcome coffee converts into our happy family! 

Contributing Editor Bruce Richardson is co-author of A Social History of Tea. Find out more about this and his other books at elmwoodinn.com.

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