Coffee culture or planet tea?
Friday, May 11, 2012

They are the two most consumed beverages on earth, after water. As people, how does our relationship with coffee and tea differ across the globe? Two captains of industry share their knowledge and experience of these staple drinks…

When can you say your day really begins? As odds would dictate, it is after your first steaming cuppa wakes you up, making you more alert and ready for the day’s challenges. But which beverage is this? If you visit an office for an appointment, one of the first queries put your way will be: “Coffee or tea?” The answer to what seems a simple question appears rather more convoluted than one might imagine.

As it turns out, the way we drink coffee and tea is determined by a huge range of variables, only a few of which are culture, societal norms, perceptions and production. What’s most notable about these beverages, however, is the way they transcend class. Rich or poor, people from across the economic strata are united in their love for at least one of the two.

Coffee Crazy

Latte, decaf, espresso, instant, roasted, barista… Did you know approximately 136 million bags of coffee were consumed last year, globally? And no, this number doesn’t refer to tiny sachets of instant coffee — we’re talking 60kg bags. That’s roughly three stuffed suitcases worth; the figure also highlights that coffee is now the world’s second most traded commodity, after oil.

Jean-Marc Dragoli is a man that knows coffee more than most, having joined Nestle 12 years ago, and taking the helm of their Nespresso brand of premium coffee six years before. “In this region, coffee has been grown for a thousand years. It is a welcoming beverage here, something you would be greeted with along with dates if you visited a local household.” The market director for Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean, he says there are two basic types of coffee: soluble and roasted. “Nestle invented this type of coffee about 78 years ago, because they needed a convenient way to supply frontline troops during WWII,” explains Dragoli. The stuff most of us drink at work also happens to be soluble. In many countries, soluble coffee is the staple, one example being Chile where “nine out of ten chains serve only soluble coffee.”

As an Italian, Dragoli informs us that it is quite the opposite in his home country, where a strong national preference for roasted coffee prevails. He shares another cultural difference in coffee drinkers: “In the US, you are unlikely to get a cup of coffee smaller than 200 ml; in Italy, anything above 50 ml is considered oversized.”

Temperature tends to vary as well (“In Brazil and Portugal, you drink very hot coffee from a short cup”) while flavouring and additives make the taste of coffee vary from nation to nation. “Mexicans love café de oya, which has spices and sugar added to it,” he says. “Here in the Middle East, people like adding cardamom and other such flavours.” Why so much difference though? Dragoli believes coffee has been altered “to remove its base taste, and try to make something unique.” A true connoisseur, he judges a coffee by factors such as acidity, bitterness and aftertaste. “I’m very picky with quality,” he admits.

And what of the impact of caffeine? Dragoli isn’t a doctor (nor does he pretend to be one) but he does offer this: “I don’t personally get a caffeine ‘buzz’, although many people do. It doesn’t impact taste and therefore, for me, it doesn’t affect the coffee experience.”

Many pop culture theorists have credited Friends and other such 1990’s TV shows for popularising the numerous coffee chains that have sprouted in the decade following the show’s conclusion (remember Central Perk?). When asked for his opinion of coffee chains, Dragoli gives a mixed response, questioning whether you go to a coffee shop because of what you drink or because of the ambience, before conceding that “coffee chains coming in from the West have made coffee very appealing, in terms of showing people just how versatile a beverage it is — even if, in my opinion, it is not really 
coffee being served in these places.”


Dilhan C Fernando, alongside his brother Malik and father Merrill (the founder), owns Dilmah — one of the world’s largest independent tea companies, and perhaps Sri Lanka’s best-known brand. With an ethos remarkably similar to that of Nespresso, Dilmah too enjoys a global reputation refusing to compromise on quality. And like Dragoli, Fernando is, to all extents and purposes, a bonafide encyclopaedia of insights about his product.

“In Japan, Korea and China, tea has acquired a spiritual dimension in the way it is appreciated, which is linked to its ceremony, as opposed to being viewed as simply another beverage option. In India, it is seen as a more functional drink, taking a milky, sweet form in most instances... reflecting a moment of calm during the working day when the chai wallah arrives.” In the Middle East, Fernando explains, tea is an important welcoming drink in many homes and symbolises friendship. He does note with regret that in the UK, “tea is being consumed as part of an increasingly irrelevant tradition among the younger generation.” He is more positive about prospects for the herb in the US though, citing the growing popularity of sweeter, more syrupy teas in the south. 

Does he blame the increasing popularity of coffee, one wonders. “I don’t see coffee and tea as competitors — there is an occasion for the enjoyment of each. Fernando believes that people are increasingly combining tea and coffee to the time of day, the type of food they eat and their mood at the time. 

And old school coffee connoisseur Dragoli’s impression of tea? He likes tea personally, he says, but it’s not too big a deal where he comes from. “My parents would drink tea if they were sick” is his measured response.

Of the two men, Fernando has perhaps a more emotional connection with his product, it being his family business as well. He paints a picture of serenity when describing the plots on which the herbs are grown: “On our tea gardens, there is a sense of solace and peace that is enhanced by being immersed within the thousands of acres of green that characterise the tea country of Ceylon.” He speaks of the variety of teas that can be cultivated, from those of a maltier complexion to the more chocolaty, delicate flavours originating from the picturesque Nuwara Eliya in his native Sri Lanka.

Fernando criticises the commoditisation of the last few decades that has resulted in cheaper tea for the consumer, but also had a side effect of creating hardship for millions of people whose livelihood had depended on tea cultivation. From a non-economic perspective, he also feels that people are missing out on a real “taste for the herb”, or an appreciation for fine tea. To combat this, the Dilmah ‘School of Tea’ seeks to educate a new generation about everything special in tea. He sees a “renaissance” in the appreciation of high quality teas as a more luxurious product, as opposed to a simple commodity.

Dragoli is similarly confident about the prospects of his own passion. “People are evolving, and so is the quality of coffee. When people come into contact with good things, they tend to go back.” While he does appreciate the impact of coffee chains on helping to make his favourite beverage more popular, he hopes that with time “people will move toward less added ingredients toward the core taste.”



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