What is the Difference Between Coffee and Tea?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Coffee and tea are among the world's most popular beverages, with several surveys seeming to suggest that tea is the world's number one hot beverage, and they are often lumped together on restaurant menus. However, coffee and tea are in fact very different beverages, each with a venerable and distinctive history. It has also been noted that many people are fans of one, but not the other.

A cup of coffee.
A cup of coffee.

Coffee is the product of plants in the genus Coffea, with C. robusta and C. arabica being the two cultivars used for coffee production. It is believed that coffee originated in Ethiopia, with legends dating it to about the ninth century. Coffee spread to the Middle East and from there to Europe, where it became an extremely popular beverage in the 1600s.

A cup of tea.
A cup of tea.

Depending on how coffee is handled and where it is grown, it can have a variety of flavor profiles. Coffees can be roasted for varying amounts of time, and have differing levels of caffeine, the chemical compound which makes coffee such a popular drink. It can also be prepared in a variety of ways, with drip coffee and espresso being two popular preparations, and may be additionally flavored with essential oils.

Green tea.
Green tea.

Tea is produced from Camellia sinensis, a plant native to China. Like coffee, tea can vary widely in flavor depending on where it is grown and how it is handled. Some broad tea categories include green, white, oolong, and black teas. Chinese legends place the birth of tea at around 2700 BCE, making it much older than coffee, and tea has long been popular in many parts of Asia. In the 1600s, tea began appearing at coffee houses, creating a lifelong association between coffee and tea among Europeans, and the drink quickly rivaled coffee in terms of appeal to the public.

Whole roasted coffee beans.
Whole roasted coffee beans.

It is important to note that so-called “herbal teas” are actually tisanes. In order to truly be considered “tea,” a beverage must contain Camellia sinensis, although other plant products can be blended in, and commonly are. A drink made purely from herbs, such as peppermint leaves or chamomile flowers, is more properly known as a tisane, despite what the labeling on the package claims. In religious communities where caffeine consumption is not allowed, tisanes can be safely consumed, and these drinks are also safe for people who are avoiding caffeine for health reasons.

A cup of black coffee.
A cup of black coffee.

Both coffee and tea are prepared in similar ways, by steeping or leaching the plant products in hot water, and they are often served with similar accessories, such as cream and sugar. These two drinks can also be quite high in caffeine. However, coffee and tea taste very differently and contain a variety of different chemical compounds. Teas, for example, have numerous antioxidants, while coffees do not.

Espresso is one way to prepare coffee.
Espresso is one way to prepare coffee.
The polyphenols in tea have powerful antioxidant properties.
The polyphenols in tea have powerful antioxidant properties.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

Markerrag

@Terrificli -- people who don't like the taste of decaffeinated coffee but want to find something similar to their favorite drink might try a chai latte. That is tea, but you do get a lot of the boldness of coffee and people migrating to tea from coffee have reported some luck in starting with that particular drink.

Besides, a lot of your better coffee houses offer chai latte. Give it a try.

Terrificli

One of the major differences is that coffee has more caffeine in it than tea. The higher caffeine content does attract some people to the drink, but causes others to go for tea because they want to limit their caffeine intake.

A problem arises, however, when people want to limit their caffeine intake but much prefer the taste of coffee over tea. Sure, there is decaf coffee for those wanting the taste without the caffeine, but some argue the flavor is not quite on par with "regular" coffee.

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