by GV Shashidhar

  • Middle Eastern imports at 218,470  metric tons of tea in 2015 compared to 226,930 in 2014. In 2010, it was 250,000 metric tons of tea annually.
  •  The Russian Federation imported 3,000 fewer metric tons in 2015 than the previous year.
  •  The value of global  tea imports from all importing countries in 2015 was        down by an average of 8.6% since 2011. This translates to $6.5 billion in 2011, down to $5.9 billion in 2015.

They say numbers don’t lie. As you look at these numbers, they seem to defy logic or practice. The average consumer would think the consumption of tea has only gone up with more varieties of tea on supermarket shelves and with more marketers and producers vying for consumer attention. Apart from being a regular beverage, tea has come to the forefront of the health bandwagon. Historically, tea was consumed In China and other parts of Asia for centuries before the British discovered it. They took it, patronized it and consumed it in copious quantities.

Over time, tea became an important part of local culture and cuisine of much of non-Christendom. It developed into specific rituals and practices based on local culture and custom. The south Asian version of steeping tea, the central European version of using elaborate customs including a samovar that migrated to Central Asia ( or maybe vice versa) to Africa where countries like Turkey and Egypt developed their own method of brewing and built a strong social culture around it.

Over decades, this beverage found its way into many homes across the globe. Industrialization and technology led to better farming methods and a freer trade meant consumers had options in choosing the source of their teas. This whole process became so sophisticated that it involved big bucks, which led to rampant commercialization. Commerce and politics are two sides of the same coin. Over time, as consumers developed their tea culture and concentrated on consumption, countries included tea in their trade and bilateral discussions. Countries and corporations began investing in tea gardens outside their own boundaries. Most of the tea in Egypt is imported from Kenya and Sri Lanka and it is unlikely that the average consumer is aware of this. Similarly, most of the tea imported in CIS countries are imported from India and China.

Green tea became popular as a great source of antioxidants and stimulants. Since green tea has less caffeine content than coffee, it was considered safe for all adults including those convalescing and nursing mothers. All of the above seems like a fairy tale that would last forever with the consumer, traders and countries balancing each other out perfectly for mutual benefit and a cup of health.

The above statistics however, seem to belie the climax of the fairy tale. Maybe it’s just a technical correction which should sort itself out in a few years. However, it could also be a result of strong competition from another beverage that, until recently, wasn’t considered healthy because of its high caffeine content – Coffee. And thus opens a new chapter in the annals of beverages. Just like that.

The benefits of coffee are now being discovered. It is entirely unclear whether this changing status of coffee is a result of a campaign by marketers, exporters or the medical fraternity, but one thing is very clear. Coffee is gaining a lot of ground as a stimulant, as anti-carcinogenic and simply as a great beverage. While the tea culture developed into elaborate rituals where people came together socially, coffee has become a personal choice.

Moreover, the whole process of extraction of the coffee from the beans roasted to one’s liking ( medium, rare or premium) , the grade of coffee ( Plantation, Peaberry, Arabica, Blends)  and the paraphernalia needed to extract it, is encouraging people to become connoisseurs. It is becoming fashionable to own all the equipment and develop an expertise similar to a barista, much the same way photography became a passion where amateurs went to great lengths putting together the ‘ dark room’  before the advent of digital technology.  Add to this the now accepted belief that green coffee is a great metabolism booster, some consider even more so than green tea, it’s no wonder that the tides are turning. Thus sparks the demand for green coffee from non-drinkers of coffee. IF you put this scenario into the mix and throw in the might of a global corporation like Starbucks, you realize it’s no longer an even match.

As people discovered various exotic flavors and options, coffee did not remain espresso or cappuccino. Consumers and countries developed their own version of coffee from the Americano to the Flat white. Countries began to get divided based on their consumption of tea or coffee. If England was a tea country, the U.S. became a coffee country. If most of western Europe reveled in their bistros and cafes, all of Asia took to tea with a vengeance. Corporations like Nestle added new technology in products like Nespresso, making the whole process of extraction simple, yet retaining the allure of coffee extraction.

As we look at some of this information, it is becoming evident that coffee is slowly gaining lost ground. A coffee house is no longer a shack for the blue collared but a place for a family to sit and sip. It is, of course, going to be very interesting to see how the overall numbers add up, but the consumer has never had it so good. Spoilt for choices, many are turning to coffee before noon for the additional ‘pick me up’ and tea in the afternoon for the calming, relaxing end to the day.

Whichever way the cookie crumbles, it surely tastes good with a cuppa. Tea or coffee.