Open main menu

World map of tea and coffee preferences
Source: The Economist
(click here for an interactive version of the map)
Data source: Euromonitor (2012)

Imagine you’re visiting someone at home. The host offers you a cup or mug of some hot stimulant non-alcoholic beverage. What kind of drink do you expect to get?

Well, it depends, to a large extent, on the geographic location. In most of the world, the host is likely to ask you whether you would like some coffee. There are many countries, though, where the question is going to be, “would you care for a cup of tea?” Five years ago The Economist published a great interactive map (based on data gathered by Euromonitor) where this great hot-drink divide can be clearly seen.

Most of the Americas and much of Europe are staunch members of the coffee camp. Guatemala turns out to be the most caffeine-addicted nation in the world, with 99.6% Guatemalans preferring coffee over tea. It’s closely followed by the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Ecuador.

On the other hand, there are many countries where coffee is definitely not their inhabitants’ cup of tea. It’s, well, tea. This camp includes most of Asia, as well as Russia, Britain and parts of their erstwhile empires. Uzbekistan tops the list on the tea end of the spectrum, with 99.6% preferring tea over coffee, followed by Kenya, Azerbaijan and China.

Coffee vs tea preference in selected countries
Data source: Euromonitor (2012) via The Economist

And then, as you can see in the graph above, there’s a handful of countries that are sitting squarely on the fence. It’s in these places where, instead of offering you tea or coffee, the host will offer you a choice: tea or coffee? In Australia the preferences appear to be most evenly split (50.3% for tea, 49.7% for coffee). In Europe, the two countries closest to the middle of the coffee-tea spectrum are Estonia and Poland. The question “coffee or tea?” (kawa czy herbata?) is actually so common in Poland around breakfast time that it was the title of a popular ’90s Polish morning TV show.

The actual picture may not be as clear-cut as it seems due to the lack of data for vast swathes of Africa and by the fact that the survey was limited to only two kinds of hot drink. In southern South America, for example, the answer to the question, “tea or coffee?”, may actually be, “yerba mate”.

But let’s take a look at the history of the two major beverages. How did places like Poland and Australia get to be so divided? Were they always like this? Which hot drink was hot a hundred years ago? Or two hundred, or more? Let’s find out.

“I love coffee, I love tea…”
Java Jive by the Manhattan Transfer

The First Exotic Hot Drink

An Arab, a Chinese and a Native American drinking coffee, tea and chocolate, respectively.

Coffee and tea are so commonplace nowadays that it’s hard to imagine they used to be exotic to Europeans. But which exotic drink was the first to make it to Europe? The answer, as it turns out, is neither coffee nor tea; it was cocoa. Native to tropical Central America and a sacred drink for the Aztecs, it was introduced to Europe by the Spaniards shortly after Columbus’s discovery of the New World. Like most novel foodstuffs, it was initially treated mostly as medicine. Even as late as 19th century, cocoa was being sold in pharmacies.

It gained acceptance as a recreational drink during the 17th century, especially after Antonio de León Pinelo determined, in 1636, that it was okay to consume cocoa during Catholic fasts. In Spain it became a common drink of the masses. A French countess observed in 1670 that “having no chocolate is seen in Spain as being reduced to the same level of poverty as having no bread in our country.” But in western Europe outside of Spain, chocolate remained expensive, exotic and limited to aristocratic tables. And the chocolate fad would soon fade and give way to another exotic drink.


Remember the breakfast in Judge Soplica’s manor house from one of my previous posts? You know, the beer soup and all? Well, the beer soup was served after coffee and, according to the poet, the Polish way of brewing coffee was superior to any other in the world – although it must be said that Mickiewicz was prone to some degree of exaggeration.

Such coffee as in Poland you’ll not find elsewhere:
In a good house, in Poland, by old custom there,
Making coffee’s the task of one housemaid alone
(As the coffee-maid known), who imports from the town,
The best beans, or from trading barge buys them, and who
Has her own secret ways of preparing the brew,
Which as jet-black as coal is, and as amber limpid:
Is as fragrant as mocca, and as honey viscid.

Adam Mickiewicz: Pan Tadeusz, or The Last Foray in Lithuania: A Tale of the Gentry during 1811-1812, translated by Marcel Weyland, Book II, verses 500–507

Original text:

Takiej kawy jak w Polszcze nie ma w żadnym kraju:
W Polszcze, w domu porządnym, z dawnego zwyczaju,
Jest do robienia kawy osobna niewiasta,
Nazywa się kawiarka; ta sprowadza z miasta
Lub z wicin bierze ziarna w najlepszym gatunku
I zna tajne sposoby gotowania trunku,
Który ma czarność węgla, przejrzystość bursztynu,
Zapach moki i gęstość miodowego płynu.

It seems that coffee had become well established as a popular drink in Poland by Mickiewicz’s time. After all, as you may remember from my post about the Battle of Vienna, the Poles had learned to enjoy coffee already back in the 17th century – from the Ottoman Turks, whom the Polish forces so valiantly vanquished. Or did they? Would they really ape the habits of their enemies? Let’s see what another Polish poet had to write about what he called kaffa two centuries before Mickiewicz:

Great coffee traditions: American, Italian, Arabic, Turkish

In Malta, I recall, we have sampled kaffa,
A drink for the pashas, Murat and Mustafa.
A poison so noxious, a venom so strong,
It will blacken your teeth and dry up your tongue.
A brew so disgusting, of heathens uncouth,
Let in never befoul a good Christian’s mouth!

Jan Andrzej Morsztyn [misattributed to Zbigniew Morsztyn]: Do Stanisława Morsztyna Rotmistrza JKMości, Poezye, Poznań: 1844, p. 31, own translation

Original text:

W Malcieśmy, pomnę, kosztowali kafy,
Trunku dla Baszów Murata, Mustafy
I co jest Turków, ale tak szkarady
Napój, tak brzydka trucizna i jady,
Co żadnej śliny nie puszcza za zęby,
Niech chrześcijańskiej nie plugawi gęby […]

A coffee maid, as painted by Marcin Jabłoński

Shocking, isn’t it? I mean, many modern Poles hate Muslims just as much as their narrow-minded 17th-century ancestors did, but that doesn’t stop them from pigging out on döner kebabs, right?

Coffee was first planted – outside of its native Ethiopia – by the Arabs near the Red-Sea port town of Mocha in Yemen. From there it spread out all over the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Around the turn of the 17th century, Mediterranean trading vessels brought it to Italian and French ports… and a coffee boom began in western Europe. Coffee houses were set up in London (1650s), Amsterdam (1633), Paris (1689) and Hamburg (1690), serving coffee now grown in plantations that Europeans had set up in the New World to meet the growing demand. One such coffee house, run by Gottfried Zimmerman in Leipzig, attracted patrons with musical performances written and directed by a certain Johann Sebastian Bach. Among them was a secular cantata (with lyrics by Picander) about a young woman’s addiction to coffee (spoiler: she never quits).

Oh, how the taste of coffee sweet is,
Lovelier than a thousand kisses […]

Picander: Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, own translation

Original text:

Ei! wie schmeckt der Coffee süße,
Lieblicher als tausend Küsse […]

Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (aka Coffee Cantata, BWV 211) performed by Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin (1978)

The Turks would have been quite puzzled by these lines. Why, coffee is bitter, not sweet! In fact, it was way too bitter for western European palates. Here, it had to be sweetened with copious amounts of sugar – which of course came from sugar-cane plantations that Europeans had set up in the New World to meet the growing demand. The careers of coffee and sugar – both highly addictive – went hand in hand.

In 1736, shortly after he had written the Coffee Cantata, Bach was appointed court musician to King Augustus II of Poland. By that time, coffee had already been accepted by the Polish public. The custom came from the west, the raw material was imported from the south. In 1758, the number of cafés in Warsaw approached that of beer houses. In fact, coffee was welcomed by some moralists as an alternative to alcohol.

Before coffee was known, the fair sex would have soup made of beer, wine, sugar, eggs, saffron and cinnamon as their morning meal. […] But after the soup, the ladies of the house and their visitors would secretly walk down to the medicine cabinet where they would wash the bland soup down with liquors, coming out as various harridans, capricious freaks and fiery drunks – effects which coffee does not bring, for which we ought to be grateful to him who first brought it to our land, as it has saved not only the fair sex, but many a man as well, from vodka, which ruins one’s health and mind.
Jędrzej Kitowicz: O trunkach, in: Opis obyczajów i zwyczajów za panowania Augusta III, Poznań: 1840, p. 211–212, own translation

Original text:
Póki […] nie była znajoma kawa, biała płeć dystyngwowana na ranny posiłek używała polewki robionej z piwa, wina, cukru, jajec, szafranu albo cynamonu. […] Ale za to po poleweczce jejmoście domowe same i z goszczącemi na sekret przechodziły się często do apteczki i tam wódeczką mdlącą poleweczkę zakrapiając, często się gorzałką rozpajały i na rozmaite jędze, dziwaczki, chimeryczki, nareszcie na pijaczki ogniste wychodziły; których defektów rozumu, że kawa nie sprawuje, chwalić ją stąd należy i dzięki oddawać temu, kto ją pierwszy do naszego kraju sprowadził, albowiem ona nie tylko białą płeć, ale też i wielu mężczyzn od gorzałki, niszczącej zdrowie i rozum, zachowała.

This approach to fighting alcoholism backfired two centuries later, when Poland’s communist authorities tried to encourage peasants to drink coffee instead of vodka.

Some peasants drunk a few litres each in a single evening. They didn’t realize coffee is a liquid more potent than alcohol. An ambulance from a nearby town took them to a hospital for treatment of a serious heart condition. The rest of the populace, having learned from this sudden and sad experience, reverted to their old alcoholic ways.
Stefan Otwinowski: Pamiątki i herezje, Kraków: 1968, p. 47; quoted in: Kordian Tarasiewicz: Kawa i herbata na ziemiach polskich: Handel, konsumpcja, obyczaje, Warszawa: Szkoła Główna Handlowa, 2009, p. 158, own translation

Original text:
Niektórzy chłopi wypili po kilka litrów w ciągu całego wieczoru. Nie przypuszczali, że jest to płyn o mocy większej od alkoholu. Pogotowie z sąsiedniego miasta zabrało ośmiu mężczyzn w stanie ciężkiego poszkodowania serca na leczenie kliniczne. Reszta ludności, nauczona gwałtownym i smutnym doświadczeniem, wróciła do starych alkoholowych metod.


How words for “tea” have spread around the world

The words for “tea” in most languages of the world fall into one of two groups: they either sound more or less like teh or like cha. The English word “tea” is an example of the former, the Russian chay – of the latter. If you trace the etymologies to their ultimate origins, it turns out that they both come from different dialects of Chinese. There’s a popular explanation that the word for tea used in a given place depends on whether tea first arrived there by land or by sea. And it’s actually quite accurate. Teh comes from Amoy, a dialect of the Min Nan branch of Chinese, spoken in the port city of Xiamen on the Taiwan Strait. Dutch traders must have picked it up there and spread the word, as well as tea itself, in western Europe. Cha, on the other hand, is the form used in the northern varieties of Chinese. The word was borrowed from there, at various stages, into Japanese, Korean and Persian. The cha form was also used in the Cantonese port city of Macau, visited by Portuguese trading vessels, which explains why Portuguese stands out among western European languages and refers to tea as chá. In Persian cha became chay and in this form was further borrowed into Russian and thence, into all other Slavic languages.

All other Slavic languages except Polish, that is. The Polish word for tea is “herbata”, which comes from Latin '’herba thea”, or “tea herb”. But it couldn’t be that simple. The word for tea may have come from the west, but the word for “kettle” – “czajnik” – comes from Russian. Why isn’t it called “herbatnik”, you might ask. Well, this word is already taken; it refers to a biscuit to be served with tea.

Great tea traditions: English, Russian, Moroccan, Chinese

As you could see in the map (or mug) at the top of this post, there are only two predominantly tea-drinking regions in Europe: the British Isles in the west and the former Russian Empire in the east. The English tea-drinking tradition dates back to the times when the commodity was still being imported from Asia almost exclusively by Dutch and Portuguese merchants. The first batch of tea appeared in England in 1657, but it’s the 1662 marriage of King Charles II, who grew up in the Netherlands, to the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza, that is remembered as the birth of the English tea-drinking culture. Catherine, in particular, was known for inviting her guests for a light meal centered on tea and cakes at (you guessed it) five o’clock.

Tea poured from a little teapot into an even smaller teacup, mixed with a dab of milk and sweetened with sugar – that’s just one way of serving tea. The American idea of a tea party, for example, is to dump it all into the ocean, which once peeved the Brits so much that an entire war broke out. What’s even worse, no milk was added at all.

French people enjoying tea in the English style, as painted by Michel Barthélemy Ollivier (1766)

The Russian way is different still. First you boil water in a big metal urn called samovar, or “self-boiler”. Then you open a tap in the side of the urn to pour the boiling water into a teapot filled with tea leaves and put the pot on top of the samovar, where it continues to be heated by the water. You let the leaves steep for some time until you brew a very strong tea called zavarka. Once it’s ready, you pour some zavarka into glasses (yes, glasses!) and fill with more boiling water from the tap. This way everyone can adjust the strength of their tea to their liking. Each glass is placed in a special metal holder called podstakannik, or “under-glass”, so that you don’t scorch your fingers. A typical podstakannik is made of some sort of nickel alloy; in the past, wealthy Russians used to have their podstakanniki made of silver, but they quickly realized that this metal is too good a heat conductor. So you’ve got your zavarka brewed in your samovar, all you need now is to sweeten your tea with some fruits cooked in syrup, known as varenye.

So, Tea or Coffee?

If you looked closely enough at the graph at the top of this post, you may have noticed that Turkey – the country all of Europe learned to drink coffee from – is a tea-drinking nation today. How did this come to pass? The answer, in a nutshell, is World War I happened. The Ottoman Empire lost all of its territorial possessions in the Middle East and all the coffee-growing regions with them. Deprived of easy access to their favourite drink, the Turks looked to the north. Their Muslim neighbours in Soviet Azerbaijan were drinking tea, a custom they had gleaned from the Persians and the Russians. And if tea could be grown as far north as Soviet Georgia, then why not try planting tea bushes on the slopes of Turkish hills overlooking the Black Sea? That’s what President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of the Turkish Republic, thought; and so the Turks had no other choice than to start drinking tea (or çay in Turkish).

A tea field in the Rize region of Turkey

A similar turnaround would later happen in the land down under – but in reverse. Prior to World War II, Australia, as you may have guessed, followed the British example by drinking tea and ignoring coffee as a beverage that was too costly and too difficult to brew. On 3 September 1939, Australia followed British example again by accepting the British declaration of war with Germany as its own (the king could not, after all, be at war and at peace with Germany at the same time). As Australian economy was being geared towards the war effort, basic food supplies – including tea – were rationed, so people had no choice but to drink less of it. At first, the Aussies were mostly helping Britain fight Germany and Italy in Europe and Africa; but as Japan expanded its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, threatening Australia itself, the British dominion refocused on the Pacific theatre and tighter coöperation with the United States. Between 1942 and 1945, a total of one million U.S. servicemen were stationed in this country of seven million. While Australian men complained about American G.I. Joes as being “overpaid, oversexed and over here”, Australian women were happy to welcome them at home. The only problem was, Americans drank coffee. Newspapers started to offer advice on how to brew it in a way that Americans would enjoy. A Melbourne-based daily wrote that:

One of the golden rules for hostesses entertaining American troops should be not to serve them coffee unless they know how to make it in the American manner. Most Americans are unanimous in condemning Australian coffee for being too weak, for being made from coffee mixed with chicory, and because the milk is boiled with the coffee. At one party recently an American, after tasting his hostess’s coffee, asked in all innocence, “What’s this – cocoa?”
Coffee for Americans, in: The Argus, Melbourne: 20 April 1942, p. 5

The same piece then advised to use a “special kind of percolator” and that “a pinch of salt and mustard added to the coffee will improve its flavour.” Anyway, Australians increasingly saw coffee as a token of modernity, glamour, convenience (especially after Nestlé instant coffee appeared in 1948) and being a nation all its own rather than a colonial outpost of the British Empire. The trend continued after the war and today, as we saw above, coffee is at least as popular down under as tea is.

Poland is another nation that is almost in the middle of the coffee-tea spectrum. But this wasn’t always the case. While coffee is prominently featured in Pan Tadeusz, the national epic makes no mention whatsoever of “essences from Chinese herbs drawn”, as Mickiewicz calls tea in another poem. In the 18th century, tea was still viewed by some with suspicion:

If the Chinese sent all of their poisons to us, they would never cause us as much harm as they do with their tea. Maybe it is useful in some cases, but frequent use of this warm water weakens one’s nerves and digestive vessels […]
Krzysztof Kluk: Dykcjonarz roślinny, 1786; quoted in: Zygmunt Gloger: Encyklopedia staropolska, vol. II, Warszawa: 1901, p. 254, own translation

Original text:
Gdyby Chiny wszystkie swoje trucizny przesłały, nie mogłyby nam tyle zaszkodzić, ile swoją herbatą. Może to być, że w jakim przypadku jest użyteczną, ale częste zażycie owej ciepłej wody osłabia nerwy i naczynia do strawności służące […]

While coffee was seen as a socially acceptable alternative to liquors, tea was mostly recommended as something to wash your throat with after you threw up after having too much vodka.

Polish advertisement for Lipton tea from the 1930s

In the 19th century much of what is now Poland was part of the Russian Empire. The Poles living there may not have liked to admit it, but they adopted much of Russian ways during that time – including Russian tea-drinking culture. By 1843, at least one Pole was ready to acknowledge green tea as better suited to his times than coffee.

Tea best expresses the mind of our age. Faint, pale yellow-greenish, romantic, half-astringent, half-sweet, and ethereal! It is, in short, modern poetry. How superior to boring, classic coffee!
Adam Zawadzki: Herbata, in: Chaos: Szczypta kadzidła cieniom wierszokletów, Wilno: 1842, p. 37, own translation

Original text:
Herbata wyraża najlepiej myśl naszego wieku. Jest to coś omdlałego, blado-żółto-zielonawego, romantycznego, półcierpkiego, półsłodkiego, eterycznego! jest to jednem słowem poezja nowoczesna. Ileż tu wyższości od nudnej klasycznej kawy!

And if you allow me just one more quotation from obscure 19th-century Polish literature, here is an excerpt from a short story about a young woman who despaired that she would never find a husband unless she was able to serve tea from a samovar to potential suitors:

Oh, samovars, daddy! Samovar and chay! People now drink tea everywhere in the morning and in the evening, and we’re the only ones to choke on linden and mullein tisanes […]
Ignacy Chodźko: Samowar, in: Obrazy litewskie, vol. II, Lwów–Złoczów: 1924, p. 31–32, own translation

Original text:
Ach! samowary papuniu, samowar i czaju, wszak to wszędzie piją herbatę z rana i wieczorem nawet, a my tylko jedni lipowym kwiatem i dziewanną dusić się musimy […]

Her daddy, however, remained convinced that good ol’ “rye tea” was good enough for him:

You’re on about the samovar again? What do you need it for, love? I drink vodka in the morning and you help me sometimes. Oh, and you can brew coffee, when some lord shows up […]
ibid., p. 33, own translation

Original text:
Czy znowu z samowarem? na co tobie duszko on potrzebny? ja piję z rana wódkę i ty czasami mnie pomagasz; no i kawę zgotujesz, kiedy jaki mości pan przywlecze się […]

Samovars fell out of use after Poland regained independence a hundred years ago and are almost completely forgotten now in this country (unlike in Russia, where they are still very much a thing). But the Russian way of brewing tea, although simplified, is still very much alive in Poland. Many Poles still brew a very strong tea (which they call esencja, or tea essence) to later dilute it with hot water. Incidentally, tea was the favourite drink of Marshal Józef Piłsudski, the father of the Polish Republic. The Poles had no choice but to stick to tea.


  • Jillian Elaine Adams: Marketing Tea against a Turning Tide: Coffee and the Tea Council of Australia 1963–1974, in: M/C Journal, 15 (2), 2012
  • Bryan Bruce: Historia Smaku: Jak warzywa i przyprawy budowały fortuny, wywoływały wojny i wpędzały ludzi w szaleństwo, tłum. Ewa Kleszcz, Warszawa: 2011
  • Marika Galli: L’Italie et la France face à quelques apports alimentaires en provenance du Nouveau Monde, in: Pascal Brioist, Florent Quellier: La table de la Renaissance : Le mythe italien, Tours–Rennes: 2018, p. 229–246
  • Philippe Meyzie: L’Alimentation en Europe à l’époque moderne, Paris: 2010
  • Kordian Tarasiewicz: Kawa i herbata na ziemiach polskich: Handel, konsumpcja, obyczaje, Warszawa: Szkoła Główna Handlowa, 2009, p. 158

◀️ Previous 📜 List of posts Next ▶️
⏮️ First 🎲 Random post Latest ⏭️