The competition for the most popular beverage in America now seems to come down to a choice between iced tea and hot coffee. Both drinks are based on plants that must be imported into America. 

Tea leaves are mostly imported from China, India and Japan. Coffee beans are grown in South, Central America, Africa and Indonesia. Both of these drinks came to America from Europe in the 1600s. 

Native Americans had been making teas from various plants well before European colonization mostly for medicinal uses.

Both coffee and tea were served in the coffeehouses in England beginning around 1650. Coffee was already well established but tea had to be introduced. Strangely enough, tea was introduced to America by the Dutch in New Amsterdam. 

The Dutch were the major importers of tea from China at that time. So Americans were already tea drinkers when the British arrived.

Tea had a long history in China and India when it was introduced in the West. Coffee originated in Ethiopia. The story goes that shepherds noticed the high activity of birds that consumed the berries of a particular bush. Eating the berries directly was very bitter. 

But roasting the berries and then steeping the roasted berries in hot water produced a brown brew with the desired stimulating effects. Coffee was initially consumed in the Arabic world and became associated with Mohammad’s birthday.

From Ethiopia and Yemen coffee first spread to Italy. The Turkish Muslim slaves made the brew and the Crusader took note of its effects. Coffee drinking reached into Maltese high society. 

In the 1500s, merchants in Venice introduced coffee drinking to the wealthy of Venice and charged a high price for it. By 1583 a coffee house was established on St. Michael’s Alley in London. By 1675, there were more than 3,000 coffeehouses in England. 

They were the very popular meeting places for all English classes to discuss the political and philosophical thoughts of the day. These discussion ranged widely even to the subservice.

So in England the coffeehouses preceded the tea rooms. Tea drinking did not become directly associated with rebellion until the Boston Tea Party in 1773. 

Tea had a very long history before it was discovered by Westerners. Study of tea’s origins place the site in the Yunnan province of China. The home of the oldest cultivated tea tree there is 3,200 years old.

Tea was first introduced to Portuguese traders and priests in Lebanon in the 1500s. Tea drinking became popular in England in the 1700s.British tea consumption led to widespread tea production with cultivation started in India to compete with the Chinese monopoly. 

Tea was first introduced for medical uses but its properties as a stimulant soon followed.

Tea was the popular drink of choice in the American colonies until the British tried to place a tax on imported tea leaves. This not only caused the reaction of the Boston Tea Party but tea drinking became unpatriotic to revolutionary colonists in the 1700s.

That has passed so that now both tea and coffee are enjoyed for the taste and the stimulating effects.

Herndon Williams is affiliated with the Bayside Historical Society and the Refugio County Historical Commission. He is the author of the book, “Texas Gulf Coast Stories,” published in December 2010 by The History Press. His second book, “Eight Centuries on the Texas Frontier,” was published in May 2013. Email at