I love a coffee in the morning, but throughout the day I'm a tea man. Tea is more subtle - its flavours are slowly coaxed from the leaf by infusion while the essence of coffee is blasted from the bean by force. And tea is lighter and more refreshing. Listen to the hypnotic jingle of the stirring spoon: in tea it is high pitched, sprightly and musical; in coffee, monotone and serious. Tea is pleasure, coffee is business.
Of a heavy, tired morning, I simply need coffee. I like mine with lots of milk and just shy of being hot. I take large mouthfuls and swirl the liquid around my mouth, inviting the lactose and caffeine to contest their differences over my tongue. Lactose is a strong starter but the drug always prevails. The result is delightfully bitter-sweet. Best of all, the dutiful caffeine sets to work immediately. It conquers lethargy and defeats gloom, allowing colour to seep back into the office greys.
But if coffee is necessary to launch the day, tea is required to sustain it. A cup at three is the mainstay of my afternoon. On the odd occasion when I have to miss it, my whole day collapses. After lunch the lazy clock runs slow , and tea at three gets it moving again. On particularly long days a second cup is needed after 5 to repel the plodding soldiers of tedium.
At home tea is king because it can be made to perfection. Tea tends to get set in its ways and hates change. A new tea pot or an extra minute can destroy it. The pot must be scalded and I heat the cups as well to make sure. I give the flavours enough time to timidly emerge from the leaves and I pour each cup half way first and then top up in reverse order. This guarantees consistency.
It is easy to understand why the Japanese developed a ceremony based on tea. You see, making tea is a ritual. While coffee is individual, tea is social. It brings people together and kicks off the conversation "do you like yours strong or weak?". "Milk or sugar?". Before the first sip strangers are on talking terms.
In some ways tea feels older because, especially in Ireland, it came way before coffee. In that sense tea is nostalgic. When I think of perfect tea, served repeatedly throughout the day, I think of home. It brings me back to an earlier time. While the latte is unashamedly modern and chic, tea remembers tradition.
In coffee I have found a necessary acquaintance, someone to meet for a time to bridge the gaps. I have no loyalty to it. If I gave up work tomorrow, coffee might well be jilted too. But tea is a soul mate. It deserves - and gets - my respect. The passion is heartfelt. Coffee may well be a phase, but tea is for life.