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The World’s Top Drink

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We came to Brazil to find coffee and learn about the future of one of the world’s top commodities, especially in the midst of a changing climate and rising population. A legacy farmer in Santos, the small port city that exports more than three-quarters of Brazil’s coffee, called it humanity’s favorite drink.

But is it? We did some digging. The world’s most consumed beverage—not counting water, which has no equal—is actually a dark horse, the kind you don’t suspect. It’s not coffee, as Brazilian kids learn at early age, nor Coca Cola, as I grew up hearing in America. It’s surprisingly not even beer.

It’s tea.

Disclaimer: I’m a tea guy, unapologetically. It’s nothing against coffee, other than that I get jittery and still can’t stand the taste without making a face. When data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization suggests that the world drinks about six billion cups of tea a day, four of them are mine.

Tea beats coffee in a lot of ways. It predates coffee by about 3,000 years, and is thought to have first been harvested in 2700 B.C. by the emperor Shen Nung who was known as “the divine healer.” Coffee didn’t come until the tenth century at the earliest, first discovered in what is now Yemen. These days most coffee is produced in Brazil and Central America; it wasn’t brought to the western hemisphere until around 1720, first in the Caribbean and then eventually south into Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil. The bean wouldn’t grow in the more volatile climate of North America (except in Hawaii), so South America dominated.

Tea, meanwhile, came far earlier likely because (one imagines) it’s simpler to stumble on dried leaves brewed with warm water. Accoutrements like milk, honey, and sugar came later. Although tea’s greatest asset is the thing I love most: its overarching simplicity.

So why is tea more popular? It’s hard to nail down people’s tastes, but it’s probably a combination of shipping weight and culture. Americans—who drink the most coffee—can find a Starbucks every few blocks, but tea is the national drink of China and India, each of which have more than a billion people. It’s generally cheaper to buy, and packed with more antioxidants. Whether tea is healthier than coffee is a complicated question. I just report, you decide.

Tea aside, we’ll be learning lots about coffee over the next few weeks and reporting it here. While in Brazil, I’m also taking a tea hiatus, because when in Rome… (Spencer has agreed to catch me when I crash). We’d love to hear your thoughts about coffee, tea, or your favorite beverage. Tell us your stories about how drinks play into your culture, or how Diet Coke once saved your life. Leave word in the comments below.