The Cradle of Caffeine Culture
The pyramids at izapa were not as spectacular as I had expected. They are low, stone- sided mounds of earth rising beside the main highway to Mexico City, a dozen miles outside of Tapachula, Chiapas. Diesel-spewing buses passed, stirring the plastic detritus at the roadside. A few sad roadhouses tried to capitalize on the location, but business was slow. A local family served as caretakers, selling Cokes and postcards from their porch and charging a small fee to wander the ruins. Roosters crowed from the nearby houses, pigs ambled down a dirt road, and as evening fell, the surrounding woods were full of bird- song.
Called the Soconusco region, this low, flat coastal plain along the Pacific Ocean is torrid—sweltering and rainy. The Soconusco is the birthplace of chocolate culture. The shaded lower tier of the woods that envelop the clearing, which is no more than five acres, is full of cacao trees, just as it has been for much of the past three thousand years.
The people who built these pyramids came after the Olmec and before the Maya. They were so unique that their culture is called Iza- pan, after this, the best known of their sites. In addition to ancient ball courts and public plazas—like the one at the center of this site—they left behind this tradition of cacao (pronounced kuh-cow). Farmers have been planting and nurturing cacao trees here ever since. This is the tree that grows the bean that gives us chocolate.
An archaeological dig at the nearby Paso de la Amada turned up traces of chocolate more than thirty-five hundred years old. This is the earliest evidence of the human use of chocolate, which in itself is kind of cool, but it’s more than that. It is also the earliest documented human use of caffeine. So far, no place on the planet can claim longer continuous caffeine use.
It is tempting to think of chocolate as a modern luxury, an indul- gence of self- proclaimed chocoholics. But even the most devoted of today’s chocolate lovers have nothing on the Izapans, Mayans, and Aztecs. They really loved their chocolate. They used it ceremonially, in rituals that sometimes included human sacrifice. They drank it spiked with chili and used special pitchers decorated with fierce faces to pour it from high above the cup, giving the chocolate a frothy head. They even used the little cacao beans as currency. The Aztecs rationed it to their soldiers.
During colonization, when chocolate became popular among the courts of Europe, Soconusco chocolate was a favorite among royal chocolate freaks like Cosimo III, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. In 1590, not long after chocolate made its way to Spain and Italy, a Jesuit au- thor noted that the Spanish, and especially the women, were addicted to it. Later, the coffee- and chocolate-loving libertine the Marquis de Sade did much to bolster chocolate’s long-rumored (but unproven) reputation for aphrodisiac qualities.
Another indication of chocolate’s lofty reputation in Europe was the name bestowed upon it by Carl Linnaeus, the eighteenth-century Swedish botanist who developed the binomial system for identifying species. His name for the tree was Theobroma cacao. The latter came from the Mayan word for the tree; the former, taken from Greek, means “food of the gods.” (Theobromine, an alkaloid very similar to caffeine, later took its name from the tree; it is far more abundant in chocolate than in caffeine, but it has minimal stimulant effects.)
Sure, chocolate tastes great. But “food of the gods”? A beverage to drink in concert with human sacrifice? A commodity so valuable that it stood in lieu of gold for money? It is hard to imagine exactly what caused this chocolate lust . . . unless we think about the caffeine.
These days, we don’t consider chocolate as a primary source of caffeine, but it would have been a big part of the attraction for the Izapans, and even the pre-coffee Spaniards.
We can’t know exactly how much caffeine was contained in the historic cacao drinks, but an analysis of modern chocolate gives some perspective. A Scharffen Berger 82 percent cacao extra-dark chocolate bar has forty-two milligrams of caffeine per forty-three-gram serving (the same size as a standard Hershey bar). That equals roughly a mil- ligram of caffeine per gram of chocolate. If the Izapans made drinks with seventy-five grams of cacao, they would have delivered about a SCAD, the kick of a Red Bull or a single shot of espresso. For anyone not habituated to daily caffeine use, that is a good, solid bump.
One of the reasons we no longer think of chocolate as a primary source of caffeine is that it has been so dramatically adulterated and diluted. A Hershey’s milk chocolate bar— forty-three grams—has but nine milligrams of caffeine. Hershey, like most mass-market chocolate makers, skates close to the edge of FDA regulations, which require that milk chocolate include a minimum of 10 percent chocolate liquor. (On nomenclature: Cacao, or chocolate liquor, is the pure product of the bean; cocoa is the dried, processed cacao, with the fatty cocoa but- ter removed; chocolate is the product we commonly consume, which can range from strong dark chocolate to dilute milk chocolate.)
To understand why chugging down a cold, frothy, unsweetened cacao drink might have appealed to an Izapan ruler (chocolate was then scarce enough that the plebes could not imbibe), it is helpful to understand what happens when we drink caffeinated beverages, whether they’re made from cacao or coffee or tea:
Set your stopwatch. Once the liquid hits your stomach, you have about twenty minutes until that gentle buzz hits your brain. Caffeine is unusually mobile in the body. A small molecule, it easily hurdles the blood-brain barrier. In the synaptic stew of our crania, the molecule blocks the uptake of a neurotransmitter called adenosine (pronounced uh-den- uh-seen). Adenosine tells the brain we are drowsy, but caffeine does not let the brain get the message. It is this simple trick, elbowing adenosine off the barstool and sitting in its place, that makes caffeine America’s favorite drug.
And it is not just hitting your brain. Caffeine has a number of sig- nificant, but sometimes contradictory, effects on your physiology. It stimulates your central nervous system. Your alertness increases, your reaction time decreases, and your focus sharpens. Your blood pressure will increase slightly. Your heart may race (but may, in habitual users, actually slow). And in your brain, despite your increased acuity, blood flow will decrease. (It is the inverse of this, the increased blood flow to expanding capillaries, that gives so many caffeine junkies the pound- ing withdrawal headaches we so dread.)
Once the caffeine locks in on those adenosine receptors, things look rosy; no is task insurmountable. Breaths come easily and deep. You feel so good, how about one more shot of that magical elixir?
Or not. That “sweet spot,” the zone where physical and mental perfor- mance is optimal, is not wide, and it is easy to blast right on past. Caffeine researcher Scott Killgore told me that caffeine does more than just block adenosine. It has a variety of effects on the mind and body. “At higher doses it can lead to alterations in your heart rhythm. So you can start to have increased heart rate, or tachycardia. . . . So you start to notice that your heart feels like it’s pounding very hard or very quickly or maybe skips a beat. And that’s a clear indication that you are probably taking too much caffeine in your diet and you need to slow down,” he said.
Another clue to excessive caffeine use is a bad mood. “It can make you irritable,” said Killgore, “make you more likely to respond in an irritable way to people.” Confusing matters, irritability can also be a symptom of caffeine withdrawal.
But these days it is hard to take too much caffeine from chocolate. Because it’s become so diluted and other caffeine delivery mechanisms so much more popular, a recent analysis showed that chocolate ac- counts for just 2.3 milligrams of Americans’ daily caffeine consump- tion (about 1 percent of our total caffeine intake).
In the Izapan era, cacao was the only caffeine in town. The hot, wet region was perfect for its cultivation. The demand for cacao was so great that historians surmise it was the reason for Izapa’s wealth. Today’s Izapan cacao groves are not farms in the traditional Western sense. They are managed agroforestry ecosystems bearing multiple crops—from the tall avocado and mamey trees in the canopy down to the cacao growing in the shade near the forest floor. It is an ancient form of agriculture, and one that is now under siege.
Early one bright, fresh morning in Tapachula, I met Rubiel Velas- quez Toledo at Red Maya CASFA, an organic growers’ cooperative. We were heading out for a tour of cacao country.
I had eaten a light breakfast at the hotel—fresh rolls, a fruit salad made with local mango, papaya, pineapple, and banana, and a couple of cups of café con leche. But out on the highway, Velasquez suggested a bit more sustenance and a taste of local cacao culture.
He pulled his battered Ford pickup over at a roadside stand with a clean cement floor, metal roof, and open sides. Two women stood at the ready, selling the cacao-based drink pozol.
Pozol is an ancient blend, a mixture of cacao and fermented, coarsely ground corn. To prep the drinks, the women rolled the corn and cacao into balls a bit smaller than a baseball. They placed these into a cup with water, used a broad wooden spoon to vigorously blend it, added a dipper of viscous cane sugar, then added ice.
About the color of a chocolate milk shake, pozol has a thick, rich texture, the cacao velvety on the tongue. Velasquez said the hearty drinks are popular with laborers, because the sustenance from the corn and cacao combined with the kick from the caffeine ensures that you don’t have to eat again until evening. All of this for eight pesos— about sixty cents.
This is not the only cacao-and-corn drink in the region. Janine Gasco, a California anthropologist and an expert on Soconusco cacao culture, gave me some background before my travels and told me I should also look for tascalate. After some searching, I found it on the menu of a café just off Tapachula’s zocalo, or main square. It is a deli- cious blend of cacao and toasted corn, colored red with the local dye achiote, and served cold. Tascalate feels granular on the tongue, with a bit of a corn tortilla flavor. This might evoke an image of a tortilla chip dipped in milk chocolate, but it tastes nothing like that—both the cacao and the corn are subtle, combining for a rich flavor.
With the exception of the sugar, an innovation that came with the European conquest, these drinks are similar to the frothy chocolate so beloved by the Izapans, the Mayans, and the Aztecs.
From the pozol stand, Velasquez took me rattling down a dirt road between farms near the town of Plan de Ayala. The villages featured thatched-roof huts, chickens, mules, and scrawny dogs sniffing out a living at the dusty roadside.
Velasquez pulled his truck over to point out a traditional cacao grove. It is the sort of tropical forest we can all easily imagine— verdant, full of exotic birdcalls, with all manner of strange reptiles likely hidden in the dank shadows of the understory. Cedar, oak, avo- cado, and mango trees grew high above, shading the cacao growing below.
Cacao is a small tree. But it is easy to pick out, even for this amateur naturalist, because its fruits are distinctive—the green, football-shaped pods grow straight out from the trunk. They look like trees
Dr. Seuss might have sketched.
Velasquez said this is the traditional, age-old style of cacao farm- ing, in diversified woods with crops at multiple levels. Each layer of the forest produces a cash or food crop—fruit, firewood, or chocolate. But then he pointed to the other side of the road, where a massive field was completely denuded of trees. A new crop of sugarcane was just coming up through the raw dirt. Up until last year, Velasquez said, this was a cacao plantation. Back in the truck, we saw the same story at farm after farm; mile after mile of formerly forested cacao groves had been cleared for not just oil palm and sugarcane but also grains like soy and fruits like papaya. These are massive monocultures, typi- cally owned by foreign agro-biz giants. Once cleared, the land is so raw that even here, with a hundred inches of rain annually, it must be irrigated.
It was siesta time when Velasquez and I reached the last stop on our tour of Chiapas cacao country: Chocolates Finos San José, a small- ish operation on a tidy lot.
Velasquez pulled the truck in, but we saw nobody about. He went to the house while I waited in the shade of a thatched-roof pavilion, where a slight breeze made the heat bearable. Roosters crowed in the distance, turkeys clucked, a listless dog lay in the dust, and a shirtless man in khakis and a rope belt snoozed in a hammock ten feet away, his jellies kicked off. I heard the faint strains of a Mexican ballad playing from a nearby house, the chorus a mournful cry answered by a blast of horns.
Velasquez soon returned from the house with Bernardina Cruz, the diminutive dueña. She looked tired. It turned out she had made a batch of chocolate the night before, a process she can’t start until nearly midnight, when the heat subsides (the chocolate melts at about ninety degrees). In fact, this is one of the secrets to chocolate’s enduring appeal—it is solid at room temperature but melts quickly over the tongue.
Cruz opened the door to her chocolate factory. It was not until we walked in and I smelled the rich chocolate and began to salivate that I realized I had not eaten anything, nor been a bit hungry, since we had the pozol more than seven hours earlier.
The factory is small: a barrel roaster in one room, a milling ma- chine and a refiner in another. Cruz hand-pours the finished chocolate into molds. It is chocolate production on a human scale. She makes about twenty cases of twenty-four chocolate bars daily, processing four tons a year. Some of the chocolate bars are exported to Italy, some go to Germany, and some stay in Mexico and are sold in Guada- lajara. At a table next to her small glass-front cooler—like a two-door soda refrigerator at a corner store—she gave me samples of her nibs and chocolate.
Nibs are pieces of roasted chocolate a bit bigger than coarsely ground coffee. Fairly stable in this form, nibs are often shipped as raw ingredients. And they are delicious. Since the cocoa butter has not yet been squeezed out, the crunchy little cacao shards have a hearty, nutty flavor. (Cocoa butter is the most valuable part of the cacao bean; once it is squeezed from the bean, it is often shunted off for use in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.)
I could eat the freshly roasted organic cacao nibs all day. It is hard to imagine how chocolate evolved to such an extent that most of us are unfamiliar with these nutty, caffeine-rich nibs, knowing only the pale shadow that is modern milk chocolate.
For years, some claimed the Soconusco region was more than the birthplace of chocolate culture, that it was also the ancestral home of the cacao plant. But USDA researchers showed genetic evidence that cacao was first domesticated in the Upper Amazon. Their published research went even further, refining cacao into ten genetic groups, all present in the small region that is the epicenter of cacao. In their view, cacao was domesticated in what is now northern Peru and southern
Colombia, likely for its sweet fruit, which was used to make beer (the bean itself was not then the object of desire), and then carried north thousands of years ago to the Soconusco. It does seem clear that the Soconusco is where cacao was first used to make chocolate.
Mars Inc. funded this genetic research. The science is critical to the global chocolate industry. West Africa now produces the vast majority of the world’s cacao harvest, which has grown quickly—it totaled 4.73 million tons in 2011. The world’s cacao harvest has more than tripled since 1960, with Africa accounting for most of the growth. African nations produce six times as much cacao as all the countries in the Americas combined; the Ivory Coast alone produces three times as much. (The African cacao industry owes some of its productivity to child labor, and advocates have prodded Hershey and Nestlé to more effectively fight the practice.)
Two devastating cacao fungi—frosty pod rot and the witches’ broom that recently wiped out Brazil’s cacao industry—have not yet reached Africa. But diseases endemic to other African plants have found cacao to be a good host and could someday wreak havoc on New World crops. Meanwhile, frosty pod rot has reached Chiapas, further threatening the historic cacao groves near Izapa.
The evening after touring cacao country with Velasquez, I was cooling my heels at the International Fair of Tapachula. Sipping a coffee granita, a pound of local chocolate in my backpack, I finally had time to read the paper. The lead story was the Chiapas governor’s effort to prop up an eco-friendly business. Cacao, you might think? No, palm oil, produced from plantations of nonnative African oil palms to be exported for biodiesel. Ironically, the Chiapas oil palm displacing the cacao groves is being grown with government support to meet the demand of green-leaning consumers in more prosperous countries.
The environmental benefits of preserving cacao groves are now attracting the interest of conservationists like Edward Millard, who oversees sustainable landscapes for the Rainforest Alliance. Millard works from London, but when I finally pinned him down to talk on the phone, he was at a meeting in Costa Rica. He said the alliance is interested in cacao because it is grown on more than seventeen mil- lion acres of land that is important for biodiversity. He said over the past twenty years there has been a move to intensify cacao production at the expense of the environment in places like the Ivory Coast, but he believes there is a trend swinging back toward traditional methods, which he welcomes.
“If you can produce a major cash crop like cacao in an understory with a mix of other crops in the same farming system, and all of them together giving you a system to keep your climate healthy, your soils regulated, giving you compost material, et cetera, that’s a pretty via- ble system,” said Millard. To support this practice, the Rainforest Al- liance is now certifying chocolate that is sustainably harvested.
Before I left Chiapas, I went back to the Tapachula co-op to see Jorge Aguilar Reyna, its executive director. His office was back in a rabbit warren of rooms opening onto a courtyard. Wooden planks made a walkway over the mud, and a thatched-roof structure with open sides that served as a meeting room housed a long table. Above the table were a large map of the cacao-producing areas, results of cacao taste tests pinned to a sheet of plywood, and a painting of the Virgin Mary.
Aguilar told me he wants to see Americans buying not just Soco- nusco chocolate, but any chocolate that has a high percentage of cacao. Much of the finished chocolate from the Soconusco region has 30 to 70 percent cacao, far more than popular American milk chocolate bars. And to replace the displaced cocoa butter, the biggest chocolate com- panies use a castor oil–based emulsifier known as PGPR. Aguilar said it is all part of a “culture of adulteration” that is bad for consumers . . . and bad for cacao farmers.
Aguilar’s concerns hit close to home. Even along this Pacific Coast of Mesoamerica, the cradle of chocolate culture, the top-shelf candy bars in the stores are made by Hershey.
Leaving Aguilar’s office, I noticed two plastic bags on the corner of his desk: One held green coffee beans; the other was full of dried, un- roasted cacao. Unable to resist, I asked if the cacao could be eaten just like that. Sure, he said. He popped one of the cacao beans into his mouth and passed the bag to me. I grabbed one, chewed it, and found its flavor both slightly nutty and bitter, and delicious.
It is not only the oldest known caffeine tradition, but Soconusco chocolate also exemplifies trends that extend across caffeinated prod- ucts, from tea to coffee to caffeine powder. Two tracks are diverging. On one, the gourmet, artisanal, single-source products are getting more attention from foodies and conservation-minded consumers. On the other, mass-market caffeine delivery mechanisms are going gang- busters. The latter track, no surprise, is where the volume is, even if the former is seeing rapid growth.
As artisanal, single-origin chocolate becomes more popular, the Soconusco is attracting more attention from American chocolatiers. Askinosie Chocolate, in Missouri, has produced limited runs of choc- olate bars from pure Soconusco cacao, as has Taza Chocolate, in Mas- sachusetts. Cacao-rich dark chocolate bars not only have significantly more caffeine than commercial milk chocolate; they are also bursting with the health-lending antioxidants known as flavonols.
Raw food advocates are even getting into cacao beans, which are developing a reputation as a superfood. Or have developed that repu- tation, I should say. The tenacious German explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who traveled the Americas extensively in the early 1800s (and wrote many volumes about his discoveries), summed it up well: “The cocoa bean is a phenomenon, for nowhere else has nature con- centrated such a wealth of valuable nourishment in so small a space.” As Americans have gravitated toward darker gourmet chocolate bars, Hershey has gotten a piece of the action. It bought two West Coast chocolate makers—Scharffen Berger and Dagoba—shut down their plants, and centralized production in the Midwest (the bars still look homegrown, funky, and noncorporate, and the labels do not men- tion Hershey). Unlike the familiar Hershey’s bars, these do deliver a caffeine kick.
Though its caffeine has often gotten short shrift, chocolate has long had appeal as a metabolically altering substance. In her book about Hershey and Mars, Joël Glenn Brenner writes, “We still speak of chocolate as if speaking of a drug. It is addicting, sinful, wickedly rich. We crave it, overdose on it and suffer from chocolate withdrawal. A ‘fix’ of chocolate can relieve depression and calm anxiety. It provides strength and stamina—the perfect pick-me-up between meals.”
Brenner could be describing my roadside pozol. And long before the word chocoholics came into vogue, chocolate lovers described the habit, and its stimulating qualities, in terms that sound more familiar to coffee drinkers today.
Thomas Gage, the intrepid runaway missionary who traveled through Mexico and Guatemala in the 1600s, wrote detailed accounts of chocolate preparation in his book Travels in the New World. It is also interesting to read his account of his own chocolate use: “For myself I must say I used it twelve years constantly, drinking one cup in the morning, another yet before dinner between nine or ten of the clock, another within an hour or after dinner, and another between four and five in the afternoon, and when I was purposed to sit up late to study, I would take another cup about seven or eight at night, which would keep me waking till about midnight.”
Gage wrote this more than a century before the word caffeine came into use, but clearly he already knew of its stimulating powers. And the Chinese, thousands of miles across the Pacific, were way ahead of him.
All the Tea in China
Petite and reserved, but with an easy smile, Lin Linming invited me to sit down on a wooden chair before a table bearing a tea set neatly cluttered with tea tools.
She used a wooden scoop to fetch some tea from a wicker bin. It was a puer tea, which is an aged tea harvested in 2006 in China’s Yun- nan province. The tray before her, carved of dark wood, is called “the sea of tea.” At the far end is a carved “tea pet,” a figurine that looks like a toad with a smiling Buddha face. Lin’s tea pet is called the Nice Son of the Dragon God.
She heated water in an electric kettle on a low shelf behind her. She poured some into a teapot, of course, but also, ritualistically, into a small bowl full of tea leaves, over the tea pet and the sea of tea, and onto some peanuts as an offering. Then Lin poured tea for me and my companions: my translator, Aida Leng, and Xie Yanchen, a tea expert and editor at Beijing Youth Daily.
The whole process was imbued with ritual, much of it ancient, as tea drinking has evolved in Asia over thousands of years. If the Soconusco can claim the earliest documented use of caffeine, the Chinese can claim the earliest use by folkloric tradition: five thousand years ago.
By this account, the emperor Shennong was boiling water to drink when some tea leaves blew into the pot. He drank the brew, noticed its stimulating effects, and thus gave birth to tea culture. It is notable that the tale does not credit tea’s flavor or calming properties for opening the emperor’s eyes to the plant’s possibilities, but its caffeine kick. (Shennong was a productive herbalist with a keen eye for medicine; he is also credited with discovering ephedra, ginseng, and marijuana.)
To get a sense of just how huge tea culture has become in the inter- vening centuries, it is helpful to understand the southwest Beijing neighborhood in which Lin’s store sits.
The store is on Maliandao Street, a.k.a. Tea Street. This is the world’s largest tea market, with more than three thousand tea shops in just a few blocks in Beijing. As you pass by each stall, the shopkeep- ers beckon you in to taste the wares. If you do step in, it is not for a quick chug. When you enter a tea shop, you are in for a genuine tea experience—no tea bags in tepid water here.
As we sipped our tea, rich with a slightly smoky flavor, Xie ex- plained that tea is more than just China’s favorite caffeinated beverage; it is also a key part of daily social life. There are basically three ways to enjoy tea in China. If a friend visits your house, it is a hospitable tradition to offer her some tea. And you might go out with friends for tea, as Americans often do for coffee. Most elaborately, there are the exclusive teahouses with highly ritualized programs featuring tradi- tional Chinese music and art, performance, and Zen philosophy.
Lin poured more water from the teakettle onto the leaves, then she poured more tea all around. To thank her, we subtly tapped our first two fingers twice on the tabletop. (This is known as the “finger kow- tow”; the bent digits represent kneeling in gratitude.)
Xie told us that puer is good for the stomach and especially good for women because “puer is warm, and women are cold.” During Chi- nese New Year, when people eat too much, or when eating hot pot (a spicy, greasy style of cooking), they drink puer tea to get rid of toxins. She said it is also good for aging people, because it helps to lower their blood pressure. Traditional Chinese people pay close attention to health, she said, correlating types of teas with different times of the year: In spring, herbal tea helps to get rid of viruses and other sick- ness and protects the body; green tea is considered cold, helping you cool down in summer; and in autumn and winter, rat or black tea helps to warm you up.
But I was wondering about the caffeine in tea. Its effects have been well-known for decades. In a 1931 essay, Albert G. Nicholls had this to say: “Perhaps we can find the solution for the popularity of tea- drinking in the effect of caffeine on the central nervous system, partic- ularly that part associated with the psychic functions. Cushny, an authority on pharmacology, says—‘The ideas become clearer, thought flows more easily and rapidly, and fatigue and drowsiness disap- pear. . . .’ The capacity for physical exertion is augmented, as has been demonstrated repeatedly in the case of soldiers on the march.”
So I asked Xie and Lin, what about the caffeine? Although Xie re- plied, “We don’t just use it to wake up,” Lin countered that she had recently met some young professionals from Beijing who asked which tea is best as a stimulant.
One American in particular has been asking a version of the caffeine question. Bruce Goldberger could be a character in the HBO series The Wire. The forensic toxicologist used to work in Baltimore and was often called on to identify the lethal drug in the blood of overdose victims. When I called him at his office in Gainesville, Florida, he explained his work like this: “Most of my work is in the area of death investigation, medical or legal death investigation—why do people die from drugs?—and assisting medical examiners in the declaration and certification of cause and manner of death.”
But Goldberger has also turned his analytical mind to a question with broader appeal: How much caffeine are we getting in our bever- ages? The project started when he was talking to a friend. “She was working at a coffee shop in Baltimore, and she would serve these dou- ble- and triple- shot lattes to customers, and people would come in and get coffee three or four times a day,” Goldberger said. “And that spurred my interest in wondering how much caffeine are they actually getting?”
Goldberger first studied the caffeine contents of coffee, then went on to do a series of studies on other caffeinated products, demystifying the caffeine kick.
In his 2008 study on tea, Goldberger found that the caffeine con- tent increased with the length of steeping time. So a bag of Lipton tea steeped for one minute had a mere seventeen milligrams of caffeine; after three minutes, thirty-eight milligrams; after five, forty-seven milligrams. Most teas steeped for three minutes had between twenty- five and fifty milligrams of caffeine, about half a SCAD. Surprisingly, Goldberger’s finding bucked the popular notion that green teas are always less caffeinated than black teas. Tazo China Green Tips tea had more caffeine than Twinings Earl Grey or English Breakfast teas.
Goldberger and his colleagues noted that Lipton was alone, among the teas they analyzed, in listing milligrams of caffeine per serving. “Lipton reports concentrations of 55 mg/serving for its regular tea and 5 mg/serving for its decaffeinated tea, which are, in fact, consis- tent with the findings of this study,” they wrote. “Declaring the caf- feine content on product labels is important for consumers wishing to limit caffeine intake.”
It may be partly due to the lack of quantified caffeine labels, but as his caffeine studies stacked up, Goldberger realized that most of us don’t know much about caffeine.
“Based on the questions I’ve gotten over the last decade, I think people are pretty naive,” he told me. “They know that beverages con- tain caffeine. But they can’t quantify it. The best measuring stick for them would be NoDoz, which contains two hundred milligrams of caffeine. And a lot of people would say, ‘I would never eat a NoDoz. That’s crazy.’ But that wouldn’t stop them from drinking two or three Starbucks coffees a day—that could result in more than a gram of caffeine ingestion. So no, they don’t really understand, or can’t quantify, the amount of caffeine they take.”
This inability to quantify caffeine intake may be the source of what I believe is a misperception. I’ve heard from some tea drinkers who prefer its mellower effects to the coffee kick, which they call “an angry buzz.” This is often attributed to the calming properties of theanine, another chemical constituent of tea.
Theanine does have some effect on mental function. Several recent studies have found that the combination of caffeine and theanine im- proves mood and alertness more than caffeine alone. At high doses, theanine alone (without caffeine) can even improve alertness among anxious individuals. Clearly, then, theanine is not inert. But in nature, you will only find it alongside caffeine.
Attempting to capitalize on its reputation as a calming substance, which is still unsettled in the scientific literature, a team of Japanese researchers has actually claimed a patent for a method to counter the caffeine buzz with theanine. Their solution is to extract theanine from tea and blend it into coffee to allow caffeine-sensitive people to enjoy the aroma and flavor without getting too jacked up. (Decaffeinated coffee would be a simpler and far more effective solution.)
My suspicion is that the primary distinction between the angry buzz of coffee and the mellower buzz of tea has most to do with the average differences in caffeine content. A six-ounce cup of coffee will often have a SCAD or more, easily twice the amount of a six- ounce cup of tea. It is a consistently stronger buzz, and if that’s not what you are after, it’s easy to see how that might seem like an angry buzz.
Whatever the quality of the buzz, tea is still a small percentage of Americans’ collective caffeine dose. On average, Americans take a mere twenty-four milligrams of caffeine from tea daily, a tenth of our total caffeine consumption. We get nearly twice as much caffeine from soft drinks and six times as much from coffee.
Whenever we discuss our tea habits, the conversation invariably turns to British tea drinking. By legend, Americans’ affinity for coffee and aversion to tea were rooted in patriotism, vestiges of the country- catalyzing Boston Tea Party. It is a convenient myth, but only partly true. Coffee also appealed to Americans in this country’s early years because it was closer at hand—much of it produced by slave labor in Haiti—and easier to procure without running afoul of British traders.
Anyone will tell you that the British have remained allied with tea, not coffee. But that, too, is only partly true. While the British drink more tea, by volume, than coffee, they now get more of their caffeine from coffee than from tea. Surprisingly, colas and energy drinks now contribute nearly as much caffeine to the British diet as tea: thirty- four milligrams daily versus thirty-six milligrams daily.
From Lin’s shop, we went across the street to Ya Xiang Tea, where Yang Shuhan invited us to sit for a tasting. She poured us Iron Buddha, an oolong tea with a distinctive, floral aroma.
All true tea (distinct from herbal tea) comes from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. This one tea plant can produce green or black tea, depending on how it is processed. Green tea is made from the unfer- mented tea leaves, black tea from the fermented tea leaves, and oolong tea from partially fermented leaves.
Next, we tasted a black tea, Jing Jun Mei. A fully fermented tea, it smells rich and funky, like sweet potatoes. Then we tried a roasted oolong from 2005 called Da Hong Pao, or Big Red Robe. These teas are roasted again every year to refresh the leaves. After she poured the tea into a clear glass beaker, Yang held it up to the light and showed us tiny feathery particles just barely visible in the water, a mark of quality.
She and Xie began conversing rapidly in Chinese about different varieties of tea and the origin stories that accompany their colorful names. All of the fine teas we tasted were dried into what looked like loose little pellets, not the leaves or leaf fragments usually sold as loose teas in the United States. But add water and an entire tea leaf unfurls. Xie shared something she had written in one of her books on tea: Our lives are like tea leaves; they expand and transform over time.
We talked briefly about bottled, ready-to-drink teas. Xie said she would not buy them. Yang agreed. She said, “They are made from leftovers and have artificial additives.” These additives often include sweeteners, potassium sorbate, and other preservatives that make some bottled teas seem more like flat soft drinks than iced tea.
They said that large Western tea companies also use leftover tea leaves and powder. It is true that most American tea companies use tea that would be considered substandard in China or India, because it includes shredded pieces of tea leaves instead of the entire leaf. Since the teas will most often be brewed in bags, smaller pieces are fine for many Western tea traders. This does not necessarily mean the tea has inferior flavor.
“Tea bags are very casual, convenient, but real tea lovers do not think they are very good,” Xie said. “This is a fast-food lifestyle, but Chinese people like whole foods.”
I later talked to Eugene Amici, an American tea importer, and he outlined the contrasting tea cultures in a nutshell. “Here, you put a dollar into a machine, you pop the top and drink it, and you roll,” he said. “For them, it’s an afternoon.”
Amici said the vast majority of the tea consumed in this country is not taken as we commonly think of it, as a tea bag in a teacup, steeping in hot water. About 85 percent is used for iced tea. This might be bot- tled or the pitchers of “sweet tea” that lubricate southern restaurant dining (these are often brewed from tea bags, but the bags are the size of laptop computers and make four gallons of tea).
According to the Tea Association of the USA, tea consumption is growing steadily. In 2011, the United States imported more tea than the United Kingdom. Much of that growth is in ready-to-drink bot- tled teas (or RTD, in the industry jargon).
Ready-to-drink tea sales increased seventeen-fold between 2001 and 2011; sales exceeded $3.5 billion in 2011.
The bottled tea business began growing just as sales of carbonated soft drinks started to slowly decline from their 1998 peak. Much of this growth likely comes from people switching over from soft drinks, due to the perception that bottled teas are healthier. But some of the bottled teas actually pack in more sugar than Coke, which seems like it would quickly offset any benefit from the diluted tea in the blend. Anyway, bottled teas have quickly become an extension of the global soft drink industry.
As soft drinks peaked in 1998, Seth Goldman founded Honest Tea to market organic bottled teas (he calls himself the TeaEO). The com- pany has grown like wildfire—so much that Coca-Cola took notice and bought the company in 2011.
In 2008, Starbucks partnered with Pepsi and Unilever to bottle, mar- ket, and distribute a line of bottled teas under the Tazo brand (which Starbucks bought in 1999). Pepsi and Unilever were already involved in a joint venture to produce bottled teas under the Pepsi Lipton Tea Part- nership, which is atop the heap in the bottled tea sector.
While these mass-market tea products are going gangbusters, the specialty, or gourmet, tea sector is also thriving. As just one indicator of its promise, Sara Lee in 2012 acquired Tea Forté, a high-end Mas- sachusetts company. In a press release, Sara Lee called the products “ultrapremium” and “luxury” teas. It may seem incongruous to serve gourmet tea in bags, but they are not bags, according to Tea Forté— they are “pyramid infusers.” The company markets tea as “the health- iest beverage on earth.”
It is these changes—the bottled teas, the jugs of sweet tea, and the gourmet teas—that infuse the American tea market with its current vigor. The new products have allowed tea to cling to its small but significant share of America’s caffeine dose. It is still tea, and it is still caffeinated, although it seems a long way from Maliandao Street. But really it’s not.
Leaving Maliandao in the twilit, gridlocked rush hour, we passed a tiny corner store, open to the street. It was selling bottled Lipton tea, bottled Coke, canned coffee, and Red Bull. In the back of the cluttered stall was a TV showing a recent Red Bull parachute stunt. Was it an ad that just happened to be on as we passed or a looping video? I did not linger long enough to find out.