Tuesday night I went to a class at the TeaSource, our local tea shop. Gong fu is a Chinese way of preparing, drinking, enjoying, and experiencing tea. While discussing the aroma of one of the teas we were trying, I commented that I’d pretty much shot my nose when I was a coffee roaster. Spend several years inhaling hot smoke through your nose and you’ll do the same.

This led to the surprised question of how I got from coffee to tea. “It’s the natural evolution upwards,” the shop owner joked. This isn’t the first time I’ve had that question, though, and it exposes an attitude that usually surprises me. It also begs an explanation. So here goes.

When I drink tea, I drink it with the same mindfulness that is emphasized in gong fu. Carefully, attentively, I prepare the water, the tea, the infusion. Tea is an opportunity to pause and reflect. I focus on the tea, on friends around the table, on this moment in time. In some ways, when I’m in a mystical frame of mind, it’s an act of devotion, a prayer. This is one of the things that first drew me to tea: its subtle flavors and need for careful attention in preparation are an occasion to practice the mindfulness I seek in my daily life. When I’m being social (yes, this happens from time to time) tea’s relative ease of preparation facilitates rather than impedes conversation. When I’m facing a particularly stressful time, I look forward to its soothing warmth.

I feel the same way about coffee. I don’t drink coffee just for a caffeine fix — I have other ways of getting that. I like coffee for many of the same reasons I enjoy tea: it offers a withdrawal into a moment in time, an opportunity to savor its subtle flavors. Make no mistake: coffee may by and large taste a lot stronger than tea, but its flavors can be just as refined and elusive as tea’s. Especially once you move into the world of espresso, where coffee truly becomes a cuisine.

That’s something that surprises people who align themselves with one camp or another. Coffee people usually can’t handle the mild flavors of many teas, especially greens or whites. Tea people often can’t stand coffee’s strong flavor, so don’t take the time to delve into its subtleties. The thing is, though, that coffee and tea share a whole lot more than people usually think, and it’s what they share that I love about them both.