Coffee, Tea, or Red Espresso?

Red espresso is a tea designed to be ground and brewed in coffeemakers. As coffee, it underwhelms. But as a tearegular or icedit's a hit

When I tried red espresso, a relatively new product from South Africa, I was put in mind of a bit that comedian Lewis Black does on candy corn: "It's corn that tastes like candy…candy that looks like corn."

Red espresso, which is sold at Whole Foods (WFMI) and similar stores, is Rooibos tea, which is made from a member of the legume family and grown only in South Africa. It is noncaffeinated, full of antioxidants, and ground to brew in coffeemakers, especially espresso pots and makers. What it isn't…is espresso.

The advertising line that accompanies red espresso is, "the café revolution: who would have thought a tea could play by coffee's rules." And yet, I pay homage to Lewis Black: It's tea that looks like espresso; espresso that's made from tea.

Taste Test

It doesn't taste like espresso. I brewed it, as instructed, in a stove-top espresso pot. It was dark, rich, and strong, and had a crema on top. I poured it into an espresso cup, took a deep breath, and…. Well, nah.

Okay, let's be fair. This is good tea—quite good, in fact. What it isn't, as I said, is espresso. It is to espresso what, say, Postum is, or was, to coffee. Postum, conjured up in the late 19th century by Post as a noncaffeine replacement for coffee and adopted during wartime food shortages, was recently discontinued by Kraft (KFT).

Now, I'd like to step back a second. One's taste in food and drink is highly subjective. I like cabernet sauvignon. But merlot? Also, I prefer microbrews to Budweiser or Miller. Who, I asked myself, might like red espresso? If you are a tea drinker, and you do not drink coffee because you don't care for the taste, red espresso may appeal to you. I drink a lot of tea and a considerable amount of espresso. I have no objection to coffee or caffeine. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say I need a cup of coffee a day. So, for me, red espresso brewed to take the place of espresso joins that list of stuff that doesn't hit my taste buds well, such as Postum, lite mayonnaise, Diet Coke, NutraSweet, Lactaid Milk, nonalcoholic beer, and "yogurt" made from tofu.

Distaff Vote

My wife tried it, too. She drinks espresso and does not like tea unless it's iced. As iced tea, she liked red espresso fine. But she raised a question I was silently thinking: Why wouldn't people who don't drink coffee, and prefer tea, simply have a cup of tea brewed the conventional way?

Oddly, red espresso earned Best New Product in the specialty beverage category at the Coffee Association of America's Conference & Exhibition last May. That's a little like New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning getting voted Most Valuable Player by Major League Baseball.

One reason tea drinkers might like red espresso—an idea mentioned to me by the company and spelled out on a PowerPoint presentation somewhere, I presume—is that red espresso enables tea drinkers to partake more of the café culture. Call me crazy, but I don't think tea drinkers at Starbuck's (SBUX) sitting with coffee drinkers are experiencing an inferiority complex. Do they feel they need to sit at another table from their friends?

Not So Addictive

The Web site,, says that inventor Carl Pretorius was moved to develop the brew when he became "addicted" to six shots of espresso a day. Oprah Winfrey's O Magazine wrote that it was a hit with the magazine's staff. The price of red espresso is $12.99 for an 8.8 ounce pouch, or $25.99 for a 2.2 lb. package.

But let's take another step back and examine red espresso for what it is: good tea. I took the leftover tea in the espresso pot and made iced tea. It was terrific. I then mixed it with ice and water and tossed in an ounce of apple juice. Also very nice. In another glass, I added muddled mint leaves to both the iced tea and the apple tea. Superb. Now we're on to something, I thought.

Red espresso is now on my shelf with the dozen or so boxes of tea I keep (along with glass jars of tea botanicals from my own garden). One of the tins on my shelf is, in fact, Rooibos tea, much like red espresso. Pretorius' whole point, it seems to me, is to get the product off the crowded tea shelf and make me think of it as an alternative to just one other product in my pantry—espresso coffee.

That's not happening. For the remainder of the summer, though, when I have guests, I'll ask if anyone wants to try red espresso. That is, unless I blow through the two big pouches the company sent me making pitchers of delicious iced tea first.

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