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Science of Star Trek | “Earl Grey, Hot” – Why Starfleet Captains Love Hot Drinks

Food historian Tasha Marks and engineering professor Alexander S. Rattner explain the importance of tea and coffee to Star Trek‘s Picard, Janeway, and Sisko.

The replicators onboard Federation starships can produce an extraordinary range of things, from weapons and antique furniture to eyeballs and a bunch of snakes. But I’ve always been most in awe of the cosmic sweet treats, fancy foodstuffs, and exotic drinks they can rustle up—anyone for a chocolate sundae? Lobster ravioli? How about a Klingon coffee to set you up for the day? Or, if you’re brave enough, a Zariphean tea? With a galaxy-sized menu at their fingertips and few restrictions on what they can ‘order’ with commanding officer privileges, I’ve often wondered why many of our favorite Starfleet captains choose the same beverage over and over again. 

Captain Jean-Luc Picard sits in his ready room and raises a teacup to his mouth.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) enjoys a cup of Earl Grey during the Star Trek: The Next Generation pilot episode ‘Encounter at Farpoint’ (S1, Ep1). Patrick Stewart’s original suggestion was that the character drink lapsang souchong but the producers were concerned the audience wouldn’t understand it. | CBS, 1990.

Everyone knows Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s (Patrick Stewart) favorite tea: “Earl Grey, hot”. Captain Katherine Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) loves coffee so much that she orders the crew to plow into an organic nebula to find some. Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) is a big fan of Raktajino, Klingon coffee with a kick. Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) likes the taste of sweet iced tea. And even captains that aren’t tied to a specific drink during their missions follow similar patterns, like Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner). He always made a point of picking unusual beverages when he had the chance.

Our favorite captains default to their favorite drinks because they were written that way, and each choice establishes their character. Picard enjoys the sophisticated but not necessarily pretentious Earl Grey. Bold and probably most of the time exhausted, Janeway opts for a hit of coffee. Sisko’s preference for Klingon coffee speaks to his willingness to embrace other cultures. Archer’s love for sweet iced tea suggests a soothing, comforting hug in a mug that reminds him of home when he’s light years away.

The Science of Star Trek is a regular series by tech writer and proud blueshirt Becca Caddy.

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The Psychology of Hot Drinks

However, the drinks we choose—especially our tastes in tea and coffee—are often more than they seem. I spoke to food historian and artist Tasha Marks to better understand their significance. “Tea and coffee both have long social histories. They have been the catalysts to conversation and change for centuries,” she tells us. They provide a social context that encourages connection—essential in the fictional space of Star Trek, where typical conventions are sometimes lacking.

But Marks says there’s a “dual existence” to tea and coffee. “They are both public and private, personal and universal.” Part of this personal significance comes from creating them. “Tea, coffee, and other hot drinks are also more ritualistic than other beverages because they tend to require more preparation,” Marks says.

“There is a ritual to making a hot drink, from selecting your favorite cup to boiling the kettle and even judging the right moment to drink it so it won’t burn your tongue.”

Ordering drinks via a replicator on Star Trek presents a different ritual, but asking for the same drink, again and again, watching it being made, and drinking it are important and ritualistic steps, even before you begin drinking. I’m reminded of recent research about the power of ritual, which suggests (among many other things) that it can be essential for calming anxiety and increasing performance.

Or to quote Janeway in the Star Trek: Voyager episode ‘Hunters’ (S4, Ep15):

“Coffee – the finest organic suspension ever devised. It’s got me through the worst of the last three years. I beat the Borg with it.”

Captain Janeway drinks from her oversized coffee mug whilst Dal R'El hangs upside down.
Even the holographic Captain Katherine Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) enjoys her physical counterpart’s king-sized mug of coffee in the Star Trek: Prodigy episode ‘Lost & Found’ (S1, Ep1). | CBS, 2021.

“Tea and coffee also provide a moment of pause,” Marks says. She explains that there are many steps after preparation and before drinking that we often take for granted. We check the temperature, we feel the warmth, we hold the cup. “No one pauses for a glass of water in the same way we do for a cup of tea,” she says. “Hot drinks are a moment to reflect and practice self-care.” There is a meditative practice here, a grounding, a necessary act that prepares our captains for the challenges they’ll face—it’s no wonder meditations and ceremonies around the practice of tea preparation and drinking have persisted for centuries. 

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The Physics of Hot Drinks in Space

Considering the importance of tea and coffee here on Earth and in fictional space-faring missions, I wonder whether it’s possible to drink tea in space right now or enjoy a cup of coffee on the ISS. I spoke to Alexander S. Rattner, an Associate Professor in Mechanical Engineering at PennState College of Engineering, specializing in thermal-fluid energy sciences. Luckily, he tells me liquids behave like liquids whether you’re on the Earth or orbiting it. “The environment in the ISS is very similar to that on earth,” Rattner says. “The temperature is typical room temperature, and the pressure is the same as at sea level on earth. So the material properties of liquids, like viscosity, boiling point, surface tension, are unchanged.”

But the big difference is gravity because, aboard the ISS, there is none. “You can’t just pour a drink into a cup, or into your mouth,” he says. “Instead you have to drink from a straw, with a squeeze pouch, or some other contraption.” There’s a video of Chris Hadfield doing this and showing us all of the weird and wonderful ways water behaves in space when there’s no gravity holding it down. 

It’s been standard to drink coffee in a similar way—instant stuff out of a pouch. But realizing the importance of coffee in space—and likely relishing in the PR opportunity—Lavazza and aerospace engineering company Argotec collaborated to create the ISSpresso, an espresso machine developed for use onboard the space station—and you don’t have to drink it from the bag.

It’s combined with a zero-gravity cup, also called a capillary cup, that looks a bit like a nose. It’s specially designed to use a process called capillary flow, which means liquid flows into narrow spaces without needing gravity. The design controls the surface tension of the beverage. This means that, when you tip it, the drink reaches your mouth, even in the microgravity of space. ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti tweeted a photo of her drinking from her zero-g cup in 2015 while wearing a Starfleet uniform and channeling her inner Janeway. 

As impressive as this coffee-drinking tech is, will we ever get to the point where we can make a coffee, hold the mug and smell the aroma more naturally? Potentially. But we’d have to fix that pesky problem of gravity first.

“If you could have a spacecraft with a large-diameter rotating compartment (i.e., 2001: A Spce Odyssey), you could simulate some gravity and overcome basically all of these issues (plus other more serious ones,” Rattner says. “I believe that is technically possible today, it is just not a high-enough priority for any space agency to my knowledge.”

Benjamin Sisko smiles as he holds a mug of Klingon coffee.
Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) enjoys a mug of Ratkajino, the potent Klingon coffee, in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode ‘The Adversary’ (S3, Ep26). Writer Peter Allan Fields is credited with coming up with the drink. | CBS, 1995.

We don’t need tea and coffee to survive in space. But maybe we’d need it to thrive, retaining our humanity as we venture into the stars. Because, in a metaphorical but also literal sense, to taste tea and coffee is to taste the Earth. These drinks, steeped in historical and cultural significance, remind us to connect with others, connect with ourselves, and keep us tethered to our home planet, whether we’re venturing on a mission to the Moon or journeying through the Delta Quadrant.

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Becca has been writing about tech and science for more than ten years. Her first book, Screen Time, came out in January 2021 with Bonnier Books. She loves science fiction, brutalist architecture and spending way too much time floating through space in virtual reality.

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