Tag Archives: caffeine

What are we even drinking? Tea and Tisanes

In the US, it’s extremely common for people to walk into a shop asking after “a cup of tea” and then ask for Chamomile, Peppermint, or some blend of flowers and spices. What these customers actually want is a Tisane.

Tea : a shrub (Camellia sinensis of the family Theaceae, the tea family) cultivated especially in China, Japan, and the East Indies.

Tisane: an infusion (as of dried herbs) used as a beverage or for medicinal effects.

When I was growing up, I learned from colloquial usage that “tea” meant something like, “an aromatic beverage prepared from various plants by infusion with boiling water”. What I didn’t realize is that there is actually one plant (Camellia Sinensis) which is actually “tea”, and everything else is, technically, a “tisane”.

This topic has been covered in many places, and while it sounds like mere snobbery at first (and it can be!), I think that making the distinction between tea and tisane is more important than it appears for two reasons.

Firstly, true tea has a poor reputation for taste in the West and having accurate terminology makes it much easier for vendors to identify their product. Think how confusing it would be if people said, “wine” when they were referring to grapefruit juice. Perhaps that’s hyperbole but I think it’s pretty close to the truth. If you have a chance to drink a cup of tulsi-peppermint-licorice tisane and a cup of Si Ji Chun oolong side-by-side I think the difference will be dramatic. Both are delicious; but they have very unique qualities.


Bai Mu Dan (白牡丹茶) Tea

Secondly, there is the matter of health. If, while traveling to India or China, some poor traveler orders tea and then specifies a “caffeine-free” version, they are likely to be met with only confusion. Tea (even decaffeinated tea) always contains some caffeine, just as chocolate always does. Wanting a caffeine-free chocolate, the wise consider something else, like carob (which we usually don’t call “chocolate”, despite its similar properties). Conversely, there are several herbs which have known medicinal properties, but the healing properties of actual tea are much less specific and are still being studied.

So why do we like to use the terms interchangeably, particularly in US culture? I’m not really sure, but I think some of it began with the experience of the American colonies during the Revolutionary War. During that time, tea (actual tea) was a major staple of many people on both sides of the Atlantic, and taxation of its importation was symbolic of the control levied by England over the colonial citizens. The colonists were strongly inclined to find a substitute, and so invented what they called “freedom tea”, or “herbal tea”, which contained no tea but could be sourced locally without import fees. I believe that from that point onward the idea of “tea” and “herbal tea” became so conflated that each subsequent generation lost the ability to tell the difference.


In today’s quantity-over-quality global market, however, the heavy manual labor and precise skill required to produce real quality tea leaves is fading from disuse. Fortunately for us, there is a small revolution in artisan tea production that is slowly catching on. Companies like Camellia Sinensis, Stone Leaf Tea, Red Blossom, Song Tea, and White2Tea (just to name a few) are importing real quality leaf with a focus on education and tradition. Groups like Global Tea Hut are working to improve the tea market for organic farming and appropriate pay for artisan labor. I believe that keeping our terms straight and educating (compassionately) those who are uncertain is one of the best ways to honor this burgeoning movement.

So, be proud of your Chamomile! Enjoy your Rooibos! Slurp Yerba Mate by the gourd-full! But when the leaves of the Tea plant make their way to your cup, remember all the history that they represent and honor those who struggled against a global industry to bring them to you.

A taste of Caffeine

Back in the old days I wrote a post on Dobra Tea’s blog about caffeine. This is an updated version of that post.

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The myth of green tea having less caffeine than black tea is rampant in our Western culture. This is even more surprising when contrasted with the attitude I found in Taiwan that drinking a fresh green tea late at night is much more likely to raise your energy level to the point of sleeplessness.

There is a very complex series of factors that go into the amount of caffeine in a cup. Soil, terroir, sunlight, leaf size, tippiness of a tea, age, roast, and infusion temperature all come in to play. Oxidation, though, is never really a factor. This means that all types of tea (green, white, yellow, oolong, black, and puer) have roughly the same amount of caffeine by weight.

That’s quite a bold statement when even the tea industry itself tends to print labels showing green tea as low in caffeine.

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So how do we know what makes a cup of tea with higher or lower caffeine, because surely there are differences? There’s a few easy answers, and some more complicated ones.

Certainly a longer infusion time means a stronger tea. I suspect that the “green tea has less caffeine than black tea” myth has appeared because people often steep green tea for less time. There’s some great research in Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties that shows the levels of caffeine in different styles of tea with the same steep time. It’s not surprising that they’re nearly all the same.

While infusing tea for a shorter time will decrease its caffeine levels, the quality of the leaf also matters greatly. A full-leaf, unbroken green tea is going to release its alkaloids much more slowly than a roughly-treated broken tea (such as you might find in a tea bag). There’s a lot more surface area on smaller leaf chunks in contact with water. As a result, broken leaves or even lower-quality “dust and fannings” will usually make a cup of tea that is blunt and bitter as well as much more caffeinated than its full-leaf brothers.

Finally (and I’m really just barely scratching the surface here), there are many other compounds within the tea leaf that contribute to how it affects the body. Tea leaves are one of the only sources of the amino acid Theanine which reduces stress on the body, making even many average 30mg-of-Caffeine cups of tea quite a different physical experience than the average 150mg-of-Caffeine cup of coffee. Looking at caffeine content alone is not sufficient to determine the physical effects of any beverage.

So the next time you’d like to decrease your caffeine intake, try a roasted oolong, an aged puer, or a tea with very few tips. Try to steep your favorite tea for much less time. Even better, as your body is unique, research and experiment with different teas and find what is true for you.