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Tea and caffeine part III: Decaf and low-caf alternatives


Caffeine Molecule

The loneliest molecule?

This article is the second of a three-part series.

Part I: What is caffeine?
Part II: Exploding the myths
Part III: Decaf and low-caf alternatives

So you’ve decided you like tea, but you really don’t want (or can’t have) the caffeine. What are your alternatives?

Well, first there’s decaf tea. As Part I of this series explained, decaffeination processes don’t remove 100% of the caffeine, so this is a reasonable alternative if you want less caffeine, but not if you want none at all. There’s another problem with switching to decaf: the selection of high-quality decaffeinated tea is — let’s just say, limited.

It’s easy to find a decaf Earl Grey or a decaf version of your basic Lipton-in-a-bag. But if your tastes run more to sheng pu-erh, sencha, dragonwell, lapsang souchong, silver needle, Iron Goddess of Mercy, or organic first-flush Darjeeling, you have a problem.

You can try the “wash” home-decaffeination method, but I explained a couple of days ago why that process is overrated. You’re likely to be able to remove 20% or so of the caffeine that way, but that’s about it.

Another alternative is simply to brew weaker tea and/or use more infusions. Let’s do the math for an example. Assume you’re a big fan of an oolong that contains 80 mg of caffeine in a tablespoon of leaves, and you drink four cups of tea per day.

If you use a fresh tablespoon of leaves for each cup, and you steep it for three minutes, you will be extracting about 42% of the caffeine in each cup, which equals 34 mg per cup, or a total of 136 mg of caffeine for the day. If you shorten your steep time to two minutes, the extraction level drops to about 33% (total of 106 mg). Alternatively, you could use the leaves twice each time, so you’re extracting about 63% of the caffeine, but using a total of half as many leaves (total of 101 mg). Or, if you don’t mind significantly weaker tea, just use 1-1/2 teaspoons of leaves instead of a full tablespoon. Half the leaves means half the caffeine (total of 68 mg).

No caffeine at all

If you look through the selection of teas in a health-food store, you’ll notice that most of them have no tea at all, and the vast majority of those non-tea drinks have no caffeine. The problem is that chamomile for a tea drinker is like Scotch to a wine drinker; it’s just not the same.

There are a couple of beverages, however, that are somewhat similar to tea. Both come from South Africa and both are naturally caffeine-free.

rooibos plant

The rooibos plant (Aspalathus linearis)

Rooibos is often called “red bush” in the United States because the way it’s usually prepared leaves a deep red infusion. Typically, rooibos is oxidized (not fermented) like a black tea. It can also be prepared more like a green tea. I blogged about green rooibos last August if you’d like to know more about it.

North American news shows, along with people like Oprah and Dr. Oz, have been singing the praises of rooibos lately, bringing it more into the mainstream awareness. It is very high in antioxidants and much lower in tannins than a black tea. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of independent research published about it yet, so many of the claims can’t really be backed up. The one that can be backed is that it has no caffeine and it tastes kind of like black tea (green rooibos is a bit grassy with malty undertones, more like a Japanese steamed green tea with a touch of black Assam).

The honeybush plant has a number of distinct species. Pictured here is Cyclopia meyeriana.

Honeybush, like rooibos, grows only in South Africa. Also like rooibos, it is naturally caffeine-free and can be prepared either as a red or a green “tea.” When blooming, the flowers smell like honey, and honeybush tends to be somewhat sweeter than rooibos. Honeybush isn’t nearly as well-known as rooibos in the U.S., and the green version is very hard to find. I’ve found that if you want a flavored honeybush, citrus complements it very well. My “Hammer & Cremesickle Red” is the most popular honeybush blend in our tea bar (here is a blog post about it, and you can find it on the store website here).

A blended approach

If you like the idea of reducing your caffeine intake, but you don’t like the idea of a weaker tea (as I described above) or switching to rooibos or honeybush, you might want to consider blending. If you mix your tea half-and-half with something containing no caffeine, then you can still brew a strong drink, but get only half the caffeine from it. Combine that with the other tricks, like taking two infusions, and you can cut it even farther.

Tea and caffeine part I: What is caffeine?


Caffeine Molecule

The most popular drug?

This article is the first of a three-part series.

Part I: What is caffeine?
Part II: Exploding the myths
Part III: Decaf and low-caf alternatives

In his excellent book, A History of the World in 6 Glasses, Tom Standage selected the six beverages that he felt had the greatest influence on the development of human civilization. Three of the six contain alcohol; three contain caffeine. Tea was one of the six.

Is it the caffeine that has made tea one of the most popular beverages in the world? The flavor? Its relaxing effects? I think that without caffeine, Camellia sinensis would be just another of the hundreds of plant species that taste good when you make an infusion or tisane out of it. Perhaps yerba maté would be the drink that challenged coffee for supremacy in the non-alcoholic beverage world.

“Caffeine is the world’s most popular drug”

The above quote opens a paper entitled Caffeine Content of Brewed Teas (PDF version here) by Jenna Chin and four others from the University of Florida College of Medicine. I’ll be citing that paper again in Part II of this series. Richard Lovett, in a 2005 New Scientist article, said that 90% of adults in North America consume caffeine on a daily basis.

But yes, caffeine is a drug. It is known as a stimulant, but its effects are more varied (and sometimes more subtle) than that. It can reduce fatigue, increase focus, speed up though processes, and increase coordination. It can also interact with other xanthines to produce different effects in different drinks, which is one reason coffee, tea, and chocolate all affect us differently.

Tea, for example, contains a compound called L-theanine, which can smooth out the “spike & crash” effect of caffeine in coffee and increase the caffeine’s effect on alertness. In other words, with L-theanine present, less caffeine can have a greater effect. See a great article from RateTea about L-theanine here.

Even though Part II of this series is the one that dispels myths, I really need to address a common misconception right now. First, I’m going to make sure to define my terms: for purposes of this series, “tea” refers to beverages made from the Camellia sinensis plant (the tea bush) only. I’ll refer to all other infused-leaf products as “tisanes.” Okay, now that we have that out of the way:

“All tea contains caffeine”

Yes, I said ALL tea. The study I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago measured and compared the caffeine content of fifteen regular black, white, and green teas with three “decaffeinated” teas and two herbal teas (tisanes). With a five-minute steep time, the regular teas ranged from 25 to 61 mg of caffeine per six-ounce cups. The decaf teas ranged from 1.8 to 10 mg per six ounce cup.

That’s right. The lowest caffeine “regular” tea they tested (Twinings English Breakfast) had only 2-1/2 times the caffeine of the most potent “decaffeinated” tea (Stash Premium Green Decaf).

There are two popular ways to remove caffeine from tea. In one, the so-called “direct method,” the leaves are steamed and then rinsed in a solvent (either dichloromethane or ethyl acetate). Then they drain off the solvent and re-steam the leaves to make sure to rinse away any leftover solvent. The other process, known as the CO2 method, involves rinsing the leaves with liquid carbon dioxide at very high pressure. Both of these methods leave behind some residual caffeine.

(As a side note: I’m not a fan of either process. When I don’t want caffeine, I’d much rather drink rooibos than a decaf tea. I only have one decaf tea out of over 80 teas and 20 tisanes at my tea bar, and I’m discontinuing that one.)

This is why tea professionals need to make a strong distinction between the terms “decaffeinated” (tea that has had most of its caffeine removed) and “naturally caffeine-free” (tisanes that naturally contain no caffeine such as rooibos, honeybush, and chamomile).

“Coffee has more caffeine than tea”

Almost everyone will agree with the statement. For the most part, it is true, assuming you add some qualifiers: The average cup of fresh-brewed loose-leaf tea contains less than half the caffeine of the average cup of fresh-brewed coffee. In the seminar, Tea, Nutrition, and Health: Myths and Truths for the Layman, at World Tea Expo 2012, the studies Kyle Stewart and Neva Cochran quoted showed the plain cup of fresh-brewed coffee at 17 mg of caffeine per ounce versus the plain cup of fresh-brewed tea at 7 mg per ounce (that’s 42 mg per six-ounce cup, which agrees nicely with the numbers from the caffeine content study I quoted above).

Interestingly, though, a pound of tea leaves contains more caffeine than a pound of coffee beans. How can that be? Because you use more coffee (by weight) than tea to make a single cup, and caffeine is extracted more efficiently from ground-up beans than from chunks of tea leaf. Tea is usually not brewed as strong as coffee, either.

At another 2012 World Tea Expo seminar, A Step Toward Caffeine and Antioxidant Clarity, Kevin Gascoyne presented research he had done comparing caffeine levels in dozens of different teas (plus a tisane or two). The difference between Kevin’s work and every other study I’ve seen is that he prepared each tea as people would actually drink it. For example, the Bai Mu Dan white tea was steeped 6 minutes in 176-degree water, while the Tie Guan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) oolong was steeped 1.5 minutes in 203-degree water. Matcha powder was not steeped per se, but stirred into the water and tested without filtering.

The results? Caffeine content ranged from 12mg to 58mg for the leaf teas, and 126mg for the matcha — which is higher than some coffees.

In our next installment, I’ll look at the myths regarding caffeine in tea, including what kinds of tea have the most caffeine and how you can remove the caffeine at home all by yourself — or can you?

It’s logomania! A MaterniTEA logo by Suzanna Bailey


MaterniTEA logoNew tea logos are coming fast and furious as our artist friends send us their guest drawings. Our latest is by the lovely and talented Suzanna Bailey. Let me tell you a little bit about this tea before I talk about the logo, though.

I am a tea lover, not an herbalist. Let me repeat that for emphasis: I am not an herbalist. I am not trained in the healing powers of herbs (and I believe that most of the claims about most of the herbs are horse-hockey, but that’s another story), but I know what people ask for at the tea bar. We seem to have a lot of pregnant women in town these days, and most of them come in requesting either ginger or mint for their morning sickness.

I did some reading, and found that most of the published studies agree that those are two herbs that settle the stomach well. I know ginger works for me. Doing a straight ginger-mint blend, however, tasted pretty wretched. I started monkeying around with combinations — carefully avoiding caffeine — and came up with MaterniTEA. It uses green rooibos, Egyptian chamomile, and honeybush as its base, along with the aforementioned organic peppermint and ginger. A touch of orange extract for flavor, and we have something that tastes good as well as helping with the nausea that triggered this whole thing.

In keeping with the philosophy I described in the last tea label post, I didn’t give Suzanna any specific instructions. I just described the tea and threw out a few adjectives like “soothing” and “relaxing,” and got out of her way. She came back with several pages of ideas and sketches, and one of them really caught my eye. My wife, Kathy, and I absolutely loved the look of the steam rising from a teacup in the shape of a pregnant woman.

Suzanna has an amazing eye for color, so she did all of the drawing and the coloring for this one — she just asked if I could fill in the lettering. Once again I am thrilled with the results and we’re having posters made of all of our custom tea logos.

Thank you, Suzanna!

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