I wish there was a simple answer to this question. It would be ever so cool if I could just say, “black tea has 45 mg of caffeine per 8-ounce cup.” In fact, a number of people say it is that simple. This graph came from the front page of the eZenTea website:
They make it pretty simple, right? But that’s not very useful when they disagree with each other! The first chart shows the caffeine green tea at 20 mg/cup and white tea at 10 mg/cup, showing that white tea has half as much caffeine as green tea. The second chart shows green tea at 25 mg/cup and white tea at 28 mg/cup, indicating that white tea has 12% more caffeine.
Then we get confusing (and frankly pretty silly) charts like this one from HellaWella:
All three charts have green tea in the same basic range (20-25 mg/cup), but the HellaWella chart breaks out black tea (which is 40-42 mg/cup in the other two charts) into “brewed tea” at 47 mg/cup and “brewed imported tea” at 60 mg/cup. Huh? “Imported”? HellaWella’s “about” page doesn’t say what country they’re from, but I’m going to guess from the spellings that they’re from the U.S. Sure, there are few small tea plantations in the U.S., but I would venture to guess that approximately zero percent of casual tea drinkers have ever had a domestically grown tea. In America, pretty much all tea is “imported.”
So why the discrepancies?
Because the people making these charts (a) don’t explain their methodology and/or (b) don’t understand tea.
As I explained in my three-part caffeine series (here’s part 1), green, white, oolong, black, and pu-erh tea all come from the same species of plant (Camellia sinensis), and in some cases, the same actual plant. We carry a black and a green Darjeeling tea that are picked from the same plants, but processed differently. No part of that process creates or destroys caffeine.
Let me make that clear: let’s say you pick a bunch of tea leaves on your tea farm. You divide them up into four equal piles. You turn one pile into green tea, one into white tea, one into black tea, and one into oolong tea. When you’re done, you make a cup of tea from each. Assuming you use the same water at the same temperature, use the same amount of leaf per cup, and steep them for the same time, they will all have the exact same amount of caffeine.
If that processing doesn’t change the caffeine content, what does?
- The part of the plant that’s used. Caffeine tends to be concentrated in the buds and leaf tips. A high-quality golden or white tea made from only buds will have more caffeine than a cheap tea made with the big leaves farther down the stem.
- The growing conditions. Soil, rainfall, altitude, and many other factors (collectively known as terroir) all affect how much caffeine will be in the tea leaves.
- The time of year the leaves were harvested. Tea picked from the same plants several months apart may have dramatically different amounts of caffeine.
- How long you steep the tea. The longer those leaves sit in the water, the more caffeine will be extracted into your drink.
- How much leaf you use in the cup. Use more leaves, get more caffeine.
- How big the cup is. This seems ridiculously obvious, but it’s something a lot of people miss. Anyone who went to elementary school in the United States knows that one cup = eight ounces. However, a four-cup coffee maker doesn’t make 32 ounces (8 x 4); it makes 24 ounces. They decided their coffee makers sound bigger if they use six-ounce cups.
Even if you and I measure the same amount of leaf out of the same tin of tea, your cup might have twice the caffeine of my cup, depending on how we like to fix it. Unless we both precisely followed the ISO 3103 standard for brewing the perfect cup of tea.
Unfortunately, the lab tests to assess caffeine content are expensive, so most tea shops never test their teas. On top of that, people can’t seem to agree on how to brew the tea they are testing. I read one study where every tea was brewed for five minutes in boiling water. That’s consistent, but it’s not realistic. You don’t brew a Japanese green tea that way, or you’ll have a bitter, undrinkable mess. Another, by Kevin Gascoyne, tested tea as most people drink it (e.g., black tea in boiling water, white tea in cooler water). That’s better but even still, Kevin’s way of brewing a particular tea may not be the way I do it.
UPDATE: After I wrote this post, but while it was still in the scheduling queue, a blog called The Tea Maestro put out a post about this same subject, titled “The Latest Buzz on Tea and Caffeine.” If you’re interested in caffeine and tea, I’d recommend reading it. If not, I can’t imagine why you’re reading this post!
The bottom line is that every tea is different. Very different. In fact, Kevin tested two different sencha teas and one had four times the caffeine of the other. If someone shows you a handy-dandy chart that indicates exactly how much caffeine a cup of tea has (as opposed to showing a range), it’s wrong.
While writing this blog post, I was drinking Green Rooibos from South Africa, which has no caffeine at all. It is a non-oxidized “redbush” tea that I blogged about back in 2011 (“I’ll have a green red tea, please“). I brewed this cup for 4:00 using boiling water. It’s a remarkably forgiving drink, and I’ve steeped it for as long as 10 minutes without ruining it. It’s usually good for at least two infusions.
I’m a big fan of beer. In fact, I used to write a beer column for a local newspaper a few years back. I’ll often have a beer when I start dinner, and switch to tea at the end. I even took a seminar at World Tea Expo about pairing tea and beer, looking for common flavor characteristics in different styles of the two beverages. A conversation with fellow tea blogger Robert Godden (Lord Devotea’s Tea Spouts), however, got me thinking about the possibility of actually combining the two. You know, putting beer and tea in the same glass. Yeah, Robert’s a strange one.
But why not?
There are beer styles exemplified by certain flavors, which you might get from additives like fruit or other grains, or you might get from doing strange things to the barley, like smoking it. Why not get those flavors from tea? Especially that smoky one…
A buddy of mine, Doug “Beerbarian” Bailey, works at our local brewery, Red Lodge Ales. Doug is a sales guy, but he still understands beer pretty well. He and I both go for smoky flavors. We drink lapsang souchong and Russian caravan tea. We drink smoky rauschbier. We drink Islay Scotches like Laphroaig, which just ooze peat and smoke. We even enjoy the same pipe tobaccos.
So Doug and I had a long discussion about flavoring beer with tea — especially about making our own variety of rauschbier by adding smoked tea to a nice robust beer. It was a wonderful discussion, but we didn’t follow through on it. And then, months later, I get a private message from him on Facebook:
Initially, we’d been talking about actually adding the tea leaves to the kettle while brewing the beer, but Doug was in a hurry. He proposed adding the tea to beer that was already brewed and sitting in the keg. This brings up a few complications, like how to avoid watering down the beer and how to pour tea into a full keg of carbonated beer.
The solution to the first problem was simple: just make the tea really strong so we don’t have to use much of it. In fact, to avoid diluting the flavor of the beer, we went right past “really strong” to “stupid strong.” And as for the second problem, Doug came up with a set of fittings that allowed us to put the tea into an empty keg, pressurize it, and then add the contents of a full keg of beer to it.
The more we talked about the solutions to the problems, the more we realized making just one beer wasn’t going to cut it, so when experiment day arrived, Doug grabbed the kegs of beer and I brewed three stupid strong batches of tea from Red Lodge Books & Tea to match them.
We started by adding carefully measured amounts of the übertea to glasses of beer. Instead of wrecking our palates with the smoked tea, we started with a lighter one. The beer is Helio Hefeweizen, a light and citrusy unfiltered wheat beer. I paired that with a cinnamon orange spice rooibos tea. I had brewed the tea with 1 ounce of leaf to 8 ounces of boiling water and steeped it for six minutes. It didn’t take a whole lot of tea to give the beer a wondrous spicy flavor with an orangy nose. We settled on 940 ml of strong tea in the 5-gallon keg of beer. It was a rousing triumph. We made a bit extra so I could take a growler home with me.
Our second experiment was completely off the wall. Doug did say he wanted something “wacky,” so I paired their Beartooth Pale Ale with an infusion of one of my own special tea blends, which I call “Coyotes of the Purple Sage.” It’s an Earl Grey made with black tea, sage, and a hint of mint. I didn’t brew it quite as strong (same amount of leaf as the first one, but with a 5 minute infusion). Our first experiment was rather overwhelming, so we backed down the ratio, using 750 ml of tea in the 5-gallon keg.
I’m not going to call this one an overwhelming success. The sage and bergamot was just a little strange in the pale ale.
The final beer was the one that started all this. We used a Russian Caravan tea, 1 ounce of leaf per 8 ounces of water, brewed for 4 minutes. The base beer is Jack’s Scottish Ale. We played around with the proportions for a bit, and ended up using 900 ml of tea per five gallon keg. We made two kegs: one for Doug’s special event, and one to put on tap in the tasting room that night. Doug named it “Smokin’ Jack.” It was exactly what we were trying to accomplish!
This will not be the last time I bring together my loves of beer and tea. Maybe it’s getting to be time to dust off all of my old homebrewing equipment and get to work.
If you’re looking for a drink with all the health benefits of tea, a similarly great taste, but no caffeine, look to South Africa! Rooibos is made from the South African red bush (Aspalathus linearis). Using rooibos instead of tea is a great way to enjoy a caffeine-free hot (or iced) drink without using any chemical decaffeination process. Rooibos is full of antioxidants, Vitamins C and E, iron, zinc, potassium, and calcium. It is naturally sweet without adding sugar.
Rooibos grows only in the Western Cape of South Africa, and a similar plant called honeybush (the Cyclopia plant) grows in the Eastern Cape. Its flowers smell of honey, hence the name. The taste of honeybush is similar to rooibos, though perhaps a bit sweeter. Like rooibos, honeybush is naturally free of caffeine and tannins; perfect for a late-evening drink.
The teas we tasted were:
- Red rooibos (organic)
- Green rooibos (organic)
- Honeybush (organic)
- Jamaica red rooibos (organic, fair trade)
- Bluebeary relaxation (organic, fair trade)
- Iced rooibos
- Cape Town Fog (a vanilla rooibos latte!)
South Africa, as the name implies, sits at the very southern tip of the African continent. It completely surrounds a small country called Lesotho. South Africa covers 471,443 square miles (about three times the size of Montana) and has a population of 51,770,000 (a bit more than Spain). Despite wide open spaces in the middle of the country, the large cities make it overall densely populated.
The country has the largest economy in Africa, yet about 1/4 of the population is unemployed and living on the equivalent of US $1.25 per day.
Rooibos isn’t a huge part of the South African economy. It does, however, employ about 5,000 people and generates a total annual revenue of around US $70 million, which is nothing to sneeze at. The plant is native to South Africa’s Western Cape, and the country produces about 24,000,000 pounds of rooibos per year.
The name “rooibos” is from the Dutch word “rooibosch” meaning “red bush.” The spelling was altered to “rooibos” when it was adopted into Afrikaans. In the U.S., it’s pronounced many different ways but most often some variant of ROY-boss or ROO-ee-bose.
I’ve written quite a bit about red rooibos in several posts — and about the copyright issues — so I won’t repeat it all here. Rooibos is also great as an ingredient in cooking: see my African Rooibos Hummus recipe for an example.
Green rooibos isn’t oxidized, so it has a flavor profile closer to a green tea than a black tea. Again, I’ve written a lot about it, so I’ll just link to the old post.
Honeybush isn’t one single species of plant like rooibos. The name applies to a couple of dozen species of plants in the Cyclopia genus, of which four or five are used widely to make herbal teas. Honeybush grows primarily in Africa’s Eastern Cape, and isn’t nearly as well-known as rooibos.
It got its name from its honey-like aroma, but it also has a sweeter flavor than rooibos. It can be steeped a long time without bitterness, but I generally prefer about three minutes of steep time in boiling water.
Jamaica Red Rooibos
I decided to bring out a couple of flavored rooibos blends for the tasting as well. The first is Jamaica Red Rooibos, a Rishi blend. It has an extremely complex melange of flavors and aromas, and is not only a good drink, but fun to cook with as well (see my “Spicing up couscous” post).
Jamaica Red Rooibos is named for the Jamaica flower, a variety of hibiscus. The extensive ingredient list includes rooibos, hibiscus, schizandra berries, lemongrass, rosehips, licorice root, orange peel, passion fruit & mango flavor, essential orange, tangerine & clove oils
BlueBeary Relaxation one of the blends in our Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary fundraiser series (the spelling “BlueBeary” comes from the name of one of the bears at the Sanctuary). It’s an intensely blueberry experience that’s become a bedtime favorite of mine. It’s like drinking a blueberry muffin!
To make a really good cup of iced rooibos, prepare the hot infusion with about double the leaf you’d use normally, because pouring it over the ice will dilute it. Both green and red rooibos make great iced tea. I prefer both styles unadulterated, but many people drink iced red rooibos with sugar or honey.
Cape Town Fog
This South African take on the “London Fog” is a great caffeine-free latte. To prepare it, you’ll want to preheat the milk almost to boiling. If you have a frother of some kind, use it — aerating the milk improves the taste. Steep the red rooibos good and strong, and add a bit of vanilla syrup or extract. We use an aged vanilla extract for ours. Mix it all up, put a dab of foam on top if you frothed the milk, and optionally top with a light shake of cinnamon.
This was the seventh stop on our World Tea Tasting Tour, in which we explore the tea of China, India, Japan, Taiwan, England, South Africa, Kenya, and Argentina. Each class costs $5.00, which includes the tea tasting itself and a $5.00 off coupon that can be used that night for any tea, teaware, or tea-related books that we sell.
For a full schedule of the tea tour, see my introductory post from February.
Last weekend, we hosted an “African Tea Experience” at the tea bar. Unlike our World Tea Tasting Tour sessions, this one was a private party that we donated to a local nonprofit organization for a silent auction fundraiser. Instead of just tasting some tea we made this a more immersive experience, including — among other things — food.
My first thought was to use the Hipster Hummus that we’ve prepared here before, but it’s really more of a Middle Eastern hummus than an African one. What’s the difference? I’m glad you asked.
Hummus is currently thought of as a Middle Eastern dish. Lebanon is pushing the European Commission to declare hummus a uniquely Lebanese food. In Israel, hummus is a staple. You can find it anywhere in Turkey or Palestine. But that’s not where the dish originated.
According to Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, the earliest known recipes for hummus date back to 13th century cookbooks from Cairo. It’s still a popular dish throughout northern Africa, and there are few differences between the African version and the Middle Eastern version. For this event, I decided to make a more Africanized version of our regular hummus.
All hummus is based on chickpeas (or garbanzo beans) and tahini (sesame paste). The primary ingredient difference in the African version is cumin. I decided to add red rooibos, which is a uniquely South African tisane (it’s often called “tea,” but since it isn’t made from Camellia sinensis, it isn’t technically tea). What we ended up with isn’t traditional, but it did get rave reviews. Despite the hot sauce, it isn’t overly spicy. Personally, I’d consider it almost mild. You could substitute a hot paprika for the milder roasted one that I used to give it more kick, or increase the Sriracha sauce.
- One 15-oz can garbanzo beans/chickpeas
- 1-1/2 tbsp sesame tahini paste
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1/2 ounce red rooibos leaves
- 1-1/2 tsp minced garlic
- 4 tbsp fresh-squeezed orange juice
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 1/2 tbps Sriracha
- 1/4 tsp roasted Israeli paprika
- 1 tsp olive oil
- sprig of fresh parsley
- Drain the garbanzo beans/chickpeas and set aside the juice
- Heat the juice almost to boiling and add the rooibos — steep for five minutes
- Put beans, tahini, garlic, cumin, orange juice, salt, and Sriracha in a food processor
- Add 1/4 cup of the tea infusion to the food processor
- Blend everything to a smooth consistency
- Chill overnight in the fridge
- Spread hummus on plate with a dip in the center
- Drizzle olive oil through the center dip (not shown in the picture above, where I put pita chips in the middle instead)
- Sprinkle the paprika over the hummus, and garnish with parsley
- Serve with pita chips or fresh pita bread
The flavor of the rooibos definitely comes through, although it’s a bit subtle. Feel free to increase both the amount of leaf and the steeping time if you want more rooibos character.
Over the next couple of months, Red Lodge Books & Tea will be taking you on a world tour of tea with a series of tastings and classes focused on teas from all around the world. The events will be at our tea bar on Fridays from 5:00 to 6:30. At each session, we’ll taste five to seven teas from a different country as we explore a bit of the country’s geography and tea culture. I will put a quick summary of each stop on the tour up here on the blog for those who can’t attend or who don’t remember which teas we covered.
The full tour consists of:
Friday, Feb 15 — All the Tea in China
Friday, Mar 1 — Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. (England)
Friday, Mar 8 — It’s Always Tea Time in India
Friday, Mar 15 — Japan: Bancha to Matcha (notes Part 1 and Part 2)
Friday, Mar 22 — Deepest Africa: The Tea of Kenya
Friday, Mar 29 — The Oolongs of Taiwan
Friday, Apr 5 — Rooibos from South Africa
Friday, Apr 12 — Yerba Maté from Argentina
Friday, Apr 26 — China part II: Pu-Erh
Friday, May 3 — India part II: Masala Chai
Each class will cost $5.00, which includes the tea tasting itself and a $5.00 off coupon that can be used that night for any tea, teaware, or tea-related books that we sell.
There will be more information posted on the tea bar’s Facebook page before each event, including a list of the teas that we will taste in each event.
UPDATE MARCH 9: As I blog about each of these experiences, I’m going to create a link from this post to the post containing the outline and tasting notes. I’ve linked the first two.
UPDATE MARCH 23: I changed the dates of the last two events. There will not be a tasting on April 19.
Language evolves. I get that. Sometimes changes make communication easier, clearer, or shorter. Sometimes, however, the evolution of the meaning of a word does exactly the opposite. The subject of this blog is a good example.
The word “tea” refers to the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), the dried leaves of that plant, or the drink that is made by infusing those leaves in water.
The word “tisane” refers to any drink made by infusing leaves in water. Synonyms include “herbal tea” and “herbal infusion.”
Technically speaking, all teas are tisanes, but most tisanes are not teas.
In today’s culture, however, practically anything (except coffee and cocoa) that’s made by putting plant matter in water is called a tea. What’s my problem with that? It makes communication more difficult, less clear, and less terse.
- There is no other single word that means “a drink made with Camellia sinensis.” If we call everything tea, then we have to say “real tea” or “tea from the tea plant” or “Camellia sinensis tea” or something similarly ludicrous every time we want to refer specifically to tea rather than to all tisanes.
- There is a perfectly good word for “leaves infused in water.” There is no need to throw away “tisane” (or “herbal tea” or “infusion”) and replace it with a word that already has another meaning.
“But Gary,” I hear you cry, “people have been calling herbal infusions ‘tea’ for a long time!”
That’s true. I sometimes slip and call rooibos a tea myself. “Herbal infusion” is even an alternate definition of tea in the OED. I still maintain, however, that it makes clear, precise communication more difficult when trying to differentiate between tea (made from the Camellia sinensis plant) and drinks made from chamomile, honeybush, and willow bark.
Other words that go through this process are forced through it. Rooibos, for example, is the name for a specific tisane and the plant it’s made from (Aspalathus linearis). The word is Afrikaans for Red Bush. Despite the longtime use of the term in South Africa (the only place the rooibos plant grows), it was almost unknown in the United States in 1994 when Burke International of Texas registered “rooibos” as a trademark. This meant that in the United States, only Burke and its subsidiaries could use the common name of the plant. Had Burke not surrendered the trademark after starting to lose lawsuits, people would have been forced to come up with a new word.
As more people in the U.S. discover green rooibos, the name “red bush” becomes more confusing anyway. Rooibos, in my humble opinion, should remain the generic term here.
Oxidation vs. fermentation
There are other words in the tea industry that suffer from ambiguity and questionable correctness. You will find quite a bit of tea literature that refers to the oxidation of tea as “fermentation.” I had a bit of a row with Chris Kilham — The Medicine Hunter on Fox News — about this subject (it starts with “Coffee vs. Tea: Do your homework, Fox News” and continues with “Chris Kilham Responds“).
Fermentation and oxidation are closely related processes. That’s certainly true. But oxidation is the aerobic process that is used in the production of black and oolong tea, and fermentation is the anaerobic process that’s used in the production of pu-erh tea. Using the word “fermentation” to describe the processing of black tea may fit with a lot of (non-chemist) tea industry writers, but it makes it difficult to explain what real fermented tea is.
In chatting with friends, imprecise use of words doesn’t matter. If someone asks what kind of tea you want and you respond, “chamomile,” it’s perfectly clear what you want. But you’re an industry reporter, medical writer, or marketing copywriter, your job is to communicate unambiguously to your readers. Using the most correct terminology in the right way is a great way to do that.
As I did a year ago, I’ve gone through the year’s numbers from our tea bar to see what have been our most popular teas. A few have stayed consistent, but there have been a lot of changes, too. These sales only reflect bulk loose-leaf tea sales, as we don’t track the cup sales the same way.
Our top three sellers are all black teas — the same three as last year, although in a different order — which doesn’t surprise me. They are, however, the only black teas on the list, which does surprise me. There is only one green tea, one pu-erh, and one pu-erh/yerba maté blend. Everything else is yerba maté, rooibos, honeybush, and chamomile. That really surprises me.
- Premium Masala Chai (#3 last year)
Organic & Fair Trade
I suppose this one shouldn’t have surprised me. There are a lot of masala chai fans out there, and the coffee shops tend to make their masala chai from concentrates instead of brewing it up fresh like we do. I typically make this with milk and locally-produced honey.
- Gary’s Kilty Pleasure (formerly known as “Gary’s Scottish Breakfast” — #2 last year)
This is a nice, strong, kick-in-the-pants first cup of the morning. It’s a blend of Kenya and Assam black tea. Traditionalists would steep it a long time and drink it with milk. I tend to prefer a fairly short steep (2-3 minutes), and I drink it black. This is the tea I used in the Hipster Hummus recipe for our Chamber of Commerce mixer in February.
- Ancient-Tree Earl Grey (#1 last year)
Organic & Fair Trade
This organic Earl Grey is made from 100-year-old tea trees and blended with pure bergamot oil. We carry nine different Earl Grey teas, and this one is consistently at the top of the sales list, although in the last few months Lady Greystoke has been coming on strong. It only missed the top 10 by one position this year, and I expect to see it on this list in 2013.
- Moroccan Mint (#4 last year)
Organic & Fair Trade
The popularity of this tea crosses seasons, as we sell just as much of it iced in the summer as we do hot in the winter. It’s a Chinese green tea with jasmine blossoms and peppermint leaves. I’m doing some experiments now as to the best way to aerate it when we serve it, which is typically accomplished by pouring it into the cup while holding the pot high in the air.
- Evening in Missoula
This one wasn’t even on the list last year, and it’s the only chamomile blend ever to make our top ten list. It’s a blend from the Montana Tea & Spice Company, and it has completely blown away all of our other herbals in sales.
- Chocolate Maté Chai (#8 last year)
Organic & Fair Trade
Dessert in a mug! This velvety masala chai is made with yerba maté and pu-erh instead of black tea, and the standard masala chai spices are enhanced with cacao nibs & husks, vanilla, coconut, and long pepper. We usually prepare it with vanilla soy milk and local honey. It was also very popular during the summer as a base for boba tea.
- BlueBeary Relaxation
Organic & Fair Trade
Another debut on the list. Yes, that name is spelled correctly. It’s a red rooibos blend named for one of the bears at the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary. We send a donation to the sanctuary for every ounce of this blend that we sell.
- Carnival Maté (#9 last year)
This is not your basic yerba maté. This yummy south-Argentina style beverage uses roasted maté with caramel bits, marigold, and Spanish safflower petals. I’ve converted a lot of coffee drinkers using this one!
- Hammer & Cremesickle Red
This is a fun rooibos/honeybush blend with orange and vanilla (among other things). I’ve blogged about the name and logo and about cooking with Hammer & Cremesickle Red.
- Blood Orange Pu-Erh
Organic & Fair Trade
This pu-erh blend uses intense orange to balance the strength and depth of the base tea.
Six out of our top ten are organic (up from five last year), and all six of those are fair trade as well. I expect that trend to continue — especially since we’re replacing many of our non-organic blends with organics — and to see at least one ETP (Ethical Tea Partnership) blend in next year’s top ten.
There is only one unflavored tea on this year’s list, and it is a house blend (Gary’s Kilty Pleasure). More of our customers are growing to appreciate the straight teas, though, and I’m hoping to see more of them next year.
We’ve been doing a lot more house blends in the last few months, and we are slowly replacing many of the blends that we buy premade with our own house blends. I’m expecting this list to be at least half house blends for 2013.
How have I been at this blog for so long without writing about rooibos? Oh, I know this blog is about tea, and I did write a post about green rooibos last year, but I haven’t covered straight red rooibos yet.
Rooibos comes from a bush called Aspalathus linearis, which grows in the west cape of South Africa. The name “rooibos” is from the Dutch word “rooibosch” meaning “red bush.” The spelling was altered to “rooibos” when it was adopted into Afrikaans.
Rooibos is also often called “red tea,” but most tea professionals shy away from that name for several reasons:
- The term “red tea” is used by the Chinese to refer to what we call “black tea.” No sense having two different drinks with the same name.
- Rooibos isn’t tea, since it doesn’t come from the Camellia sinensis plant. Instead, it is a tisane or herbal infusion.
- Rooibos only has that rich red color when it’s processed like a black tea. Green rooibos is more of a golden honey-colored infusion.
Rooibos is a tasty drink that is also good for cooking. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance sometime soon to write a review soon of the cookbook A Touch of Rooibos. I have been looking through it lately and it’s filled with interesting ideas. Generally, when used for cooking, the rooibos is steeped for quite a while and then reduced to a thick syrupy consistency. Unlike black tea, it can be steeped for ten minutes or more without becoming unpalatable and bitter.
Unlike “real” tea, which all has caffeine, rooibos is naturally caffeine-free. Since the flavor is similar to a mild black tea, this makes it a favorite bedtime beverage for many tea drinkers. Rooibos is also high in antioxidants.
Herbalists make many claims about the health properties of the rooibos tisanes. The Web site for the South African Rooibos Council (SARC), in fact, has very little information that isn’t in some way tied back to health claims. There are more and more studies being done, but available data are lacking in specifics (in my opinion, anyway) so I’m not going to quote any of those there. Feel free to check SARC’s site for lots of studies.
I don’t mean to imply that rooibos is only about the health benefits. It is, in fact, a very tasty drink. Most rooibos drinkers in the U.S. enjoy it straight or with a bit of sweetener (honey or sugar). In South Africa, it is commonly served with a bit of milk or lemon as well as honey. A group funded by SARC and Stellenbosch University has recently developed a “sensory wheel” for rooibos, describing both the desirable and undesirable aspects of flavor and mouthfeel. If you are interested in more information, click on the wheel below.
Compared to tea, rooibos is a pretty small market. South Africa’s annual rooibos production is about 12,000 tons. That output is about equivalent to annual tea production of the Darjeeling region of India, or about a tenth of the tea production of Japan (the 8th largest tea producing country). Nonetheless, rooibos is important to South Africa, employing about 5,000 people and generating about $70 million in revenues.
The leaves of the rooibos bush are more like needles than the broad leaves of a tea plant. To produce red rooibos, the leaves are harvested, crushed, and oxidized using a process based on the one used in making Chinese black tea. Typically, the leaves are sprayed with water and allowed to oxidize for about 12 hours before being spread out in the sun to dry.
Green rooibos, as the name implies, is unoxidized or very lightly oxidized, and is processed more like a green tea.
For more information about the rooibos industry, I recommend the article Disputing a Name, Developing a Geographical Indication, from the World Intellectual Property Organization.
This article is the second of a three-part series.
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 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).
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.