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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?

Lady Grey

Trademark SymbolToday was tea blending day at the tea bar, as I mixed up new batches of our house blends. As I was working on our Lady Grey, I got to thinking about how incredibly different Lady Grey teas are from one company to the next, and decided to do a bit of reading on the subject.

It didn’t take long to find a comment that “Lady Grey” is a registered trademark of R. Twining and Company in the U.S. and U.K. (here’s a link to the trademark search on Trademarkia that shows it renewed in March of 2006). This hasn’t stopped quite a few companies from producing their own variations, like Jasmine Pearl (theirs has orange zest and lemon myrtle, but no bergamot!), SereneTeaz (an Earl Grey with lavender),  American Tea Room (they don’t have a full ingredient list, but it includes cornflower petals), and Tea Embassy (another Earl Grey with lavender).

Should I follow their lead and continue calling my blend Lady Grey? Nah. I have better things to do with my time and money than fight legal battles. I’ll do the right thing and follow the example of Marks & Spencer (they call theirs Empress Grey) and Trader Joe’s (Duchess Grey).

Duchess Grey Tea Empress Grey Tea

Twinings originally named their Lady Grey tea for Mary Elizabeth Grey. Their Earl Grey tea (which they changed last year) was named for her husband, Charles, who was the second Earl Grey. Twinings uses less bergamot in their Lady Grey than they do in Earl Grey, but they add other citrus and some cornflower.

I’ve never understood the rationale of “clone blends.” My “Lady Grey” isn’t the same as anyone else’s. If it was, I’d just buy theirs. I want something different. Mine is an organic blend, using Chinese black tea, oil of bergamot, wild Tibetan lavender, a little bit of vanilla, and a touch of rooibos.

What to call it? The one consistent thing about all of our other Earl Grey teas is the word “Earl.” Earl Green (green tea + bergamot), Earl Red (rooibos + bergamot), and all of the blends that use the full “Earl Grey” moniker, like Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey and Cream Earl Grey. The name “Lady Grey” keeps the “Grey” instead of the “Earl,” but is still connected.

So I have done what I often do in such situations: turn the question over to my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. I’ve asked Facebook and the Twitterverse for suggestions, and I’m starting a thread on my favorite message board (the Straight Dope). When we decide on a new name, you’ll read about it here first!

Orange Spice Carrot Cake Muffins

Carrot Cake MuffinAs promised, here’s the second recipe from our recent Chamber of Commerce party. Our food theme was cooking with tea, and this was a variant of a recipe that Bigelow Tea originally published. Obviously, we substituted teas that we sell at our Tea Bar for what they originally suggested.

In the muffins themselves, Kathy used our Cinnamon Orange Spice Ceylon tea, which adds some nice black tea flavor to the pure herbal blend in the original recipe.

For the frosting, she used one of my house blends: Hammer & Cremesickle Red Tea (you can order it here). The honeybush, rooibos, orange, and vanilla give it a sweet, rich, creamy flavor.

We made mini muffins, since they were being served hors d’oeuvre style. Feel free to try this as full-sized muffins or even a cake tin. Just adjust the baking time a bit.

Muffin Ingredients

  • 1/2 ounce of Cinnamon Orange Spice Ceylon Tea
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1-3/4 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 can of mandarin oranges
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tsp fresh-grated orange zest
  • 2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2-1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 cups shredded carrots

Muffin Process

  1. Boil water and add to tea. Steep for 6 minutes and strain out leaves.
  2. Heat oven to 350 F.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, combine sugar, eggs, and vegetable oil. Mix thoroughly at high speed for 1 to 2 minutes, or until thick and creamy.
  4. Drain the can of mandarin oranges (discard the liquid), and add it to the mixing bowl, along with the tea, vanilla, and orange zest. Continue mixing until well blended.
  5. In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Add this blend to the mixing bowl and mix at low speed for another 1-2 minutes.
  6. Add the shredded carrots and continue mixing until well blended.
  7. Scoop the batter into muffin tins, either using paper muffin cups or spraying the tins with non-stick spray. Fill a bit over 1/2 full.
  8. Bake for 18  to 20 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean.

Frosting Ingredients

  • 1/4 ounce Hammer & Cremesickle Red Tea
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 eight-ounce package of cream cheese
  • 1 tbsp butter (softened)
  • 3-1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar

Frosting Process

  1. Boil water and add to tea. Steep for 6 minutes and strain out leaves.
  2. Combine butter and cream cheese in a mixing bowl. Mix at high speed for one minute or until light and creamy.
  3. Add 2 tbsp of tea from step 1 and mix well.
  4. Add confectioner’s sugar and mix thoroughly for 1 to 2 minutes or until smooth and creamy.
  5. After the muffins have cooled, frost the top of each one with frosting.

These were a smash hit at the party, along with the Hipster Hummus recipe that I posted last week, and a couple more that I’ll be posting soon (next in the series: Meatballs in Lapsang Souchong Cream Sauce).

Spicing up couscous

Jamaica Red Rooibos

Jamaica Red Rooibos, courtesy of Rishi Tea

I have played around quite a bit with tea as a flavoring for vegetables, rice, fish, and other dishes. A few months ago, I was trying to decide on a good tea combo for adding some extra flavor to couscous. Most of the time, I use actual tea (made from the Camellia sinensis plant). Late one evening, however, when I was enjoying a cup of rooibos — a.k.a. African red bush — it occurred to me that it might make a great ingredient as well.

Straight rooibos wasn’t quite the flavor I was looking for, but one of the more popular blends at our tea bar seemed like just the ticket: Jamaica Red Rooibos from Rishi Tea.

The tea is named for the Jamaica flower, which is one of the nicknames for a variety of hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa) commonly used in tea. Rishi’s blend is complex. In addition to the rooibos and hibiscus flowers, it also contains lemongrass, schizandra berries, rosehips, licorice root, orange peel, passion fruit flavor, essential oils of orange and tangerine, mango flavor, and essential clove oil.

After a bit of monkeying around, I settled on a very simple recipe:

  1. Following the instructions with your particular couscous, bring enough water for four servings to a boil, and remove from heat.
  2. Add 2-3 tablespoons of Jamaica Red Rooibos and steep for seven minutes.
  3. Remove the leaves. I used a disposable tea filter. You could just as easily dump the leaves in the water and pour through a strainer.
  4. Bring the water back to a boil and add the couscous.
  5. Continue as you would for unflavored couscous.

For a little bit of extra texture, try adding a few tablespoons of chopped walnuts.

You can buy this tea from a variety of sources, including (of course) our own tea bar.

UPDATE May 2012: The Tea Bar’s website is now up and running, and you can order Jamaica Red Rooibos here.

Most popular teas of 2011

As 2011 draws to a close, I am looking over the numbers from our tea bar to see what have been our most popular and least popular blends. When we opened the tea bar I expected our biggest sellers to be what people are most used to, like English Breakfast and Earl Grey, and that’s essentially what the top two slots were. Beyond that, however, I got some surprises…

Red Lodge Books & Tea Bar#1: Ancient-Tree Earl Grey

This organic Earl Grey is made from 100-year-old tea trees and blended with pure bergamot oil. I’ve tried a lot of Earl Grey tea in my time, and this is probably my favorite, although recently I’ve been drinking more of our new house blend: Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey.

#2: Gary’s Scottish Breakfast

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 (around 3 minutes), and I drink it black.

[Update: This is the tea I used in the Hipster Hummus recipe for our Chamber of Commerce mixer in February 2012]

#3: Organic Premium Masala Chai

I suppose this one shouldn’t have surprised me. There are a lot of chai fans out there, and the coffee shops tend to make their chai from mixes instead of brewing it up fresh like we do. I typically make this with milk and locally-produced honey.

#4: Organic Moroccan Mint

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.

#5: Apricot Honeybush

This one took me by surprise. We have a lot of different rooibos and honeybush blends in the tea bar, and I added this one initially just as something fun and different. Who knew it would end up as our most popular caffeine-free drink?

#6: Peach White

This Chinese Pai Mu Tan white tea with delicate peach flavoring is the most popular iced tea in the tea bar, but it’s also wonderful hot.

#7: Montana Gold

This is a rooibos blend from our friends up at Montana Tea & Spice company in Missoula. They add cinnamon, orange peel,  cloves, and other goodies to produce a spicy caffeine-free concoction that definitely plays in Red Lodge.

#8: Chocolate Maté Chai

Dessert in a mug! This velvety 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.

#9: Carnival Maté

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!

#10: Jamaica Red Rooibos

This one sounded a little strange to me, but I brought it in to the tea bar on a whim. It’s another organic fair-trade blend. The Jamaica flower (Hibiscus Sabdariffa) is blended with organic red rooibos, along with lemongrass, schizandra berries, rosehips, licorice root, orange peel, natural passion fruit flavor, natural essential oils of orange and tangerine, natural mango flavor and natural essential clove oil. It’s awesome. I don’t just drink it, I cook with it, too.

What will be the big sellers in 2012? I think many of these will stay on the list, but we have some new blends that are selling strong right now (like our Hammer and Cremesickle Red and the aforementioned Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey), and a lot more planned for the coming months. Half of the top ten for 2011 are organic, and I’m curious whether that trend will continue. Even though the organic teas tend to cost a bit more, people are willing to pay the difference.

Hammer & Cremesickle Red

Hammer & Cremesickle RedIsn’t it fun how names develop for tea blends? The naming process is almost as much fun as the blending process itself.

For weeks, I had been trying to come up with a tea that invoked the taste of the creamsicles I used to enjoy so much as a kid (Who am I kidding? I still enjoy them!). Frozen orange over a vanilla bar. Yum! My initial attempts were based on black teas, and the flavor of the tea kept overwhelming the flavor of the orange and vanilla.

Finally, I hit on something that seemed to work. A blend of rooibos and honeybush as a base, which adds a rich, creamy texture. Orange and natural vanilla for the cremesicle flavor, and just a touch of carob to round everything out. I tried it both hot and iced and decided I liked it.

Some friends, Al and Ranetta, popped by the tea bar, and I asked if they’d like to sample my newest concoction. Being willing guinea pigs, they acquiesced. They tasted, we talked, and they liked it. Ranetta asked if she could buy a few ounces. As I started to write out the label, my hand stopped, poised to write, as I realized I hadn’t named the new blend yet.

I decided to write “orange creamsicle,” but Al was talking and distracting me (It’s all Al’s fault. Really it is). I misspelled the word. Unbelievable, isn’t it? But I threw an extra K in there. I noticed the error and commented on it.

“How did you spell it?” Al asked.

“Sickle with a K,” I replied. “As in ‘hammer and sickle’.”

It struck us both at about the same time that this is a red tea (the rooibos plant is also called the African redbush), so that could end up as a very fitting name. Al asked for a sheet of paper and set to work sketching a logo. I scanned, tweaked, and colorized his masterpiece (sorry, Al) and included it at the top of this blog post.

(Please imagine, in the following paragraph, that I’m speaking with the same accent as Mickey Rourke used when playing Whiplash in the second Iron Man movie. If you can’t do that, I’ll settle for Boris Badenov from the Rocky & Bullwinkle show.)

You must buy Hammer & Creamsickle Red now, comrade. Will take you back to childhood summers at family dacha on Volga river. Decadent treat from American capitalists. We have our own capitalism now; our own pravda. We have no money, but tea is cheap. Try now.

[UPDATE Feb 2012: We used this tea in the frosting for our Orange Spice Carrot Cake Muffins. It worked beautifully!]

[UPDATE Apr 2012: Al has drawn us another logo, this time for Robson’s Honey Mint Tea. He does great work.]

[UPDATE May 2012: Hammer & Cremesickle Red Tea is now available on our new Tea Bar website. I’ve updated the links in this article accordingly.]

I’ll have a green red tea, please

I’ve been drinking rooibos (a.k.a. “African redbush,” a.k.a. “red tea”) for years, and stocked our tea bar liberally with varieties of it. All of them use the same base plant — Aspalathus linearis — prepared with an oxidation process similar to what’s used for black tea. The plant is naturally caffeine-free, which is a great boon for those of us who aren’t fans of chemical or pressure decaffeination techniques.


In green rooibos, the leaves (shaped like needles) are heated after picking to stop the oxidation process and keep the green color and mild flavor.

Rooibos has developed quite a following, especially with all of the press it’s been getting for being high in antioxidants. Only recently, however, have requests started coming in at the tea bar for “green” rooibos.

I am in the tea business because I love the flavors of tea. I’m not an herbalist, so everything I do with tea starts with the taste. I ordered in some green rooibos for the tea bar, and gave it a try. Green rooibos has minimal tannin content, so bitterness isn’t a danger. For my first try, I made a cup using 195-degree water (I’m at 5,500 feet altitude, so that’s about 7 degrees below boiling), and steeped it for 5 minutes. I used one tablespoon for a 13-ounce cup, and did not add anything (no lemon, sugar, milk…).

The first thing I noticed was the color. The liquid is a beautiful golden honey color, quite different both from most green teas and from the traditional red rooibos. The tea is smooth and woody, with just a hint of grassiness and nut flavor. True to promise, there’s no bitterness at all, and no need for additives. Just to push the limits, I re-used the leaves, steeping them for 10 minutes this time. The flavor and aroma were almost identical to the first cup.

There are a lot of claims out there about green rooibos being significantly higher in antioxidants than traditional red rooibos. A quick perusal of the research still shows mixed results on that, so I’m not going to take a position on the health effects. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m in it for the taste!

While writing this, I realized that I had tried it hot, but not iced. The folks over at Suffuse Rooibos say green rooibos makes a fantastic iced tea, so I took a break to make a cup of iced green rooibos (the research is the best part of this job!). I brewed it the same way (5-minute steep time), and poured it directly over a cup of ice cubes — again, I didn’t add anything to it. I found it refreshing and tasty; excellent for a hot day when I don’t want to overload with caffeine. I will definitely be drinking more of this!

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