Caffeine in Tea: Myths and Facts

There is always that moment, right? That moment when a tea lover has to explain whether they are gulping incredible amounts of caffeine with each cup... or not. Caffeine and tea is a very complex topic, it’s no surprise that it still causes so much confusion. In a previous post we talked at length about the chemistry of caffeine, because, well, it truly is fascinating. In this post, we are going to use all that knowledge to debunk a few myths about caffeine and bring a few facts to light.

What does caffeine does to my body?

Caffeine is a natural stimulant. Its main effect is to increase our alertness and focus, improve our reaction times and motor coordination. It does so by preventing the molecule responsible or drowsiness to affect the brain.

The amount of caffeine that a person must drink in order to feel these effects vary a lot. In general, it will depend on their body type and previous caffeine drinking habits.

Darvaza Teas Explore Caffeine in Tea Woman jumping in front of mountains

Is caffeine bad for me?

Like most things in life, it’s a matter of quantity. Caffeine itself isn’t bad for the body, and tea is actually an excellent way to get it.

In coffee, the caffeine is released quite quickly and can be felt after about 30 minutes and for the next couple of hours: that’s the “coffee rush”. However in tea, caffeine binds to the tannins and is released in the body over a longer period of time, about 10 hours.

In other words, the caffeine we drink in our tea stimulates us, but in the longer run. That is why we don’t get a “tea rush”.

How much caffeine is there in tea?

This is the wrong question. And because it is the wrong question, it does not have an answer.

The caffeine content of different teas depends on an incredible number of factors:

  • the growing conditions, which depend on the local climate and soil as well as the care of the grower;
  • the part(s) of the plant that is plucked: the bud contains more caffeine than the older, larger leaves;
  • the processing, which transforms the fresh tea leaves into a ready-to-drink tea. The rough rule of thumb is that a tea that has undergone a long processing such as an oolong or a smoked tea will contain less caffeine than a less processed white or green tea;
  • the brewing conditions, too! How much tea is brewed, at what temperature and for how long will have the final say on the amount of caffeine freed in the cup.

So, really, the right question would be something along the line of “How much caffeine is there in my hand-rolled Himalayan oolong tea, grown in the Dharmsala Tea Company estate, plucked on [pick your date!], if I brew 2g at 80°C for 3 min in a large mug?”

As you can see, it is going to be difficult to answer this question for every single tea, blend and brewing style! In addition, let’s not forget that fine loose teas like the oolong above can be brewed several times… With each brew, there will be a little less caffeine (but still a lot of flavour!).

Still, is there more or less caffeine in tea than in coffee?

Since this discussion usually starts with a comparison with coffee, let’s do this: Tea contains more caffeine than coffee by dry weight, that is true. However, fewer tea leaves are needed to make a cup, compared to the amount of coffee. So the tea we drink will contain about 2 to 3 times less caffeine than a cup of coffee. The only notable exception to this is the Japanese matcha, because the entire leaf is consumed.

Can we trust the colour?

Contrary to our best intuition, the colour of tea is actually a very poor indicator of its caffeine content! The caffeine concentration can be very high in white and some green teas, although again, it depends on the brewing method. Smoked teas and oolong, which are among the most process-intensive teas, contain almost no caffeine at all.

Can we trust the taste, then..?

No, the taste is a myth, too. One often associates a strong black tea with a higher caffeine content than a pale white or green tea… but that would be a mistake! It may be true (with the caveats listed above) if you drink from a tea bag: since the tea has been reduced in a powder, it will release its caffeine more easily than full leaves. (but then, you can also only brew it once...)

Can I decaffeinate my tea myself?

No. Not at all. In fact, this enduring myth is very damaging to the quality of your drink!

It goes like this: supposedly, you can decaffeinate your tea by brewing it for 30 seconds, throw the water away, and use the second brew. Again supposedly, this second brew will have 20% of the caffeine left in it.

Except, experimental research have showed again and again for the past 30 years that it doesn’t work like this. In fact, you would have to brew your tea for 5 to 10 minutes to remove 70 to 90% of the caffeine content. By which time, you will have also rid your tea of its flavours as well.

 

(Photo by Peter Conlan via Unsplash)

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