All tea has caffeine.
(As long as what you’re calling “tea” is the same as what we’re calling “tea.”)
Is that about as clear as a strong mug of English Breakfast after you’ve added a hearty pour of milk? Yeah, we thought so. Here’s a quick summary of how we’re going to parse this out; a kind of “tl;dr” for those of you who want to win an argument quickly or impress friends at a cocktail party.
Traditional tea leaves come from the plant Camellia sinensis, and they all have caffeine — how much caffeine depends on how the leaves are processed. All other things called “tea” are herbal infusions, technically, and don’t have caffeine.
Got that? Great. Now read on if you want to get nerdier … and you know how we love to get nerdier.
Have you ever heard the legend of how tea was discovered? As the tale goes, the Chinese emperor Shennong liked to drink his water after it had been boiled. One day around 2737 bc when the water was being prepared for him, a leaf from a wild tea bush fell into the water. He tried it, he liked it, and boom - tea. (Not really “boom”, but this is a blog about caffeine, not tea history.)
Sure, it’s just a legend, but we think it’s safe to assume that tea eventually became the drink du jour around the world not only because of its flavor, but also because of the pep in your step you get after drinking some. That Camellia sinensis shrub that was in the right place at the right time has caffeine, and it was about to change the world.
“How much caffeine?” Is often the next question we get. That depends on how the leaves were treated after they came off of the plant. There are plenty of other factors involved (water temperature, steep time, amount of tea used and on and on) but in order to simplify things, let’s put it this way: the tea leaf has the caffeine, so the more surface area of that leaf you have in your tea, the more caffeine you’ve got.
A perfect example: matcha — ground up green tea — involves consuming the entire leaf, therefore it has the most caffeine. Next down the list is black tea, which in some cases involves the leaves being cut, torn, and curled before being dried, so there’s plenty of surface area involved. The amount of tea the leaves were oxidized, or exposed to air, also matters. Green tea is lower on the caffeine spectrum because the leaves are steamed to stop oxidation. White tea is the most minimally processed tea, therefore has the lowest caffeine content.
And there are plenty of exceptions to these rules we’ve just listed! Some white tea actually can be higher in caffeine when made with the tender buds of the Camellia sinensis, because caffeine is concentrated in that portion of the plant.
And for the most part*, all other “teas” are herbal and don’t include caffeine. That goes for rooibos or “red tea”, peppermint, chamomile, and vanilla peach springtime sunset, or whatever your favorite herbal tea is called.
It might help your non-tea-loving friends understand if you start calling herbal teas “infusions,” but we understand if you don’t want to. You could also just dump your non-tea-loving friends. We kid! We kid!
Cheers, tea lovers!
*Don’t even get us started on other plants prepared as teas that *do* contain caffeine, like yerba mate and guayusa. We’re mentioning them here in case you were to head down an online rabbit hole searching out more info.