Your Herbal Tea Isn’t Really Tea

published May 9, 2016
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(Image credit: Andrea D’Agosto)

Did you know that tea is one of the most consumed beverages in the world, second only to water? Approximately 80 percent of Americans are tea drinkers — and that percentage is even higher for millennials. As a nation we’re most likely to drink our tea black and iced, but with more than 3,000 varieties of tea available, there are a bevy of options out there. And that’s not including herbal teas, also known as tisanes, which aren’t actually teas at all.

What Is Tea?

Technically, tea refers to the leaves of just one plant. All “true” tea comes from the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant, an evergreen shrub native to Asia — although many types of tea, from black teas like English Breakfast and Earl Grey to Chinese and Japanese green teas, can be derived from this one plant depending on how the leaves are processed.

Black teas are oxidized; the same process that makes bananas turn brown is how tea leaves get their rich, dark color. With oolong, it’s a more time-consuming process with the leaves being shaken in bamboo baskets to lightly bruise and dry the leaves. And white teas are simply left out to dry. They taste as close to the living tea bush as you can get.

What Is Tisane?

Also known as herbal teas, tisanes (pronounced ti-zahn) are not actually teas at all (i.e., they do not come from the
Camelia Sinensis plant). Instead they are infusions made from leaves, bark, roots, berries, seeds, and spices. Common tisanes include mint, chamomile, verbena, and rooibos.

Tea vs. Tisane: Caffeine

Another big difference between tea and tisane is caffeine. All teas have caffeine. The amount varies from a low of 35 milligrams per eight-ounce cup for green tea to a high of 90 milligrams for black. Herbal infusions, on the other hand, are caffeine-free, making them ideal for post-supper sipping.

Brewing the Perfect Cup

Various tea types come with their own requirements for steeping. “White and green teas are best with cooler water and shorter steeping times,” explains Melanie Barbusci, customer engagement director for DAVIDsTEA. She adds that if you don’t like green tea, you may be burning or over-steeping the delicate leaves. It should taste sweet and vegetal — not bitter. Black tea, on the other hand, can handle a hotter temperature and slightly longer steeping time.

Still, the average brewing time for tea is relatively short, but that’s not the case with tisanes. “While the perfect cup of tea might take two or three minutes to steep, an herbal infusion or tisane will take anywhere from four to 15 minutes,” explains Kristi Grotsch, a tea sommelier-in-training with the Shangri-La Toronto. “It takes time for the flavors to develop,” she says.

Another secret to a perfect tisane is using boiling water — and keeping your cup or teapot covered while it’s steeping. This will both preserve the heat and prevent those wonderful aromas from escaping.

Tea or tisane? Which do you prefer? Tell us in the comments!