On Caffeine

Let’s make this personal for a moment. I start drinking tea first thing in the morning and generally have up to 16 cups every day, rarely fewer than 12 cups. I stop drinking tea about 3:30 p.m. because if I don’t, I’ll have trouble falling asleep at night. All the tea I drink is naturally caffeinated. 

Now let’s poke around all that. People know that caffeine is a diuretic. This is technically true, but in practice, even drinking as much tea as I do, I have no dehydration, no weight loss. Perhaps if I drank exceptionally strong tea (which I don’t) or if I drank a lot more, there might be a diuretic effect, but drinking reasonably brewed tea in reasonable amounts does not cause a significant caffeine-driven diuretic effect.

Caffeine is a stimulant, and for most people increases not only mental focus but provides a bit of a physical boost as well. For me, that first cup of tea in the morning helps me with the otherwise disagreeable process of waking up. Prior to my tea, I am not noticeably capable of speech; afterward my verbal skills are significantly improved.

All tea, that is, the leaves of the plant camllia sinensis, naturally contain caffeine, but many factors affect the amount of caffeine in the tea–where it is grown, when the leaves are picked, how the tea is treated after the harvest. And then after all that, the amount of caffeine that winds up in that first, important, morning cup, is affected by the brewing process–whether more or less tea goes into the teapot, more or less water, longer or shorter brewing time, hotter or cooler water. It’s a long path from the tea plant growing on the sun-facing terrace on the side of a mountain in southern China to the steaming cup you hold in your hand, and at many points along the way, the potential caffeine content is affected.

Because of all those factors, it’s ridiculous that people will tell you which tea has more caffeine and which has less, and even more absurd that they will go so far as to quantify it. It is absolutely possible to identify the amount of caffeine in tea leaves, in fact that’s pretty much the only way (short of buying pre-brewed tea) to quantify caffeine levels. But to illustrate how silly the endeavor is, let’s take a look at our White Peony tea, and think about the issue of caffeine.  

It turns out that white tea has the highest amount of caffeine if you’re looking at caffeine levels of dry tea, roughly an eye popping five percent by weight.  But white tea is extraordinarily light, about five times less dense than our jade oolong or gunpowder green tea. If you’re brewing a pot of tea and adding a tablespoon of tea to the teapot, the amount of tea–by weight– is a fifth that of the most dense teas. Unsurprisingly then, a cup of brewed white tea winds up having the *least* amount of caffeine of any tea other than one that has actually been decaffeinated.

In general, for brewed tea, you can assume that white tea will have the least amount of caffeine, green teas perhaps twice as much, and the oolongs and black teas the most, at roughly three times the caffeine of white tea. And the most highly caffeinated teas have a bit less caffeine than the least caffeinated coffee, and a third as much as the most caffeinated coffee. See chart below.

Do bear in mind that the way tea is brewed has an enormous effect on the way it tastes, both in terms of strength and for some teas bitterness, and in the amount of caffeine that winds up in the cup. For instance, if you make a pot of white tea with a modest amount of tea, and steep it a relatively short time, then decant it and then pour it into a glass filled with ice (our White Peony makes an utterly splendid iced tea) the amount of caffeine is pretty trivial.  

By contrast, our Jade Oolong, made with a bit more tea than necessary, and somewhat hotter water, and left to steep just a bit longer than usual, will make a very high test brew, one particularly suited to those mornings when I am feeling less energetic than usual. 

Why isn’t Little Red Cup Tea able to offer decaffeinated tea? Simple– we’re a small, family operated company, and low-volume decaffeination properly done is not economically feasible. For our customers who want organic and Fair Trade tea without caffeine, we offer Tea Flowers–which aren’t technically tea, but they do come from the tea plant itself, and are essentially caffeine free, coming in at one half of one percent by weight, the same as you would find in any commercial decaffeinated tea. 

Brewed Tea Caffeine Content (per cup) Rough estimate:

Camellia Flowers Practically 0
Our White Peony 10-20mg
Our Green Teas 25-30mg
Our Oolong Teas 40-50mg
Our Black Teas 50 mg