Tea is the favorite drink of people all over the world, but are you drinking tea, or a tisane? It turns out, while many people call both drinks ‘tea,’ there’s a pretty big difference between the two. Tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, while tisanes are herbal infusions.
Okay, so what does that mean?
Camellia sinensis is the plant from which all types of tea are derived. While there are some subspecies of tea plant, there are two main varieties that become the tea you drink: Camellia sinensis sinensis, and Camellia sinensis assamica. Both are closely related plants with similar methods of processing, and while different cultivars can be found at the many tea gardens and plantations spread across China and India, you can be sure that they are all essentially the same plant.
So how do we end up with different flavors of tea if it all comes from one plant? There are a few main factors:
Certain cultivars are known for different flavor profiles, with assamica teas tending to be stronger and more robust than their more delicate sinensis counterparts. Like tomatoes, which vary in size, shape, color, and flavor, tea plants can have their flavor influenced by cultivar (the specific strain of tea being grown), region, growing practice, and local weather.
Because of this, particular tea gardens have become famous for incredible and rare flavors of tea that only they can produce. If your tea is single source, you can be sure it came from one tea garden, and this can help you narrow down the flavor profiles you enjoy.
The way a tea is processed determines its taste and preparation perhaps even more than cultivar. Each type of tea--red, black, green, white, oolong, puerh--comes from the same plant processed in a different manner.
Variations in tea processing are a whole story of their own, but in sum, they come down to the method of drying, level of oxidation, and amount of time they are allowed to process. Each type of processing creates a different type of tea, and each type of tea has its own preferred brew times and temperatures, too.
Many people like green tea but hate black tea. Why? Green tea is processed for less time, resulting in a tea that is less oxidized, with a lighter flavor. Black tea, on the other hand, is dried longer and results in a higher oxidation, higher caffeine content, and stronger flavor. White tea is considered the least processed and closest to the natural flavor of the tea plant!
Another way to ensure flavor differences in tea is with blending. Whether this happens with different types of tea, such as the mixing of Ceylon and Assam that goes into English breakfast blends, the addition of flavor essences like Bergamot that creates an Earl Grey, or even a mixture of tea leaves and other plant matter, all influence the flavor profiles of the tea you drink.
Blended teas are the most common type of tea, in fact, most plain black tea you find at the grocery store is still a blended tea, simply because tea strains and cultivars are often mixed in processing and bagging to ensure a uniform flavor. You can only be sure you’re getting a non-blended tea by purchasing a single-source tea.
Tisanes are ‘teas’ that actually include no tea at all. Composed of plant matter such as flowers, spices, and herbs, tisanes are herbal infusions or decoctions that don’t include Camellia Sinensis.
If one of your favorite before-bed infusions includes a mixture of lavender and chamomile and has no caffeine at all, you’re probably drinking a tisane.
So what’s so different about a tisane?
Unlike teas, including blended teas, tisanes don’t include Camellia sinensis, and for this reason can’t really be called ‘tea.’
While this doesn’t seem to matter to most producers of hot drinkable beverages, who constantly label their herbal infusions as sleepy teas or tummy teas, it does matter that you know what you’re asking for if you enter any serious herbal shop or apothecary. A good herbalist will have the sense to clarify what it is you’re looking for, but not all shopkeeps remember to ask.
A huge difference between tisanes and teas is the lack of caffeine. Because the tea plant is a natural source of caffeine, all teas are going to include it, even if it’s been turned into a decaf blend.
For those of us whom caffeine isn’t an issue, this may not seem like a big deal, however, some people have severe reactions to caffeine due to medical conditions, which makes tea unsafe for their consumption. In this instance, a tisane would be the way to go, as most herbs and spices contain no caffeine whatsoever, and tisanes are generally viewed as safe for people with caffeine sensitivities.
While tea and tisanes share a method of preparation, namely, brewing in hot water, tisanes do differ in their needs in order to get the best results.
Teas typically steep for 2-3 minutes, and at varying temperatures depending on the type of tea you’re drinking. Lighter teas like greens and whites prefer a temperature that is lower than boiling to prevent becoming bitter, while black teas can handle hot water.
Tisanes almost always require boiling water and steep times ranging from 5 - 15 minutes, as it takes longer for herbs to steep than it does for tea. If you’re ever mystified as to why your infusion tastes so weak, try steeping it for a few minutes more, and you may find that you like the flavor much better!
In the end, you can call a tisane or herbal infusion ‘tea,’ and people will generally know what you mean and neither mind nor care. It is, however, important for you to know the differences between these two types of drinks for your own knowledge so that you can make accurate and informed decisions about what you put in your body.
Hopefully you found this article helpful! For more info on tea, tisanes, and herbs, be sure to check out our blog!