Caffeine (also called Theine) has long been used as a safe and mild stimulant. Indeed, it is considered to be the most psychoactive drug in the world. The substance is naturally occurring in some 60 plant species, with coffee beans and tea leaves among them. The latter is known to be the most widely used means for consuming caffeine on a daily basis.
Effects of Caffeine in Tea vs. Coffee
While it is true that tea can reach quite a substantial concentration of the stimulant it will typically be considerably lower than that of a cup of coffee. Besides, caffeine in tea leaves act differently in the body compared to coffee. Tannins and high levels of antioxidants (polyphenols) in tea will form bonds with caffeine, which in return slow down its release.
Therefore, the stimulating effect is more balanced and will last much longer; which makes tea a great drink to effectively enhance concentration throughout the day.
Tea and books - mmmmm, two of life's exquisite pleasures that together bring near-bliss.
In addition, there is another very important substance uniquely inherent in tea leaves: the amino acid L-theanine. It is generally agreed that L-theanine may create positive mood-altering effects, and is responsible for the often experienced “tea high”. The unique combination of Caffeine and L-theanine in tea is believed to sharpen the mind and enhance intellectual acuity.
Now, how does that sound for a great cup!
Caffeine levels in Tea
It is often assumed that black tea has the highest concentration of caffeine among all tea families, which is not quite true indeed. Let me explain, caffeine is a relatively stable molecule. Hence, its concentration in the leaf is barely affected by any processing step during production (or state of oxidation).
Generally, levels are highest in younger leaves, and will be greatly influenced by:
- the plants growing conditions
- whether the tea variety is sinensis or assamica
- and the steeping method
The younger the leaf when plucked, the higher the caffeine concentration.
To pin down a certain caffeine value for a certain type of tea wouldn’t be correct either. Region, climate, field conditions, soil, and even pests can influence the amount in a given tea leaf to a great deal. For example, pest stress could stimulate more caffeine production in a plant as the molecule serves as a natural bug repellent.
However, there are two major varieties of tea plants: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis for Chinese teas, and Camellia sinensis var. assamica for Indian Assam teas.
Teas made from variety Assamica generally contain more caffeine than those made from variety Sinensis.
Means, an Indian Assamica black tea would likely have more caffeine than a Chinese black tea.
Finally, the way we steep the leaves also affects the caffeine concentration in the liquor.
Typically, the largest amount is released during the first three minutes of infusion.
But I wouldn’t agree with some opinions that caffeine can be widely “washed away” by discarding the first steep as there is still a substantial residue present in the leaves. And why considering to put a great cuppa down the sink anyway?
If you are very sensitive to caffeine, I would recommend to chose a tea that is considered to have lower levels, like Hojicha (roasted, green tea) or Keemun (black tea). You could also reduce steeping time or simply lower the amount of leaves per cup. To eliminate the stimulant completely, you could choose a herbal tea/ tisane or Rooibos.