Teacology

Tea, with an Ecological Approach


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Natural Alternatives to Decaf Black Tea: Herbs Tasting Like Black Tea

For a preview, this post will be featuring rooibos, red raspberry leaf, and New Jersey tea.

There is a significant demand for decaffeinated tea.  RateTea currently lists 231 decaf teas, around 3.5% of the 6600+ teas in the database.  (This figure only includes true teas that have been decaffeinated–not herbal teas that are naturally caffeine free.)  And Google Trends shows that the search interest in decaf tea is on the rise, with a spike that coincides with the interest in green tea, which I wrote about on SpontaneiTea recently.

Decaffeinated flavored or spiced teas, like this "chai spice tea" sold by Stash, often come out better than pure decaf teas, because the additional flavorings can be added after the decaffeination process removes much of the flavor from the tea.  Photo by JHoltzman, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Decaffeinated flavored or spiced teas, like this “chai spice tea” sold by Stash, often taste better than pure decaf teas, because the additional flavorings can be added after the decaffeination process removes much of the flavor from the tea. Photo by JHoltzman, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

On a personal level, I understand and relate to the desire for drinking decaf, at least in the abstract.  I love tea, and I frequently drink enough of it that I don’t want any more, not because I tire of the taste or experience of drinking it, but rather, because I can only handle so much caffeine.  Different people have different sensitivities to caffeine, and I find that I tend to be pretty sensitive to it.  Tea festivals and trade shows like World Tea East or the Philadelphia Coffee and Tea Festival often put me in a bind–I want to keep sampling teas, but because I get so caffeinated, I turn down all but those I feel pretty sure I’ll like, and I’ve learned to pace myself with respect to the caffeine.  So I understand how someone could want to drink tea without caffeine.

But decaf tea never satisfies me.  In fact, more often than not, I think it tastes quite terrible, and I’d rather drink nothing or water than drink it.  I’ve poured out many a decaf tea, brewing it only to find that it doesn’t even taste drinkable to me.  Even the best decaf teas, to me, are ones that I dislike less rather than ones I truly love.  Yet there is no shortage of naturally caffeine-free herbal teas that I enjoy.

There are also other reasons to avoid drinking decaf tea.  One is health, and another is resource usage, which is related to sustainability.  In this post, I will explore some of the reasons to drink naturally caffeine-free herbs rather than decaf tea, and I will give examples of the herbs that I think make the best tea substitutes.

Why Avoid Decaffeinated Tea? Health and Sustainability

Health and Safety Issues: Toxicity and Carcinogenicity

Decaffeination processes for coffee and tea have come a long way in terms of health and safety.  Can you believe that benzene used to be used in decaffeination (for coffee, not tea)?  Benzene is a major carcinogen and one of the most dangerous chemicals out there, in large part because it is both highly volatile and odorless.  One of my relatives, a non-smoker, was an artist and used benzene as a paint thinner, and died of lung cancer.  Thankfully, our society woke up to the dangers of this chemical long ago, and it has not been in use in decaffeination for years.

If you want to learn more in-depth about the decaffeination processes, both current and historic, used to remove the caffeine from tea, I recommend reading RateTea’s article on decaffeinated tea.  Although there are a few esoteric processes, most tea nowadays is decaffeinated by one of three processes: CO2 (Carbon Dioxide), ethyl acetate, and methylene chloride.  I seriously doubt that decaf tea is going to kill or seriously harm anyone, but there have been some health and safety concerns associated with methylene chloride.  The other two processes, from my research, are totally safe.  Ethyl acetate sounds like a synthetic chemical, but it is a naturally occurring chemical, one that even occurs in tea leaf itself and may be an important (and pleasant) component of the fruity aroma of both tea and wine.

Methylene chloride or dichloromethane, a probable carcinogen and known liver toxin, is used in some decaffeination processes.

Methylene chloride or dichloromethane, a probable carcinogen and known liver toxin, is used in some decaffeination processes.

Methylene chloride, synonym dichloromethane, on the other hand, is a toxic chemical that shows some evidence of carcinogenicity.  The use of this chemical is still legal in the United States.  The EPA’s fact sheet on the chemical claims that the chemical does not harm the Ozone layer (unlike the fluorocarbons), but it can cause serious health problems, even at concentrations as low as 100 parts-per-million.  Ingesting the chemical in a high enough dosage can cause liver problems, and the compound is classified as a probable carcinogen in humans, on the basis of it being a known carcinogen in animals.

Although the use of methylene chloride in decaffeination is regulated, I’m not convinced that it is always used within safe limits.  I located one study which measured 15.9 parts-per-million of this chemical in a sample of commercially available decaffeinated tea.  This is far higher than the allowable limit, and an amount that is enough to raise concerns about chronic/subchronic toxicity of the liver and possible carcinogenicity, especially in people who drink decaf tea regularly and in volume.

For this reason, I recommend for tea drinkers to avoid decaf tea where the decaffeination process is not identified as CO2, ethyl acetate, or another safe process.  I also recommend for tea companies to phase out using methylene chloride, and for companies using safer processes to clearly identify which decaffeination process they do use, so that tea drinkers don’t overzealously avoid their products thinking they may be using the old methylene chloride process.  As an example, Upton Tea Imports sells both CO2 and ethyl acetate decaf teas, and clearly identifies the process used on each tea.

Sustainability: Decaffeination is an Inefficient Production Process

From a resource usage standpoint, decaffeinated tea is extremely inefficient.  Tea has been cultivated in large part because of its caffeine content, and many cultivars have been selected, in addition to their flavor, for their moderate-to-high caffeine content.

A lot of effort goes into tea production; decaffeination effectively throws out a large portion of that effort.  Photo by Martin Benjamin, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

A lot of effort goes into tea production; decaffeination effectively throws out a large portion of that effort. Photo by Martin Benjamin, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

When tea is decaffeinated, regardless of which process is used, both flavor and caffeine are extracted, not to mention the polyphenols that function as the antioxidants in tea and are responsible for some of tea’s health benefits.

Although some processes are more selective than others (in terms of extracting more caffeine relative to flavor), all processes remove significant amounts of flavor.  What this means is that in order to produce a flavorful cup of decaffeinated tea, the initial tea leaf needs to be that much more flavorful.  The efficiency of this production process is poor: decaf tea essentially involves putting energy and resources into producing a product, most of which is thrown out before consumption.  (An exception to this, salvaging some of what is removed, is when the extracted caffeine is purified and sold to the pharmaceutical industry or beverage manufacturers; I don’t know if this is currently done with tea, although I’ve read of this being done for coffee.)

Furthermore, the decaffeination process is itself costly and energy-intensive.  The CO2 process, generally considered the most desirable of the three processes mentioned above in terms of both safety and preservation of flavor, is particularly costly as it involves the use of supercritical carbon dioxide (i.e. compressed under great pressure).  This is because, at regular atmospheric pressure, carbon dioxide transitions directly from a solid (dry ice) to a gas, without going through a liquid phase.

Natural Alternatives: Caffeine-Free Herbal Teas Which Resemble Black Tea in Flavor and Aroma

Rooibos: South African “Red Tea”

Rooibos is the herb that I see most frequently presented as being “tea-like”.  It certainly is nowhere near as diverse as black tea, but it does share some characteristics, both of production and flavor and overall character, with black tea.  Rooibos is one of the few herbal teas that is naturally oxidized, in a process analogous to how black tea is oxidized during production.

Rooibos, or South African "Red Tea", is one of the herbal teas said to more closely emulate black tea.

Rooibos, or South African “Red Tea”, is one of the herbal teas said to more closely emulate black tea.

I find that rooibos replicates the body, mouthfeel, and overall sensations on the palate of black tea more so than it emulates tea in aroma.  There are certain earthy characteristics of aroma that rooibos shares in common with some black teas, but overall I find its aroma to be distinct.  I find its aroma sometimes suggests vanilla, and while it has a fruitiness to it, the fruitiness seems more to suggest strawberry, in contrast to the grape, raisin, or stone fruit aromas suggested by some black teas.  Perhaps more importantly to me, rooibos completely lacks the malty and floral tones that I like in a lot of black teas, and I find that its flavor profile tends to be muted–making it similar to some of the more muted black teas, but never like a strong Irish Breakfast or Assam, or even a sharper Darjeeling.

Red Raspberry Leaf

Red raspberry leaf is best-known as a women’s health product.  Yogi Tea sells tea bags of this herb with the caption “Supports the female system“, a blurb I find amusing as I like to drink it as a beverage, and I certainly enjoy a strong female support system in my life.  Medicinally, red raspberry leaf is typically consumed most during pregnancy, on the grounds that it supposedly strengthens or tones the uterus.  However, several of my friends also swear by its effectiveness for PMS and menstrual cramps.  As this is one area where I have no personal experience, and I was unable to find any studies backing up this use, the best I can give you is anecdotal evidence.

Leaves of the red raspberry plant, Rubus idaeus, can be used to make a caffeine-free herbal tea which in some respects resembles black tea.  Public domain photo by Matti Virtala.

Leaves of the red raspberry plant, Rubus idaeus, can be used to make a caffeine-free herbal tea which in some respects resembles black tea. Public domain photo by Matti Virtala.

Unlike some women’s health teas (like lavender or honeybush), red raspberry leaf does not seem to alter hormone levels, and it is thus safe for both men and women to drink as a beverage.  And drinking it as a beverage is something I not only do, but recommend, especially for people who want something that tastes like black tea–as I find this herb tastes a lot like black tea.

For starters, the color of the brewed cup is much more like a typical black tea, a rich brown color, than rooibos.  Where the similarity really shows up, however, is in the aroma.  It certainly doesn’t smell exactly like black tea, but I find that red raspberry leaf tea has an aroma that captures some of the floral tones in high-grade black teas.  The tannins also seem to resemble black tea more than rooibos does.  I would say raspberry leaf is probably most similar to a Ceylon, and possibly even some Darjeeling teas.  The sensation on the palate, and mouthfeel though of this tea, is very different, I would say much less tea-like than rooibos.  I find that it has a thinner body with a clearer feeling…and while there is an astringency that slightly resembles some of the more tannic teas, the astringency hits in a different way, I find coming more in the aftertaste and being a little less up-front than, say, in a strong breakfast tea or Assam.

New Jersey Tea: A Caffeine-Free Tea Substitute Native to Eastern North America

One herb that I’ve read about extensively, and have been itching to try, but have yet to actually get my hands on, is New Jersey Tea.  New Jersey Tea, or Ceanothus americanus, is a plant in the buckthorn (Rhamnaceae) family.  This plant family is distantly related to the rose family, and besides the namesake Buckthorns (small trees and shrubs), contains very few plants familiar to most residents of North America or Western Europe, although residents of the Western U.S. may be familiar with the snowbrush ceanothus, Ceanothus velutinus.  Both the snowbrush ceanothus and New Jersey Tea were used by native Americans in herbal infusions to treat upper respiratory infections like the common cold and influenza.

New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus, in bloom.

New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus, in bloom.  Public domain photo courtesy of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge.

I’ve also read that New Jersey Tea plant shares some aromatic components with wintergreen oil, and wintergreen tones are one of my favorite aromatic characteristics of high-quality black tea–and a quality that is captured in neither rooibos nor raspberry leaf.  I have a feeling that I may really like this one when I finally try it.

And Now For Something Completely Different

Often, when I drink herbal tea, I don’t insist that my beverage resembles tea at all.  Most of my favorite herbal teas taste nothing like black tea or any pure tea for that matter.  Some of my favorite herbs to brew herbal teas with include spearmint, orange mint, tulsi, lemon balm, pineapple sage, and lemon verbena, to name a few.  I also love the Monarda species, some of which resemble the bergamot flavoring in Earl Grey (without resembling the base black tea as much).

I’d take any of these herb teas over a decaf black tea any day.  Sometimes I find that enjoying herbal teas on their own is more satisfying than trying to seek out ones that taste like black tea: although it’s possible to get close, it’ll never be possible to get an exact match, and I feel like herbal teas are easy to enjoy as a phenomenon in their own right.

What do you think?

  • Do you ever feel the desire or need to avoid or limit your use of caffeine?  Does the idea of a decaffeinated or caffeine-free tea-like beverage appeal to you?
  • Have you ever found a decaffeinated pure tea that you really loved?  I’m not talking flavored teas like Earl Grey, as the flavors can be added in after the decaffeination is carried out; I mean a straight tea like pure black tea.
  • Are you concerned about the potential health issues surrounding the use of methylene chloride?  Were you aware that this chemical is still in use in decaffeination processes?
  • Have you tried any of the three examples I gave of naturally caffeine-free beverages that resemble black tea?
  • Can you think of any herbal teas that I’ve missed, that you think would make a good addition to this list?
  • When drinking herbal tea, do you seek out something tea-like, or are you more likely to go for something completely different?
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Oxidizing Herbs Like Black Tea or Oolong Tea

This is inspired by my original posts Oxidizing Herbs like Black or Oolong Tea and Sage Tea made like Black Tea.

Oxidation is one of the key aspects of tea production.  Usually, oxidation is presented as being the main characteristic that distinguishes black teas (which are oxidized) from green teas (which are unoxidized).  Since writing my original post, I have learned a lot more about tea production, and I have researched and compiled a page on the oxidation of tea on RateTea.  This page goes into more depth, explaining how a lot of the ways in which the topic of oxidation is presented are oversimplifications.  If you want to learn more about this process, I recommend visiting that page.

This page is about something different: using an oxidation process similar to that used to produce black teas to process the leaves of other plants.

Herbal Teas Are Generally Not Deliberately Oxidized: A Few Exceptions

In many respects, herbal teas are often considered analogous to true teas from the Camellia sinensis plant.  Yet there is one key difference: the herbs used to produce most herbal teas are rarely oxidized.  Instead, most herbs are usually just collected and dried.  This process makes them most similar to white teas, which are the least processed of teas on the market.  The modest amount of oxidation that happens to these herbs is an unintended consequence of the drying process, not an intentional and essential part of processing.

Loose chamomile flowers in a spoon

Chamomile, like many herbs used in herbal tea, is gathered and dried without any additional processing to induce oxidation.

There are several notable exceptions to this trend.  Rooibos and honeybush, both referred to as South African red tea, are both produced through a process that involves oxidation, which can be interpreted as making them somewhat distant cousins of black tea.  Incidentally, rooibos is often discussed as being among the most “tea-like” of herbal teas, and this similarity in production may explain why.  The process used to oxidize rooibos and honeybush, however, is quite simple, involving collecting the leaf and letting it sit in heaps outdoors–less of a controlled process than tea goes through, but achieving similar results.

The following image is licensed under the Free Art License, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons:

Red rooibos leaf on a white background

Rooibos is traditionally oxidized during its production, turning it red, much like how black tea turns a dark color.

Yerba mate and Guayusa, the caffeinated herbal teas produced from species of holly plant native to South America, also are processed in a bit of a more involved way, although not necessarily one involving oxidation.  Often, the leaves are dried and aged, and then roasted, however, there are also un-aged and un-roasted versions on the market.  There is, however, a case of people processing Yerba mate more like tea, the Premium Yerba Mate Buds sold by Upton Tea.  But this sort of endeavour is very rare.

Being curious, however, I repeatedly asked myself the question: why don’t more people try to process herbs like black tea?  It may be difficult to get good results from such a project (I wasn’t a huge fan of the Yerba mate buds described above) but I at least wanted to try.

My Experiment: Oxidizing Common Sage, Lemon Balm, and Other Herbs

Some time ago, in the fall of 2009, shortly after launching RateTea, I became fascinated by the idea of applying a similar production process to herbs, to the one usually used to make black tea.  I tried this out on a few herbs, including common sage, Monarda sp. (Bee Balm, Wild Bergamot, Oswego tea), lemon balm, and various mints.

I experimented with a number of different attempts on the different herbs, but they all involved picking the leaf and bruising it shortly after harvest (before it dried out), and then allowing it to sit in a damp area until the leaf turned completely dark (this took a matter of hours).  To do this, I placed the leaves on a plate with a damp cloth over them, and stored them in a cool, dark area.  After the leaf was fully oxidized, I then heated the leaf very slightly using a toaster oven.

Trial and error taught me that, with tougher leaves like sage, extensive bruising is needed to ensure full oxidation.  The first few batches I attempted came out with splotchy oxidation.  With the tougher herbs, like common sage, I ended up using a rolling pin on a hard surface to crush the leaves.

Here is a photo from one batch of common sage, Salvia officinalis, where I had tightly twisted and rolled the leaf:

A teacup with dry rolled up leaves in it

Leaves of common sage (Salvia officinalis) which have been bruised and allowed to oxidize similarly to black tea.

It was fun to see how the leaf can be formed into different shapes.  These leaves looked similar to a Ceylon Oolong tea, unfortunately discontinued, Shanti Tea’s Thousand Arrows.

The result of this process, flavor-wise, was also promising.  The oxidation seemed to improve the flavor and aroma of the sage, for drinking, as sage can be a bit dominating and harsh.  The other herbs also worked well, although some were better than others.  The best result in terms of flavor was lemon balm.  As I noted in my original post, lemon balm yielded the batch that came out most like black tea, and it had some floral tones that are absent in the straight dried herb, and was also more vegetal, but was less lemony.  Apple mint and the Monarda also yielded good results.

What do you think?

I would love to try this again some time soon.  I am still curious to know if anyone else has ever tried this sort of project.  I did not get any comments on my original post, as it was from before I had developed much of a following for my blog.  I would be especially interested to learn of attempts by people who have had some experience in or first-hand exposure to tea production.

Some questions for you:

  • Do you find this idea as intriguing as I do?
  • Have you ever tried processing any herbs in this manner, so as to encourage oxidation, or do you know anyone who has?
  • Whether or not you have ever tried this, do you have any advice or suggestions about processing, perhaps from knowing a bit more about tea production than I do?
  • Do you have any suggestions of herbs to try?