For tea drinkers, anything that's infused in water is called tea, right? But technically, not all teas are “tea”. Some are tisanes. The most mentioned distinction is that all teas contain caffeine, and all tisanes are caffeine free, but that's not always the case. Tea vs Tisane – what really makes them different and alike?
Tea vs Tisane Comparison
So how different are teas and tisanes? In the last century, western tea lovers weren't so lucky to have such an enormous variety of teas to choose from. Black tea was mostly called just “black tea” and “green tea” was just “green”. For many tea drinkers, where they came from or how they were made was not necessarily important. The most common tisanes were chamomile, mint, and rosehip, and the most common tea was simply just black or green tea. But that was several decades ago. Today we have thousands of teas and tisanes to choose from, and that number keeps getting bigger each day.
So, what makes them different? First there's the plant type.
1. Teas and tisanes are made from different plants
It's a common fact that all tea is made from Camellia sinensis plant, and all tisanes are made from flowers, leaves, fruits, roots, seeds and bark of all other plants that are not Camellia sinensis. In theory, every edible plant, or part of a plant, can be steeped in water. However, the Camellia sinensis plant is not the only plant used for making real tea.
Real teas can be made from different varieties and cultivars of Camellia sinensis plant, but they can also be made from plants that belong to another Camellia botanical genus. Unless you are drinking lots of pure specialty tea, it's likely you won't come across Camellia taliensis or even more uncommon Camelia ptilophylla teas. So most real teas are made from Camellia sinensis plant.
Let's compare this to the simple tisane – mint tea. The most common mint tea is Mentha piperita. Mentha is the botanical genus, and piperita is the botanical species. In the same way, Camellia is the botanical genus, and sinensis is the species. Therefore, you are more likely to try different species of Mentha plant than Camellia plant, such as spearmint or Mentha spicata.
2. Teas can be processed into 6 different types
There are 6 main types of tea – white, yellow, green, oolong, black and dark. Although there are thousands of different tisanes, most are made in the same way – usually simply dried.
But it gets more interesting. There are thousands of subtypes of white, yellow, green, oolong, black and dark teas and they will all have a very different flavour. Most tisanes made from the same plant will have a similar flavour. For example, there are many types of chamomile and mint tea, but their flavour will depend on the plant, rather than processing methods.
Camellia sinensis teas get their flavour not only from the cultivar, but different processing methods, too. You can't find steamed or roasted and aged chamomile, but you can find steamed green tea, oven baked oolong, or even aged white teas. There are a few exceptions among tisanes, though. For example, green and red rooibos, and green and roasted yerba mate and yaupon.
Real teas undergo a complicated processing method. Most tisanes are simpler, and they are usually only dried. In fact, you can make your own herbal tea by simply drying mint, chamomile, nettle or other plants, but it's not so easy to make proper green or black tea at home – although it is possible.
All real teas undergo many processing steps, and it's not uncommon to have over 10 steps until you get the perfect tea.
3. Both can contain caffeine and be caffeine free
Most tisanes are caffeine free, and almost all teas contain caffeine. But there are exceptions in both categories. Some of the most popular caffeinated herbal teas are yaupon, guayusa and yerba mate. Guarana, another caffeinated plant, is often an ingredient in herbal energy tea blends. Camellia ptilophylla, a plant from Camellia botanical genus, is naturally decaffeinated, and still belongs to “real teas”. However, this tea is very rare.
4. All of them may provide antioxidant properties
Antioxidants properties in teas and tisanes come from different substances that can fight free radicals. (Source: Harvard Chan) Many substances can be categorized as antioxidants, and each tisane and tea will contain them, but not all of them are the same. The most mentioned antioxidant properties in green tea come from catechins, and in black tea from theaflavins. They are both polyphenols. (Source: NCBI) Tisanes contain polyphenols too. For example, rooibos is rich is aspalathin and ginger in gingerol. (Source: Science Direct, NIH) Each tea and tisane will contain different substances that may provide antioxidant properties. Which benefits they may provide and how potent they are will depend on their overall composition and other factors – for example, such as how you brew them and how fresh they are.
5. Tea vs tisane brewing
Brewing tea is an art, brewing tisanes is a habit. Making a cup of herbal or fruit tea is usually a straightforward process. You can use boiling water for almost all of them, and steep them for 5 or more minutes. Many of them will never be bitter, no matter how long you steep them for. But making a perfect cup of real tea is often an art and may require some patience and skills and many of them may be bitter if you over-brew them. In fact, all tea ceremonies include real teas rather than tisanes. There are different cups and teapots for different teas, but no one has ever invented a special teapot for making chamomile tea.
Tea vs Tisane Recap
Teas and tisanes are separate categories, but they may have some characteristics. If you are looking for benefits, both may provide them. If you want to explore flavours, there are thousands to explore in both categories. The main difference is in processing and brewing methods and caffeine content – almost all real teas will always contain caffeine, and almost all tisanes will be caffeine free. What's certain is that there is a right tisane and a right tea for everyone.
Explore teas and tisanes to try here.