Friday, October 21, 2011

The Best Teas: Is It Just About The Caffeine?

People who consider themselves tea connoisseurs, or perhaps even just tea enthusiasts, would usually like to believe that they have "discerning tastes", that they appreciate the "finer things in life", and specifically, the finer nuances of flavor and aroma when drinking a cup of tea.

Pictured here is some kukicha, one of my favorite styles of green tea, and one which demonstrates the spirit of this post: kukicha, tending to be low in caffeine, is not a usual focal point of connoisseurs:

This post is about a wrench thrown into the idea that we really have discerning tastes...the wrench is the observation that, at least to a large degree, people seem to seek out teas that are higher in caffeine. Not, mind you, teas they think are higher in caffeine, but teas that actually are higher in caffeine. (Which are two different things, unfortunately, due to the prevalance of misinformation in our society.)

But first I want to digress into the realm of beer and alcohol content, which offers a fascinating analogy of this same phenomenon:

Beer and Alcohol:

I was involved in rating and reviewing beer long before I got involved in rating and reviewing tea. In fact,, where you can find my profile if you're curious of my tastes in beer, was one of the major sources of inspiration for RateTea.

When I first started using RateBeer, I was so excited about the concept. I loved craft brews, and unlike most people in my age bracket, I had little interest in getting drunk. I saw my use of RateBeer and my passion for craft beers produced by local microbreweries as a rebellion against the dominant drinking culture in our society, which ignores taste and focuses on getting drunk as quickly as possible.

Something raises an eyebrow: Alcohol content and ratings:

After having used RateBeer for years, and drinking, rating, and reviewing hundreds of beers, I started noticing something. Beers with a higher alcohol content invariably received a higher rating on the site. I also noticed this same trend off the site, among people who considered themselves beer enthusiasts or connoisseurs...a large number of them tended towards the Belgian ales and barley wines, with their very high alcohol contents. These brews struck me as more like wine than beer. Personally, I like beer better than wine, and I think this preference is in part because of the lower alcohol content of beer.

As an example, my favorite beer, the Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, with 5.8% ABV (Alcohol by volume) scores a 3.87 with 1223 ratings. The Great Lakes Blackout Stout, a beer that I think is good, but not anywhere near as good, but which has 9% ABV, gets 3.93 (this subtle distinction in score is actually bigger than you might think on the site). Another example, from my hometown, is how Lancaster Brewing Co's Amish Four Grain, with 5.6% ABV is rated much lower than the same brewery's Winter Warmer, 9% ABV. Personally, I think the four-grain is a much better beer.

Back to tea:

I've unfortunately noticed a similar trend among teas, albeit with caffeine in place of alcohol. For example, among white teas, silver needle has more caffeine than bai mu dan, which has more caffeine than shou mei. Guess which ones tend to be more expensive and are often written about by "connoisseurs" as being somehow "better"? Another example...sencha vs. bancha. Another example: tippy black teas (whether Assam, Yunnan, or whatever) vs. their non-tippy counterparts.

Although there's certainly a huge amount of variability, the teas with more caffeine tend to be more expensive, seem to be preferred by people "in the know", and receive better reviews.

Possible confounding factors:

There are other factors that could be contributing to these trends. Some confounding factors that I've thought of are that:

  • Tippy teas (more tips / young leaves, less mature leaves) contain more caffeine, and also have a more smooth or delicate flavor, and people may prefer the smoothness or other qualities, so the association with caffeine is accidental.

  • Tippy teas are more expensive, and people may be buying into the psychological fallacy that more expensive means better quality.

  • Because tippy teas are more expensive, they're more actively pushed by tea companies because of the higher profit margin, and we tea drinkers are simply fooled by their marketing into thinking they're really higher quality.

And of course, it also might be true that people don't actually prefer these teas, that there's just an illusion that they do, again, probably because of tea company marketing (unlike the world of beer, where there is hard data suggesting that people really do prefer the beers with a higher alcohol content).

What do you think?

Do you think that the caffeine content of a tea influences how much people like it, and that people tend to prefer teas with more caffeine because of the caffeine? Or do you think that it could be explained by confounding factors? Or do you think they really don't like these teas at all and it's just an impression caused by tea company marketing?


  1. Very interesting post Alex, I think your observation is spot on - it's the emphasis on first flush or tippy tea that correlates with high caffeine content, along with with rich nutrients & flavor. Caffeine also makes us feel more vital & alert. This physiological response is part of the uplifting "cha qi" that so many of us seek in our tea experience.

  2. It's bracing to read this kind of original thinking, and I do think you’re onto something, both with booze and tea.

    Still, this is only a part of the story with tea. Oolongs made from huge leaves, the very opposite of tippy, regularly get high praise.

    I wonder if you’ve tried to mine RateBeer for something more systematic than the anecdotal reports you’ve cited?

  3. Brandon of Wrong Fu Cha also pointed out that aged Pu-erh doesn't follow this trend, as the caffeine deteriorates with age, but he also pointed out that aged teas often contain other psychoactive compounds.

    I also love the large-leafed oolongs (or, huge-leafed, to use your word)...and, on the basis of how they make me feel, I suspect that there may be other psychoactive substances (besides caffeine and theanine) in these teas too.

  4. I obviously can only speak for myself but I've never even considered the caffeine content. I always assumed the variations in levels were insignificant given the variety and volume I go thru in a day. Upton Tea, for Ex., has sample sizes so I normally just taste test it for flavor alone (as well in repeated steeps). I just ordered some green from Mellow Monk and I don't think his site even lists the caffeine levels. So very interesting idea keep them coming.
    Markthetrigeek : twitter

  5. I drink coarse tea every day.
    Coarse tea belong to green tea,but dose not contain caffeine.
    In Japan,mothers have the baby drink coarse tea.

  6. Very few tea companies list caffeine levels, and those that do, often do so inaccurately -- it takes resources and time to actually measure the caffeine, because the amount varies from tea to tea.

    I'm not saying in this post that people deliberately seek out teas because they have more caffeine, it's more that because people like the effects of caffeine, I think they end up liking these teas more and then seeking them out over's not necessarily a conscious process. The whole post is speculation though, I don't have any data to support it, it's just a hunch or intuition, a theory, and a couple people have already pointed out problems in my theory (in addition to the problems that I raised at the end of this post).

    I mainly wanted to share an idea that popped into my head, not necessarily present it as truth! =)

  7. Suusan, bancha / coarse tea does contain some caffeine. But, depending on the batch, it can be very low. This is an important distinction though, especially for people who need to avoid ALL caffeine for medical reasons.

    Anything made of the tea plant is going to contain some caffeine. The amount might be very low, in some cases, lower than decaffeinated tea (the lowest figure I ever saw in a study, besides decaffeinated tea, was one particular batch of hojicha, as the roasting destroys the caffeine, and hojicha is often made from stems and/or large leaves to begin with). But it's still there.