What’s in your cup: caffeine

Each morning, billions of people rely on caffeine to kick start their day. In fact, caffeine is one of the most commonly used ingredients in the world. It is a natural stimulant, which supports the brain and central nervous system, and tricks us into thinking we are not tired. Among other plants, caffeine is most commonly found in tea, coffee, and cacao plants. Historians track the first brewed tea as far back as 2737 b.c., and coffee was reportedly discovered many years later by an Ethiopian shepherd who noticed the extra energy it gave his goats. Nowadays, around 80% of the world’s population consumes a caffeinated product each day.

There still seem to be some myths surrounding the topic of caffeine in tea. In essence, caffeine is an alkaloid, which protects the tea plant from any unwanted pests - it is a defence mechanism. This means all brewed tea contains some level of caffeine. Just like people react differently to caffeine, the tea plant also produces different amounts of caffeine, due to different circumstances. 

One of the main factors that determine the level in caffeine, is the age of the buds. Younger tea buds are more vulnerable, and more prone to be attacked by pests, leading to a higher level of caffeine present in the buds. Therefore more caffeine is yielded with imperial plucking, where only buds are harvested. 

Another factor that has an influence on the caffeine levels, is the time of year the tea is plucked. In the summer, high humidity levels have a vast impact on the tea plant, as there are more insects around at that time of year. The plant responds with an increased production of caffeine to protect itself. In the colder months where there are less insects around the caffeine production in the plant slows down.

This debunks one of the most common myths that darker tea has more caffeine, as supposedly white tea for example. Basically, the longer the leaf is oxidised, the darker the leaf becomes. It also has an effect on taste. Black tea has the highest oxidation level, but that doesn’t correspond to the highest level of caffeine. First of all, caffeine is colourless, and second of all, as we have learned there are many factors that influence the levels of caffeine. Essentially, it all lies within the quality of the tea itself. You can find a low quality black tea that has less caffeine than a high quality white tea, for example our breathtaking Pu Er Bai Ya N°103

Additionally caffeine levels are impacted by the different processes the tea plant undergoes while growing. Let's take matcha for example. Matcha is known as the tea with the highest caffeine levels. When growing matcha, the farmers use a process called shading, where the plant is exposed to minimal sunlight. This increases the level of chlorophyll in the leaves, by accumulating it, which in essence also leads to higher caffeine levels. A Matcha shot has become a popular replacement of a morning espresso.

So what about theine then? Theine and caffeine have an identical chemical structure. They are the same molecule, which is why this term is outdated and no longer in use. The only chemical unique to the Camellias sinensis is L-Theanine - an amino acid that promotes calmness and relaxation. It works in synergy with the stimulant caffeine to induce a state of mindful alertness. 

Often, people talk about decaffeinating their tea. An urban legend states that caffeine is released after 30 seconds. So some people throw away the first 30 seconds of infusion believing there is no caffeine left in the tea. In fact the opposite is true. After 30 seconds only 9% of the caffeine is released; i.e. the longer the infusion the more caffeine is released. Another interesting fact about caffeine is that it is released faster and in larger quantities at higher temperatures. One can also use less tea, to get lower caffeine levels, or more tea, to get that pick-me-up we look for in the morning. 

Every teacup contains a long-stretching story that begins with a tea’s origin, the specific variety of the tea plant, the time and method of harvest, and the processing technique. These factors all influence not only the richness of taste but also the levels of the natural chemical compounds found in our tea. If we need to watch our caffeine consumption, we should focus on larger leaf teas harvested from lower down the tea plant, such as Oolongs. Or teas that are made of  stems, such as Japanese Kukicha or Houjicha. Of course we can also explore herbal teas as a caffeine-free alternative, which carry as fascinating aromas and flavours, as tea. Or on the other end of the spectrum with very high caffeine levels you could try our Yerba Mate N°807 - a fragrant brew made from the leaves of the South American mate shrub has been revered as an invigorating tonic for centuries. Gentle processing sees our vitamin- and mineral-rich “green mate” exude its bodied aroma of fruity and smoky vanilla in a wonderfully earthy cup. All of this can be discovered within our exclusive and magnificent selection of only the finest teas, at P & T. 

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