This is one of the most common and most hotly debated topics in the world of tea.
Unfortunately, the only answer that we can give here – as frustrating as it may be – is: it depends.
Predicting the exact amount of caffeine in a particular tea is very difficult – as it will vary from cup to cup. That’s because the amount of caffeine in tea depends on many factors, including:
- Type of tea
- Growing conditions of the tea plant
- Tea to water ratio
- Presence of other ingredients (in a tea blend)
- Serving size
- When and how the tea leaves were picked
- How the tea leaves were processed
Because of these variables, the only way to tell exactly how much caffeine is in a given cup of tea is to perform a lab test on that exact cup.
That said, there are some rules of thumb that we can consider to determine the amount of caffeine in a tea or tea blend. Let’s take a look!
Does tea have more caffeine than coffee?
Short answer: no.
Long answer: In the age-old debate of tea vs coffee, we know that tea has a lower caffeine content. But how much lower? According to the Tea & Herbal Association of Canada, a cup of tea typically has about 1/3 of the amount of caffeine found in a similar size cup of coffee.
However, there is more caffeine in a kilo of dry tea leaves than there is in a kilo of coffee beans. The difference – once you get to your final cup – is that you use about a teaspoon (2.5g) of tea per cup, whereas you use A LOT more coffee beans to make a cup of coffee. If you’re a coffee + tea household, think about how many bags of coffee you go through in a month vs how many equal weight bags of tea!
Does green tea have caffeine? What about white tea?
Short answer: OMG YES.
Long answer: It is a common (and irritating… can you tell?) myth that green tea and white tea are caffeine-free or low in caffeine.
White and green tea (along with oolong) come from the same plant as black tea – Camellia sinensis – and they all contain caffeine. The difference that you see in the leaves in your tea cupboard comes from how they are processed:
- White tea is simply picked and dried. Although it has a reputation for being lower in caffeine, some white teas, once brewed, actually have higher caffeine levels than other teas.
- Green tea is preserved through a heat process such as steaming or pan firing (kind of like cooking broccoli). For a number of reasons, a cup of green tea will, on average, have slightly less caffeine than a cup of black tea, BUT it’s possible to find green teas with more caffeine than some black teas.
- Black tea is fully oxidized: basically this means that the tea leaves are bumped and bruised and left to turn brown before it’s dried into tea – this allows a chemical process to take place inside the cell walls and also changes the way the tea is extracted from the leaves when brewed.
There are thousands of different white, green and black teas – not to mention oolong, yellow, puerh and even purple teas. They’re grown and harvested under different conditions around the world, so even grouping them by category is an oversimplification. Learn more about different kinds of tea in Sarah’s Tea 101 course on Udemy (some of the modules are free!).
Does chai tea have caffeine?
Short answer: yes, and please just call it chai.
Long answer: Traditional chai (chai means tea, so if you say chai tea you’re saying tea tea) is made with hot milk, a sweetener, spices and black tea. Unless it is made specifically with decaffeinated black tea (which has gone through a chemical process to have the caffeine dissolved out of the tea leaf), there is caffeine in chai.
However: a teaspoon of chai is likely to contain less caffeine than a teaspoon of an unblended black tea, because a portion of the chai spoonful is made up of spices… leaving less room for tea. A good chai blend can be 50% (or more) spices! Depending on how you make your chai, this could reduce the amount of caffeine in your cuppa.
If you want to make caffeine-free chai, choose an option with a herbal base, such as rooibos: easy and delicious!
Does herbal tea have caffeine?
Short answer: no.
Long answer: Tea people call anything that doesn’t come from the Camellia sinensis plant a herbal tea or tisane. Almost all herbal teas are caffeine-free. This includes common herbals such as:
- Hibiscus blends
- Fruit blends
There are some notable exceptions to the ‘caffeine free’ herbal rule. Three herbals that naturally contain caffeine (and sometimes a lot of it) are:
- Yerba Mate – a staple beverage in South America
- Yaupon, a plant native to the southern USA
- Coffee leaf tea, which is literally made by brewing the leaves of the coffee plant
Why does tea have less of a jolt than coffee?
Short answer: L-theanine.
Long answer: You might call it a buzz (nice) or the jitters (not nice), depending on how you experience coffee! The fact is that most people react to coffee differently than they do to tea. Yes, this is partly due to the fact that there’s more caffeine in a cup coffee than in a cup of tea, but the other factor is L-theanine. In a cup of tea, the two components work together: caffeine is a stimulant, providing alertness and energy, while L-theanine helps you stay calm, cool and collected. Together, they provide a sustained alertness and focus that not everyone can attain after a cup of coffee. (Can you tell there’s personal experience talking here? Bzzzzz.)
A special example to raise when discussing the tea vs coffee jolt is matcha. Matcha is made from finely ground green tea leaves (yup – Camellia sinensis again) – so when you drink a cup of matcha you’re actually consuming the whole tea leaf. This means that a typical bowl of matcha (or matcha latte) will have nearly as much caffeine as a cup of coffee. However, the combined presence of caffeine and L-theanine is the reason that Buddhist monks have used matcha for centuries as part of their meditative practices: it provides calm, focused alertness.
Can I drink tea before bed?
Short answer: yeah! You do you.
Long answer: Everyone reacts differently to caffeine. Some people (and you can see trends of this in some tea-loving cultures) are able to enjoy a big mug of green tea or pot of Earl Grey black tea as a wind-down before they drift off to sleep… but for others, even a whisper of caffeine after 4pm spells disaster for their night time. If this is you – stick to caffeine-free herbals before bed – and don’t get sucked into the “white/green tea doesn’t really have caffeine” trap.
You know yourself best: if you find a cup of a certain tea to be more soothing and calming than the next – drink what works for you, when it works for you!
To sum it up…
While it’s frustratingly simplistic, the main messages here are:
- Tea, if it comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, naturally contains caffeine
- In general, a cup of steeped tea will contain about 1/3 of the caffeine found in coffee
- Matcha is an exception, and contains almost as much caffeine as in coffee
- Due to the balancing effect of L-theanine in tea (including matcha), tea provides a more calm alertness compared to coffee jitters
- Everyone has a different personal preference, tolerance and reaction to caffeine – so find what works for you!