5 Tea Myths That Need to Disappear

The truth about caffeine in tea, and more tea myths busted

Photographs: Vicky Wasik

Maybe you started drinking tea for its purported health benefits, or as a less jittery alternative to coffee, or just because it tastes good. Whatever your reason, chances are you have some questions about it: how to brew it right, for starters, and what a really good cup should taste like. Fortunately there are many, many sources out there that simplify the vast world of tea into digestible nuggets of knowledge. Unfortunately, a lot of those sources—often the very companies selling you their tea—get some basic points pretty wrong.

Sometimes that bad advice comes from a well-meaning person who, in their efforts to make a complex topic easy to understand, oversimplifies to the point where they obscure the truth. Other self-identified experts are more dogmatic: there's only one right way to brew this tea, and if you disagree, you don't know what you're talking about.

The reality is that when it comes to tea, a crop grown all over the world in countless variations, boldly stated rules tend to fall apart when held up to closer scrutiny. Drinking tea seriously means learning with every pot you make, and considering its enormous complexity, there's rarely only one correct answer or right way of doing things.

So let's put those misleading rules to bed. I've tackled some of these topics in these tea basics stories, but here are five stubborn myths and misconceptions about tea that just refuse to die.

Myth #1: Black Tea Has More Caffeine Than Green

All tea has caffeine, usually less than coffee, though exactly how much varies from tea to tea, which leads some tea companies and pundits to break down caffeine content by broad style: green tea has this much caffeine, black tea that much, etc. They usually claim that black teas have more caffeine than oolongs, which in turn have more caffeine than greens and whites, though none of them agree on amounts. Depending on who you ask, a cup of black tea could have as little as 25 milligrams per cup or as much as 90. (Of course no one ever specifies the size of the cup.)

Broad generalizations like these make as much sense as saying all IPAs have the same alcohol percentage. All sorts of things influence a brewed tea's caffeine concentration, including where and how it's grown, the size of the finished leaves, and the exact processing style (roasting, aging, and fermentation can all diminish caffeine). A green tea may have as much caffeine as a black tea, and two black teas from the same region might have totally different caffeine levels.

It's even more complicated: The very same tea may yield different amounts of caffeine depending on how it's brewed. In a study in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology, researchers measured the caffeine content of 20 common tea products and found no correlation between tea style (green, black, etc.) and caffeine content. However, the longer any caffeinated tea brewed, the more caffeine made its way into the cup. Steep an English breakfast tea for one minute and you may get 14 milligrams of caffeine in your cup; steep the same amount for five minutes and that concentration can double.

Such evidence flies in the face of some tea sellers' claims that you can "decaffeinate" a tea by steeping it for 30 to 60 seconds, pouring out the brew, then steeping it again for a nearly caffeine-free cup. If you need to watch your caffeine consumption, stick to herbal tisanes, or try out roasted oolongs, aged teas, and "ripe" shou pu-erh styles, which many tea drinkers consider easier on the nerves. Or just steep your tea for shorter periods of time.

Myth #2: Boiling Water 'Burns' Delicate Teas

Conventional Western tea-brewing wisdom says black teas must be brewed with near-boiling water while delicate, prissy green and white teas need, nay, demand cooler water, usually around 160 to 175°F, lest you irreparably ruin their subtle flavors and transform their antioxidants into deadly neurotoxins.

In broad strokes, this isn't wrong. Black teas and darker oolongs do benefit from very hot water to extract the full range of their flavors with just the right dose of tannins, while many green teas will taste sweeter and less bitter with cooler water. But not every green or white tea is made the same way—as a category, green tea is as vast as white wine—and some greens and whites do just as well in fully boiled water as black teas.

Here's a good rule of thumb: the hotter you brew, the darker and more robust your tea will be; the cooler your water, the sweeter and more mild it'll taste. You can brew any tea with this in mind, see what tastes best to your palate, and adjust your brew parameters accordingly. A white tea or lightly oxidized oolong, for instance, will make two different brews at 175° and 205°. If it's a good tea, both brews should good; which you prefer is up to you. For what it's worth, I tend to start brewing a new tea with boiling water and dial it down from there if I need to. The same holds true if I'm brewing an herbal tea.

The big exception to this loosey goosey freedom is Japanese greens, which really do benefit from rigidity in brewing to achieve a balance in sweet and bitter flavors. Most, like sencha and matcha, do well in the 160° to 170° range, while shade-grown gyokuro benefits from even lower temperatures, around 140°. But no matter what you're brewing, it's your tea—don't rely on a label to tell to how to brew it.

If you do want to get super geeky about your brew temperatures, consider buying a variable temperature electric kettle with a full digital range so you can dial in any brewing temperature that your heart desires.

Myth #3: Black Teas Must Be Steeped Longer Than Greens

The same people who say you can never brew green tea with boiling water also tend to give timing guidelines on how long to brew your tea. Greens and whites, they say, should brew no longer than a minute or two, while blacks need a whole five minutes.

Such advice often doesn't take into account the size of the leaf (smaller, broken leaves brew faster than whole ones), the amount of water you use for a given quantity of tea (more water needs longer steeps), or what brewing that particular tea takes best to. A black tea bag in a mug, for example, only needs a minute or two to steep, while a 48-ounce pot of loose leaf English Breakfast will likely take longer. A Chinese dancong oolong, on the other hand, is best brewed with a ton of leaves in a tiny pot, with a series of flash steepings of just a few seconds each.

Your best practice? Taste as you go. Brewing tea is just a form of cooking, and like that roast in your oven, blindly following a clock rarely works out well. Want to get more technical? Take a look at these Chinese-style brewing suggestions that emphasize small pots, lots of leaves, and very short steeps (five to 30 seconds each). That's how I do it at home, and it's often the best way to taste everything your tea has to offer.

Myth #4: Organic Tea is Higher Quality

Demand for organic tea has skyrocketed over the past couple decades, and it shows no sign of stopping. In premium tea-growing regions like Darjeeling in India, plantation after plantation is going organic just to keep up with what the market. And as Jeff Koehler puts it in his new book, Darjeeling: A History of the World's Greatest Tea, the pressure to go organic is a boon for the region's soil, which after over a hundred years of intensive development and cultivation is eroding and depleting with every harvest.

But is government-certified organic tea always better for the environment? Nope. As with any produce, organic certification is just a label, and lots of large plantations are cashing in on organic caché while still engaging in unsustainable practices. Unfortunately Big Organic is just as prevalent in the Asian tea business as the California lettuce market. Meanwhile, many small farms that can't afford the organic certification process work in far more sustainable ways.

Even if a farm is 100% organic, its neighbors might not be, and if the farmer up the hill sprays his tea bushes, chances are those pesticides will make their way to the "unsprayed" organic crops through the air or groundwater. Meanwhile, a farm in total isolation might be using safe amounts of pesticides while providing a more healthy growing environment for its tea bushes.

Organic tea doesn't necessarily taste any better than conventionally grown tea, either. Up until relatively recently, many organic teas actually tasted worse than their conventional neighbors, as farmers were still negotiating the challenges of growing tea in an entirely different way. These days, though, the organic tea market is improving. But so are many parts of the conventionally grown tea market. If taste is your primary concern, don't think you need to pay a premium for organic leaves. And if you care about the environmental impact and health of your tea, there's a lot more to consider beyond an organic label. As always, buy from vendors you trust who in turn buy from farms they trust.

Myth #5: Green Tea is 'Better' for You Than Other Teas

We don't talk much about food and health on Serious Eats, and I don't plan to start now, but considering how many people start drinking tea for its purported health benefits, it's worth looking at green tea in some detail.

The most common claims in favor of drinking green tea are its low caffeine content and high antioxidant value. We've already dealt with the first claim—some green teas have just as much caffeine as other varieties. As for antioxidants, well, yes, thanks to its low oxidation, green tea possesses more antioxidants than black and oolongs. (Though lightly oxidized white teas often show even higher levels!) What those antioxidants do when you're drinking tea is far less clear, and there's far less scientific consensus on the practical benefits of regularly drinking green tea.

That's not to say there aren't any benefits, but rather that when sensationalist headlines call out green tea as a miracle cure for everything from allergies to cancer, it's worth taking a more skeptical perspective. It's also doubtful that green tea is the only kind of tea to make you feel good. Green tea's modern popularity means it dominates the scientific literature; researchers focus far less on certain dark, heavily processed teas that have been used as folk remedies for hundreds of years. Some tea drinkers consider roasted teas like dark tieguanyin to be more gentle on the stomach than bright greens, while others prefer the soothing sweetness of an inky-dark ripe pu-erh as a nightcap before going to sleep. Meanwhile, many tea drinkers report upset stomachs from drinking green tea without eating, a problem not shared by oolongs, black teas, and aged teas like pu-erhs.

As the Western world learns more about tea's hidden complexities, these myths should die out on their own. But for now, it's good to remember: no set of rules is a substitute for open minds willing to play with their food. Or their tea.