Have you ever wondered what makes a tea “real tea” and not a tisane?
Most people agree the difference between herbal tea and tea is simple: tea is made from Camellia sinensis, and a tisane is made from any other plant. But the truth is more complex than this. In many ways, the way we use the word “tea” in English is just as fluid as the original word 茶 (chá) we borrowed from the Chinese language.
Originally, there was no distinction between tea and any other herb. Chinese used the same word 荼 (tú) to refer to all brewed herbs. Notice how similar this is to the new word 茶 (chá) that now refers specifically to tea.
English is similar. In casual conversation, the word “tea” can broadly refer to any brewed infusion, or it can specifically refer to the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) and its leaves and brew. Though the word “tisane” originally referred to any brewed medicinal beverage, it was only recently reintroduced in English as a way to distinguish “non-tea” from tea.
In this article, we’ll explore the idea of tea vs tisane, and dig deeper to see how these definitions are being challenged by exciting herbs finished using tea craft.
What is Tisane? Is It Tea?
The word tea has a curious double-meaning in English: when you are talking about brewed beverages, “tea” can be an infusion of Camellia sinensis or any herb, spice, flower, or fruit. When you are talking about dried leaves, “tea” usually refers to the plant only, while our “tisane” definition includes all other dried plants.
Why do some people feel that it is important to distinguish between tea and everything else? Tradition is a big part of it. The tea plant Camellia sinensis - the stuff that makes black tea, green tea etc - has deep historical and cultural significance that warrants distinction.
What are the main differences between teas and tisanes?
wild-foraged Jujube leaves in Laoshan
• Tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, while a tisane can be made from any other plant or blend
• Tea is always caffeinated, while a tisane may or may not be caffeinated depending on the plants used
• Tea is finished with a complex heat-fixing process, while a tisane is dried without heat-fixing
What is Herbal Tea?
An easy herbal tea definition is any dried plant prepared for infusion that is not Camellia sinensis. This name might be confusing - many think of “herbs” as culinary plants (like rosemary and sage), but herbal tea can be any plant you steep.
Tisane and herbal tea can be used interchangeably; tisane’s meaning is the same as herbal tea, but without the confusion of herbs vs spices.
Is tea an herb, too? Yes! But generally, craft and species separates tea from other herbs.
Herbal tisanes are picked and simply dried - either in the sun, in circulating air, or with low heat. In contrast, tea requires heat-fixing to lock in flavor, along with deliberate shaping and other processes designed to bring out flavor or lock in freshness.
The culture of tea grew out of the way craft was applied to its finishing and preparation. Indeed, the word “tea” in English and 茶 (chá) in Chinese are separate and distinct from tisane or 荼 (tú) in order reflect this meticulous craft.
• Both tea and herbal tisanes are brewed using the same techniques
• A tisane is simply dried, while tea requires intensive multi-step finishing
• The heat-fixing step that locks in tea’s flavor truly separates it from a simple drying process.
Tisane Health Benefits
Dried herbs brewed in hot water are some of the oldest medicines in human history.
Common tisanes like ginger, mint, and elderberry are generally recognized as safe, but make sure to check for contraindications specific to medicines. As always, consult with a trusted family doctor for medical advice.
• Drinking any tisane instead of a sugary drink or alcoholic drink is a clear win with documented health benefits for the whole body.
• A habit of drinking more liquid helps prevent headaches caused by mild dehydration and promotes better overall health
• The relaxation and stress relief that the ritual of sipping a hot herbal tea brings can counteract hypertension and other stress-related issues
taking time to relax with herbal tea
Does Herbal Tea Have Caffeine?
Are all herbal teas caffeine free? Not always, but most herbal teas are caffeine-free. In fact, reducing caffeine is one of the main reasons people turn to herbal teas, making them great for drinking at night.
Tisanes can be a much better choice than decaffeinated tea, which undergoes harsh processing and never reaches zero caffeine.
Exceptions to the Rule
The definition of tisane vs tea is more contentious than it might seem. The word “tea” is about the weight of the culture and history behind the beverage, and the desire by some to draw a line in the sand. After all, tea is named separately from other herbals or tisanes precisely because of the craft involved in making and brewing it.
This distinction between herbal tea vs black tea becomes harder when you consider close tea relatives like Camellia crassicolumna in Qianjiazhai. The leaves of this caffeine-free plant are withered in the sun like tea, then pile-oxidized and wok-finished using black tea craft. Crassicolumna plants are an ancestral relative of tea, and its leaves are being finished with tea craft.
With the same care and craft they use for their traditional teas, the He Family is heat fixing the fresh herbal leaves, withering them, curling them, and tumbling them like traditional green tea.
Over hundreds of years, people realized that tea was sweeter and more delicious with processing than it was fresh or simply dried. Now, this insight is being applied to other herbs. The results go beyond traditional herbal teas and cross into “real” tea.
Tea craft applied to non-tea herbs incentivizes the experimental techniques and empowers farmer projects by sidestepping the downward pressure of commodity markets with a craft product. That’s why the cultural weight of the word tea should be awarded based not on plant species, but on craft.
Experience High Quality Herbal Tea Crafted With Care
The distinction between tea and tisane is all about craft.
Traditionally, the Camellia sinensis plant was the only herb that got extensive heat-fixing, withering and shaping to lock in the flavor of the place. The culture around tea encourages meticulous finishing craft and mindful brewing. Yet, innovation is coming, and the gatekeeping of language isn’t stopping farmers like the Dongsa Cooperative in Qianjiazhai or the He Family in Laoshan from arguing that herbs hand-finished with painstaking tea craft deserve to be called tea, too!
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