Tea leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant naturally contain caffeine, but can you make decaf tea at home by "rinsing" it with hot water before brewing? This is a question that has circulated among tea drinkers for quite some time. Even a number of tea experts were teaching people that it is a viable option to naturally reduce the caffeine content in green, black, and white teas. Can it be true, though?
If you're trying to cut caffeine but still enjoy a cup of tea, this seemingly simple at-home decaffeination trick does have some appeal. However, this may be more of a myth than anything based on scientific reality.
DIY Decaf Tea
For a number of years, the recommendation was to make decaffeinated tea with a hot water "rinse" using a method that went something like this:
First, bring your water to a boil. Then, pour it over your tea leaves and steep for about [20, 30, 45] seconds. Pour off and discard the water and then brew the tea as you normally would. You have just removed [50, 75, 80, 90] percent of the caffeine, but kept most of the antioxidants and flavor.
Sound too good to be true? Unfortunately, it is.
The Truth Behind Decaf Teas
Science has since disproven the idea that you can make naturally decaffeinated tea with a hot water rinse as described above. Worse yet, science has shown that this kind of preparation method removes many of the antioxidants, but very little of the caffeine.
Many people were fooled by this wishful thinking and the myth of home decaffeination continues to runs rampant, despite evidence to the contrary.
While some of the caffeine is removed from tea leaves during an infusion, it does not occur in less than a minute and not at the levels this myth suggests.
According to a test conducted by Bruce Richardson, a well-known tea expert, and Dr. Bruce Branan, Professor of Chemistry at Asbury University, it takes 6 minutes to remove 80 percent of the caffeine in loose leaf teas. A 3-minute infusion reduced the caffeine by just 46 percent to 70 percent, depending on the type of tea. Within that time, you are loosing all of the flavors and healthy components of tea.
Don't believe it? Try brewing a loose leaf tea a second time after a normal 5-minute brew and see how it tastes. Chances are that it will be very dull and disappointing, negating the joy of drinking tea in the first place.
To put this into perspective, you need to understand how decaffeinated tea is produced. Commercially, tea producers use a few different methods to extract caffeine. They involve complex processes that include ethyl acetate, carbon dioxide (CO2), or methylene chloride (don't worry, the tea leaves are rinsed thoroughly after each). With the first two methods, the finished teas are 99.6 percent caffeine-free. It's important to realize that decaf tea and coffee are never completely free of caffeine.
That's some pretty heavy chemistry to get to a nearly caffeine-free product, but the tea retains the flavor.
Hot water alone cannot stand up to this measure as it will leave some amount of caffeine and severely degrade the taste.
Lower Caffeine Tea Options
If you prefer to consume less caffeine, try one of the following approaches instead of "home decaffeination":
- Try a naturally caffeine-free herbal tea instead. Unless it is blended with tea leaves, these tisanes will not contain caffeine. Rooibos tea is another caffeine-free option that offers a complex flavor many tea lovers enjoy.
- Select a tea that is naturally low in caffeine, such as a white tea from Fujian or a "twig tea" like Hojicha or Kukicha.
- Opt for tea blends that contain caffeine-free herbs in lieu of some of the tea, such as Moroccan mint or masala chai.
- Buy commercially decaffeinated teas and pay attention to the labels so you know how much caffeine you're drinking.
- Drink better quality tea, savor each sip, and drink less tea overall.
With any of these methods, it's entirely possible to enjoy the experience of drinking tea without all the extra caffeine. It's far more reliable than trying to decaffeinate it yourself, which is important if your health depends on it.
Amaresh N, Mullaicharam AR, Abdueghafour El-Khider M. Chemistry and Pharmacology of Caffeine in Different Types of Tea Leaves. International Journal of Nutrition, Pharmacology, Neurological Diseases. 2011;1(2):110–115. http://dx.doi.org/10.4103/2231-0738.84198
Richardson B. De-Bunking the At-Home Decaffeination Myth. The Tea Maestro. 2010.