Tea, not Tisane

For those who sell tea, this time of year brings wonderful opportunities to introduce new and unique teas to those looking to purchase a gift of tea ( and to those who shop by the ‘one give for them, one gift for me’ philosophy.)

However, this time of year also brings every mis-conception and false bit of information about tea to the fore. While there is still much confusion in people’s minds concerning this and that about tea, the biggest buggagoo to us (and most likely to all tea sellers) is that many people still do not differentiate between real tea and herbal teas ( or tisanes.) This is an apples/oranges difference….yes, both are fruit but the similarity ends there.

Here are two examples of how entrenched this tea/tisane confusion is. On page 2 of our latest book:The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook ( 2010 Ten Speed Press) we address the tea versus tisane question. We say: “Right up front, let us say that we define tea in the classic, historic sense as a caffeinated beverage brewed from the leaf of the Camellia sinensis bush. While it is commonplace today to refer to noncaffeinated, herbal beverages such as peppermint, chamomile, and lavender as ‘tea’ we believe that such beverages should be called by other, more appropriate names, such as herbal teas, herbal infusions, or tisanes. Many of these beverages are delicious and refreshing, but they lie outside the scope of our book, and we leave discussion of them to others.”

Nevertheless, despite starting out with this statement, our book has been criticized twice this year for not including any discussion of herbal teas or rooibos.  So even though our book is about tea and not any of the other steepable products that can produce a hot drink and which are erroneously called ‘tea’,  it seems clear that there are those who fail to grasp the clear distinction between these two categories.

This offers an opportunity for us to once again clarify for readers the very important distinction between tea, tisanes and herbal tea. And to say that understanding this difference matters. A lot.

The second reviewer wrote: “Readers who expect information about tea in general and about all of the various leaves used worldwide to revitalize or calm, will, like me, initially be disappointed, as thus book focuses on the tea steeped from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis bush. There is no mention of the infusions that qualify as tea in the layman’s mind, such as rooibos, mate, or tisanes like chamomile or peppermint.”

This review really made me cry. Not just because we are bring criticized for being true to our topic and for only discussing tea, but because this reviewer believes that we should have included non-tea beverages because these other beverages are seen as tea ‘in the layman’s mind.’

This statement implies that we should feed a myth because people believe it to be true. Would this review take issue with an artisan cheese book that did not discuss processed cheese slices? Or a serious wine book that did not discuss fruit-based wine drinks? Should carob be included in a discussion or chocolate, or chicory be a part of the study of premium coffee?  If inaccuracies are printed enough times does that make them become truth? We think not.

Enough said. Here is the full-blown Tea Trekker definition of TEA.

Tea is:

1. the dried leaf or leaf buds of the Camellia sinensis bush (including the three main Camellia sinensis varietals; all ancient tea trees and subsequent generations of indigenous tea bushes growing in southwest China, Laos, Myanmar, northern Thailand, and northern Vietnam; and all Camellia sinensis cultivars.)

2. a beverage made from the dried leaf or leaf buds of the Camellia sinensis bush and which is entirely comprised of naturally occurring chemical compounds that control the color, flavor, body, and aroma of the liquor. These include: alkaloids ( caffeine, theobromine, and theophylline); polyphenols ( catechin and catechin-derived antioxidants); tannins, minerals, vitamins B1,B2, C, fluoride, and theanine.

3. categorized into six distinct classes by the method of leaf manufacture that the raw leaves undergoe: green, yellow, white, oolong, black and Pu-erh.  Tea in any class may also be flavored or scented with various other plant materials such as jasmine or rose petals, or include the addition of other plant materials such as toasted rice, twig clippings from tea bushes, etc.

4. a cultural experience – phrases such as: “Let’s have tea” or “Meet me for tea” are used to refer to social gatherings based around the experience of drinking tea and  sharing appropriate sweet or savory snacks. Every unique ‘teatime’ is the result of the history of each particular tea drinking country or place, and the cultural influences that have shaped and codified:

  • which teas are most commonly drunk
  • what teawares and tea tools are used to steep and serve the tea
  • what customary snacks accompany the tea

5. a meditative practice: The Way of Life or Cha Dao. Cha Dao is a path of personal spiritual fulfillment practiced thoough orderly principles of tea steeping, tea drinking and tea appreciation. Cha Dao embraces values of harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility, and the importance of recognizing moments of beauty in everyday life. Many tea drinkers in China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan actively engage in daily practice of Cha Dao.


Tea is not:

1. made from the roots, leaves, stems, flowers, seeds or fruits of other plants

2. a  ready-to-drink ( RTD) beverage

3. an instant drink powder

So, ultimately, we believe that the study and exploration of tea is fascinating and complex enough without adding to that any confusion regarding the internationally recognized definition of the term: tea.  As such, tea is tea and everything else is just that: everything else.

7 thoughts on “Tea, not Tisane

  1. While I do not often correct people when they refer to tisanes as tea, I tend to be proper in my own references to tea or Herbal teas, although I prefer to drink strictly that which is categorized as tea. Though I am often annoyed at people even after being corrected a few times and even told the reasons why certain things are wrong, feel they are justified as being correct due to “public opinion.”

    But I hope as more and more people in America seem to being introduced to real tea, more people will start to realize the actual differences between the two. I know I personally even have a problem considering many flavored teas as a true tea. Don’t get me wrong I like earl grey and jasmine tea on occasion, but to me its always more of a tea based drink.

  2. Hi Adam…thanks for the thoughtful comments. I refuse to think that this tea/tisane issue is an un-winnable battle. Those of us who work with tea need to keep ‘correcting’ and making sure that we always have our ducks in order when speaking verbally or writing about tea. Unfortunately, I find a lot of mis-use of these terms on various random tea blogs and websites that I see and I think that there are many tea vendors are as guilty as the aforementioned reviewers. I am hoping that eventually the tea/tisane mis-understandings will sort out as the ‘Champagne’ vs sparkling wine sitation has.

  3. I couldn’t agree more … I volunteer teach in a cooking school and every time the subject oof “tea” comes up (we’ve been doing a lot of regional chineses, thai, vietnamese classes and the question of “drink pairing” comes up all the time), I take us through the tea/tisane distinction, using the definition in your first book. It’s a slow process, but people are beginning to understand the difference.

    Even my fiancee, who must limit her caffeine consumption, has stopped asking for “camomile tea”!

    If we can understand the distinctions of champagne and sparkling wine, the DOC legalities of Port and other wines in the EU, we can surely eventually learn the distinctions of tea and tisane.

  4. Please, stick to your guns. People can learn to differentiate if they choose to. If not, it is their loss. What you and many others are trying to do is educate people about tea. If it were physics, one would not expect you to include biology. The tea world is vast enough to hope to understand without having ot include “not-tea”. I also am not a large fan of flavored teas, as I have trouble thinking of them as teas. I make an exception for Earl Gray and Jasmine, I suppose because they have been around so long. Keep up your excellent work and don’t lose heart!

    • Thanks for your kind words, Marlena. Yes, there is a cadre of us marching to the ‘real tea’ drum and I think the noise is getting louder by the day. It sounds like you have taken up the call for ‘real tea’ too. Good job.

  5. I have had the tea-tisane discussion several times because of other cultural influences like French and German. This problem also exists in the German language but less so in the French language where the term tisane comes from. It is interesting to note that the Chinese also have this issue where ‘cha’ can even mean ‘soup’ or generally any beverage that is good for you. The point is that language is made by the people who use it, especially for languages with descriptive dictionaries like English. Education is a good way of changing meaning of words. At the moment, however, the Oxford English dictionary still contains herbal infusions as one of the definitions for ‘tea’ with references going back to the 17th century, so you cannot blame people for using it this way. Using the physics example mentionned earlier, it is not like meaning biology, but using the term ‘energy’ or ‘force’ in a well defined manner in physics, which has little in common with the term ‘energy’ or ‘force’ used in everyday life (although they may be related). Well educated people make the difference and therefore know when and how to use the right word. At the moment, it is very important to define the meaning of ‘tea’ we use, because of the confusion of the dictionary.

    • Fabrivelas…agreed and you have a good perspective on the evolution of word use. I do take issue with American publications that do not distinguish between tea and tisanes or herbal tea. Shame on them – they are supposed to be educating readers and not contributing to the confusion. This kind of mis-use of a specific name or term is pervasive, tho, in many areas of food – I have a friend who cannot understand that the cheap bubbly that she drinks is not CHAMPAGNE (and never will be even tho she calls it that!). Everyone now is focused on LOCAL – which is good – but we also need to focus on REAL. Happy bread baking!

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