How Does Decaf Tea Compare to the Real Thing?

“Decaffeinated” with “tea” is an ill-suited pair in my mind. Because no, I can’t live without caffeine (my family will attest to this).

Still, there are several flavored decaf black teas that I’ve found quite acceptable. But what about classic teas, those teas without flavor additives? Can those withstand the decaffeination process? sencha and decaf senchaDecaf tea itself is sort of a problem. Americans like to drink it but Europeans eschew it; consequently, since Europe carries out much of the world’s decaffeinating, there’s little incentive to produce costly and time-consuming decaf teas. Especially when the end product isn’t that great.

Unlike coffee, which is decaffeinated before the beans are roasted, tea must be decaffeinated after it’s been produced (read more about how tea is decaffeinated). Even with the superior CO2 method, the leaves are still degraded. Therefore, lower-quality leaves will be used to begin with. After all, why would anyone ruin the best teas, those that will command top prices?

But as you constantly hear in cooking classes: the quality of the ingredients that you put into a recipe determines the quality of the finished product! You can mask poor ingredients but you’ll still have an inferior result.

Curious, I compared regular and decaf versions of sencha green tea and Ceylon black tea.

Sencha Green Tea

Sencha tea leaves are typically a beautiful green, with the darkest green and most lustrous leaves characteristic of the best senchas. This one, a Japanese sencha from TeaHaus, is composed of emerald green to dark green leaves tightly folded lengthwise, with a few scattered small pieces of leaves.Japan sencha leavesThe physical decaf leaves, obtained as a sample from a European distributor, compared quite unfavorably. The dull, pale sage and khaki leaves were loosely folded lengthwise and there seemed to be a greater quantity of small pieces of leaves and stems. To be fair, this decaf tea is a “China Sencha,” so it’s not quite comparable to sencha from Japan, but it’s all I have.Decaf China senchaAfter brewing (194°, 1 minute), the sencha opened into bright green pieces whereas the decaf yielded sturdy olive green leaf pieces along with stems.The difference in tea color was striking! While the sencha was the characteristic translucent pale green-yellow, the decaf was orange-brown. Definitely not what I’d expect from sencha.
sencha
decaf senchaAnd while the sencha was briny, vegetal, seaweed in flavor, the decaf was. Well. Bad. Just bad! A very odd flavor, extremely weak, with a slightly fishy and bitter aftertaste.

Maybe it was too old? Maybe I brewed it incorrectly? Or was I so put off by the appearance of the leaves that I didn’t give it a fair shot? Handed a cup blind, my daughter said it had little taste but she detected a slight sweet and grassy note.

So I tried it again, at 176°F for 2 minutes. It came out lighter in color, with a yellow tinge, but still more orange-brown than yellow.

decaf sencha lower temp

There was definitely more flavor this time around, definitely green tea in essence. But more like a generic restaurant tea. All the complexity and characteristic vegetal nature of sencha has been quite lost in the decaf version.

Ceylon Black Tea

I next tried perhaps the most classic of black teas, Ceylon. The regular version was Ceylon OP Nuwara Eliya from TeaHaus. Its long rolled leaves were dark brown, with a hint of red.ceylon eliya lvs

The decaf Ceylon OP leaves (from TeaHaus) were also rolled, most of them shorter in length, medium brown in color, with a hint of red.decaf ceylonBoth yielded a reddish brown cup although the decaf brew was darker and more brown in hue than Nuwara Eliya.

ceylon and decaf ceylon
Nuwara Eliya (left) and decaf Ceylon OP (right)

The brewed leaves, however, were vastly different. The Nuwara Eliya was reddish chocolate brown pieces of leaves whereas the decaf leaf pieces were dark brown to the point of black.numara eliya

decaf ceylonAs expected, regular Ceylon had that “classic” tea flavor, smooth, with nice body to it and a pleasant aftertaste.

The decaf version had less body than the Newara Eliya but still had that “classic” tea flavor. The aftertaste was not as pleasant as the Newara Eliya, but this is a serviceable substitute.

Thoughts

Fully oxidized black tea—at least in the teas I sampled here—is far more forgiving of the decaffeinating process than is delicate green tea.

And if you have a pretty decent black tea base, decaf flavored teas will also be fairly good. The base tea won’t ruin the overall flavor, and the additives will partially compensate for the less-than-ideal tea base.

In the case of the decaf sencha, the flavor has been so compromised that I can’t imagine using it blended with anything at all. Indeed, most loose decaf teas tend to be black tea.

Decaffeinating tea is a tricky process. The decaf process will degrade the tea. The process not only reduces the amount of caffeine but also lowers the levels of antioxidants and polyphenols, volatile components such as terpene-type compounds, and aroma-active compounds, according to one study. These authors go on to say that “most greenish and flavor compounds such as hexanal, (E)‐2‐hexenal, and some unknown compounds disappeared or decreased after the decaffeination process” (Lee et al. 2007). These losses, including that of caffeine itself, impact the flavor and complexity of the tea.

Therefore, the cost of the equipment, the amount of time required for the decaffeinating process, and the amount of caffeine removed must be balanced against the loss of flavor and quality. Cheaper processes result in lower quality tea—but can the costs to produce a better-quality tea be recovered if that tea carries a high price tag?

It’s easy to see why no one would want to decaffeinate a high-quality or rare tea. And it’s understandable why decaf teas aren’t the same quality as their caffeinated versions.

Further, all decaf teas do contain some level of caffeine.

Although this study was conducted a number of years ago, J. Chin and colleagues (2008:703) measured caffeine content in mainstream teas (teabags) and found that levels ranged:

  • from 1.8 (1-min steep) to 10 mg/6 oz (5-min steep) in decaf tea, and
  • from 14 (1-min steep) to 61 mg/6 oz (5-min steep) in regular tea.

So several things here.

  • From their table, I calculated the average for a 1-min steep of regular tea as 21.87 mg/6 oz, definitely double that of decaf tea—
  • although if you pick the right non-decaf tea and brew it for only 1 minute, it doesn’t contain much more than decaf tea at a 5-minute brew.
  • Also, since a 1-minute steep seems suboptimal for most teas, you may be going that 5 minutes, bringing your caffeine level of some decaf teas to 10 mg/6 oz.

Making all the costs of decaffeinating tea questionable. Really, why bother, if in the end the caffeine reduction isn’t substantial and the quality of the final product only so-so?

My takeaway?

At least for me, if I’m going to do decaf tea, I think it has to be a black tea or a flavored tea. The Ceylon OP I sampled was actually pretty satisfying. A good-quality decaf breakfast tea should also be fine because breakfast teas are usually pretty straightforward, bold but not necessarily complex. And if you’re adding milk and/or a sweetener, the difference between the decaf and non-decaf version will be less noticeable.

The same with flavored teas, in which the dominant notes tend to be the flavors and not the underlying tea itself.

But since I’m still getting some caffeine, I may as well just brew whatever regular tea I like (with the exception of a few high-caffeine teas, such as matcha), especially when I want a tea with a lot of complexity.

For anyone extremely sensitive to caffeine, however, there are plenty of naturally caffeine-free herbals and fruit teas out there. Also, Japanese mulberry leaves make a very good stand-in for green tea while blueberry leaves are similar to a black tea, minus all caffeine.

ceylon eliya brew

Sources:
–Chin, J. et al., “Caffeine content of brewed teas,” Journal of Analytical Toxicology 32:702–4. October 2008.
–Lee, S. et al., “Effect of supercritical carbon dioxide decaffeination on volatile components of green teas,” Journal of Food Science 72(7). August 2007.

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