Can I decaffeinate my tea at home? This is a common tea myth found across many websites and it is proving difficult to remove. But that’s partly my fault.

For years, many of us in the tea industry were guilty of touting an at-home decaffeination procedure that gave hope to wide-eyed tea lovers who wanted great taste and less caffeine. 

The modus operandi went something like this: Caffeine is water-soluble. Thus, caffeine is one of the first ingredients released into the water during the steeping process. We thought that 80% of the caffeine in either a teabag or loose tea leaves was released after a 30-second infusion. 

Simply pour off the initial wash and then re-infuse the tea leaves with hot water and brew as usual. You have saved yourself from 25mg of caffeine and your cardiologist will be happy.

Not true!  If it was that easy, there would be little use for all the effort and money expended to commercially decaffeinate tea.

I first became aware of this “home wash” method in 1994 at a tea conference in New England. All of us in attendance made it a part of our teaching repertoire. I couldn’t wait to spread the caffeine-lite scheme. 

I remember customers in my tearoom looking at me as if I were a genius when I told them that I could magically “de-caffeinate” any tea on my menu in the privacy of my kitchen. I don’t know how many customers’ sleepless nights I was responsible for during my many years of retail business.

All of us on the tea speaking circuit – including Norwood Pratt, John Harney, and Pearl Dexter – were guilty of spreading the myth. But, who can blame us? When the current tea renaissance began, there was little documented research and few reputable tea books to turn to for answers. We simply repeated much of tea’s oral tradition that had accumulated for centuries. We were all blissfully ignorant until science began to catch up with the growth in the specialty tea market.

After a few years, I became a doubter of the home decaffeination myth. A couple of scientific papers were rumored to have challenged the popular method. At the 2005 World Tea Expo, I asked the author of a best-selling caffeine book if the caffeine quick wash was reliable. Without hesitating, he told me “yes.” But where was the proof?

Alas, science at the college level has proven that the author, and the rest of us “tea experts” were wrong.

Science to the rescue.

In early 2008, Dr. Bruce Branan, Professor of Chemistry at Asbury University (Wilmore, KY) contacted me about the possibility of doing chemical analysis tests on tea using their newly acquired lab equipment. He had a few tea lovers in his family and he knew I lived nearby. He had been reading about the health benefits of tea polyphenols and he asked for suggestions on potential studies using tea.

Dr. Branan and I talked about several possibilities before I told him of my doubts concerning caffeine removal using the simple hot water wash. I told him the tea world would be grateful if he could conduct a study on caffeine content in several common loose leaf teas. He said it would be easy to analyze and that he had a student, Micah Buckel, who would make it his summer project. I supplied the teas and Micah ran the study.

Using standardized testing procedures, eight teas were brewed for three minutes in seven ounces of water. The infusions were then filtered and the liquid was analyzed using High-Performance Liquid Chromatography with UV detection. The tea leaves were infused a second time, steeped three minutes, and analyzed. A similar third steeping and analysis followed.

He found that a three-minute infusion removes 46-70% of the caffeine from a cup of tea. This is a far cry from our 30-second/80% removal claim. In fact, it would take a six-minute infusion to remove 80% of the caffeine!

 What should tea consumers do?

Over 85% of Americans use significant amounts of caffeine on a daily basis. Most tea drinkers, assuming they are not prone to heart palpitations or other medical problems diagnosed by their physician, can easily handle 200mg of caffeine in their diet per day.

If your doctor is asking you to cut caffeine completely out of your diet, you should switch to a commercially decaffeinated tea or a caffeine-free herbal. (Remember, caffeine is not present in herbals unless they are blended with tea leaves.) One should always consult with a doctor if you have any questions about caffeine’s effect upon your health.

Results of this study were originally published in Fresh Cup magazine, January 2009.

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