What is herbal tea?

And why would you want to drink it?

When I tell people that I’m a huge herbal tea geek, the most common reaction is “Why?”

To many people, herbal tea is something to drink only when sick, if at all. It’s sad, boring and it all tastes the same.

But herbal tea has just as much to offer as tea or coffee, both of which are now treated as delicacies all over the world.

There are hundreds of different types of herbal tea — in fact, there are probably hundreds left I haven’t even tried. Give me a few minutes and I’ll try to convince you that the world of herbal tea is definitely worth exploring.

Clearing up a few misconceptions

First, let’s establish what herbal tea isn’t.

Green tea is not herbal tea. Green tea is a processed form of Camellia sinensis (the “tea plant” or simply “tea”) from which all varieties of true tea are made. Black tea, yellow tea, oolong, pu-erh, green tea, white tea — it’s all Camellia sinensis. The difference in the appearance and taste of the final product comes from the different ways these teas are oxidized, dried and cured — but that’s another post. The important thing is that Camellia sinensis makes up the group of drinks we call “tea”.

teatypes 300x219 What is herbal tea?

The many different preparations of Camellia sinensis

Herbal teas are simply hot-water infusions that use material from other species of plants. (OK, other species excluding those in the Coffea genus which are used to make coffee. Smart aleck.) When we talk about “herbal teas”, the one thing we aren’t talking about is bona fide tea. Confusing, huh?

Tisanes and herbal infusions

“Tisane” is another word for herbal tea. It’s a little less confusing because it doesn’t contain a paradoxical reference to true tea.

However, it’s not very well known outside of tea-geek circles. The same goes for the clinical-sounding term “herbal infusion”. Being precise is a virtue, but not if it confuses the people you’re trying to talk to. For that reason, I use the term “herbal tea” more than “tisane” when writing for Supplement SOS. However confusing the term is, it’s the most common name understood by the largest number of people.

Herbal tea all tastes the same

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to getting people to take herbal tea seriously is the idea that it all tastes like hot water and damp grass. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of herbal teas that do taste grassy to a greater or lesser extent — but there also tisanes like hibiscus and elderflower that taste gloriously fruity and surprising, or valerian tea which has a marvelous funk, or the cool sweet-saltiness of spearmint tea, or countless other intriguing and delicious herbal tea flavors.

The reason most people think tisanes all taste crappy is that they’ve only ever tasted crappy tisanes. And that’s not their fault; the way most herbal teas are prepared and served is pitiful. At any trendy cafe with a barista who can talk for hours about the provenance of their coffee beans or the rarefied qualities of an espresso ristretto, you are still as likely as not to be given a sad teabag floating mournfully in a cup of scalding water if you ask for herbal tea.

Imagine how much less popular coffee would be if it were always made with instant crystals, or how much less popular green tea would be if it were always made with dusty bags scorched by boiling water and left to stew.

This is the current state of herbal tea, and it’s a real shame.

Teabags are the enemy

Teabags became popular in the US and UK because they conveniently provide a drinkable beverage that bears a passing resemblance to properly brewed black tea. This simply isn’t true for many — perhaps the majority of — herbal teas.

In order for a teabag steeped in boiling water to be an appropriate infusion apparatus, the plant material being infused needs to possess the following qualities:

  • A teabag will hold approximately the correct amount of material to brew one cup of the infusion
  • The material will not need to move around the cup to infuse properly
  • The material will infuse to an acceptable level before the cup of water cools down
  • Boiling or close-to-boiling is an acceptable temperature for the infusion water

Many tisanes meet few or none of these criteria. Some need much more plant material per cup than would fit in a teabag. Some need 10, 20, 30 minutes or longer to infuse properly and so cannot be made in a cup that will cool down in 5. Some will be undrinkably bitter and scorched if made with boiling water.

Moreover, a teabag can hide many sins. Bags generally have a poorer quality of material than loose-leaf herbal teas. Because the material in teabags is ground more finely, sometimes to a literal dust, they oxidize and become stale much more quickly.

So, to people who say that all herbal teas taste the same or have no flavor, I contend they have never had good herbal tea.

Making herbal tea properly

A complete guide to making perfect tisanes would be a post by itself (and may well be in later weeks) but I’ll touch on the most important points briefly.

To properly make a tisane, you will need:

tea strainer What is herbal tea?

A tea strainer is an extremely useful and versatile piece of hardware. Credit: SanFranAnnie

  • To start with a high quality herbal tea that’s been stored properly (somewhere cool without undue contact to air or light — a tin with a tight lid is perfect). I buy many of my herbs online, but local health food stores or Asian groceries or spice shops are a good bet too.
  • A large heat proof vessel. A teapot is traditional but a french press or cafetierre is a good alternative. French presses are great because they leave loads of room for the plant material to move freely in the hot water, but you can still strain out the herbal tea when you’re ready to serve. If you use a teapot with an infusion basket, also called a tea cage, make sure it’s as roomy as possible. Another option is to let the herbal tea move freely in the teapot and pour through a tea strainer when you serve.
  • A water heating device. A pot on the stove and a thermometer is OK, an electric kettle with an adjustable target temperature is better.
  • A timer.
  • A drinking vessel. Dealer’s choice.

That may sound like a lot of fuss, but the hardware can be bought or improvised for a few dollars. Most herbal teas themselves are pleasantly inexpensive when bought in modestly large quantities.

Why drink herbal tea

So why drink herbal tea, other than it tastes great when you prepare it properly?

My main reason is that I can drink as much as I like of it without worrying about calories or caffeine. If I have a deadline coming up I can get through 10 or 15 cups in a few hours. If I tried the same thing with coffee I’d have heart palpitations or a panic attack.

Many herbal teas also have some scientifically-backed health benefits — but that’s another post!

In any case, I’ve rambled on for long enough for today. I hope I’ve cleared up at least a few misconceptions about herbal tea and encouraged you to investigate more on your own. I’m going to go and put the kettle on.

Hi! I blog about food and health for Supplement SOS. I like green vegetables, long walks on the beach and triple-blind placebo-controlled intervention studies with large sample sizes. Liked this post? Follow on Google+, Twitter or via RSS or email me!.

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