Late in 2017, I couldn't sleep. I was up all night, in fact. After several weeks of sleepless nights, lost in a fog of midnight madness, I decided to try the unthinkable: I give up caffeine. It was early 2018 and still the season of New Year resolutions and self-care regimes so it seemed like a good time to introduce the idea that I, the founder of coffee blog Sprudge, would go caffeine free in 2018.
I experienced about three days of headaches brought on by the withdrawal, but it didn't take long (and it doesn't take long for most) to acclimate to life without the stimulant. The only thing missing was the ritual of enjoying a hot beverage in the morning. Fortunately, I live in a city with a lot of cafes with excellent tea programs and those programs tend to have a few caffeine-free alternatives on offer. Indeed, almost every cafe has at least one herbal infusion, a botanical blend, or fruit-forward tisane, and as I continued what would be a seven-month journey of caffeine abstinence, I discovered delicious offerings beyond your run-of-the-mill rosehips or chamomile.
Just don't call it tea.
While many call the following drinks herbal teas, these are *actually* herbal tisanes. Tea is a plant, Camellia sinensis, and if it's not from that plant it's not really tea. This is a pretty simple thing but it is wildly and widely misunderstood, and for tea professionals who do this stuff full time it is deeply frustrating, to which I sympathize.
Tisanes aren't teas, but they are highly delicious, or at least they can be in the right hands. For the purpose of this guide, we'll explore a range of beautiful steeping flowers, roots, plants, and fruits served warm and delightfully free of caffeine. I invite you all to correct your friends, tut-tut your family members, and go forth calling the drinks in this guide tisanes—botanical tisanes if you're feeling especially fancy.
These drinks can be made at home with very little equipment or expertise and are available to purchase on the internet (or in some cases your produce aisle!) but they also get along quite swimmingly with gear from Breville, our sponsors here at Tea Week, whose range of automatic steeping systems seem ready-made for the thirsty tisane lover. For those at home counting, these tisanes are low calorie, vegan, mostly gluten-free*, keto, paleo, South Beach approved, and mostly sugar-free**.
A note about health claims: There are a lot of claims out there about the healthful benefits of ingredients like ginger, turmeric, mint, and many others in the tisanes below. While these are all well and great we're going to base these suggestions purely on the taste experience and enjoyment factor—not their purported healthfulness.
Produce Aisle Winners
The following tisanes are simple to make and use fresh ingredients that most can find in their local specialty shop, farmers market, or grocery store.
Ginger is a lovely tisane with a tremendous flavor. It's a spicy meatball if you're heavy on the ginger so I encourage you to start out using about a tablespoon per cup of hot water to start and moving up from there. At this point, I jam in as much ginger in my tea-pot as I can.
Preparation: Carefully peel ginger root and slice into small coins (the smaller, the more infuse-able surface area). Boil water and steep for at least ten minutes. Strain and serve immediately. Wonderful with the addition of lemon and honey.
Hot tip: The Breville One-Touch Tea Maker will infuse ginger root in boiling hot water for 10 minutes at a time.
Fresh mint tea is a staple in Amsterdam cafes and couldn't be simpler: stuffing mint leaves in a glass and steeping them in water. No tea bags or filter necessary! Not only is it a pleasure to drink, it's also a beautiful presentation.
Preparation: Rinse peppermint leaves thoroughly. Place a considerable amount in a tall tempered glass. Pour boiling hot water over leaves and steep for five minutes. Drink from the glass!
These tisanes are a mix of dried ingredients—most available in grab-and-go sachets or in their loose form.
Organic Turmeric Tonic
The Organic Turmeric Tonic from Kilogram Tea is a blend of turmeric root, ginger, lemon verbena, licorice root, lemon peel, and citrus oils. It's warming, spicy, and slightly bitter. The pyramid-shaped filter bags are a nice touch and keep those pesky pieces of roots out of your drink.
Also worth checking out: Rishi Turmeric Ginger, which all but saved my life during a most unpleasant 2016 Winter season.
Blend No. 67: Meadow
Portland, Oregon's Steven Smith Teamaker produces this tasty blend of “golden Egyptian chamomile flowers and mildly stimulating, fragrant hyssop joined with smooth Cape rooibos, rose petals and linden flowers.” It has a pleasant mouthfeel and sweetness and a pleasure to steep and re-steep.
Source: Steven Smith Teamaker
Price: $11.99 for 15 sachets. Also available loose.
Song Tea in San Francisco creates botanical blends that simulate the profile and visual representation of their traditional teas. Carrot is a “blend of domestic dried carrots and burdock, South African honeybush, Chinese ginger, and Indonesian sweet cinnamon” and has a remarkable fruit quality backed up by the spice of the ginger and cinnamon. Should you come across a coffee bar serving this tisane, it pairs wonderfully with a single-origin espresso shot.
These are perhaps the highest-end tisanes on the list in terms of price and scarcity in the US. Available through special importers, the following tisanes aren't for the faint of heart (but they sure are delicious).
Sugars in the buckwheat kernels caramelize in the toasting process giving this tisane almost a sugar-cereal-in-the-morning flavor but in a really good way. Sourced from Nagano by Kettl, this beverage is one of our favorites.
Preparation: Kettl recommends steeping 5 grams in 200ml of 205ºF water for but a minute.
Roasted Black Soybean
Tea Dealers sells this roasted soybean tisane that also doubles as a snack (the beans can be eaten once they've been steeped!) These soybeans are a smaller cultivar known as Sengoku from Hokkaido. The drink is slightly savory and has a nice sweetness.
Preparation: Steep 5 grams in 200ml of 195ºF water for a minute up to three times.
Source: Tea Dealers
Price: $16/100 grams
Wild Persimmon Leaves
To wrap up this guide I present another offering from Tea Dealers: wild persimmon leaf tisane sourced from Hadong, Korea. The tisane is orange, like the fruit, but has an herbaceous and nutty quality.
Preparation: Steep 5 grams in 180ml of 176ºF water 3-4 times.
Source: Tea Dealers
Price: $38/50 grams
This guide is just the beginning to the many caffeine-free opportunities that exist out there. There are hundreds of herbs, botanicals, roots, leaves, twigs, fruits, and heck, even bones out there to throw in heated water and infuse for one-to-several minutes. Drink up!
Zachary Carlsen is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Zachary Carlsen on Sprudge.
Sprudge Tea Week is presented by Breville USA.