I was pleasantly surprised to learn about the discovery of some wild tea plants in the high mountain region of Southern China that appear to be naturally caffeine free, according to an article in Science News in November. This unique wild plant was discovered and tested with some amazing results.

“The researchers used high-performance liquid chromatography to analyze HYC buds and leaves collected during the growing season. In addition to finding several potentially health-promoting compounds not found in regular tea, they determined that HYC contains virtually no caffeine. Digging deeper, they found this was because of a mutation in the gene encoding the enzyme tea caffeine synthase, which promotes caffeine production in most tea plants.”

I remember years ago there was much discussion about the problems with the decaffeinating process, which had a negative impact on the flavor profile of tea. In addition, some decaffeinating processes used toxic chemicals which undermined this healthy beverage.  I also remember the old belief that if you wash the tea and then dispose of that water, you will eliminate 80% of the caffeine. That apparently has been disproven. There is however a sticking point for me regarding the testing of caffeine in tea. The method typically used is to use boiling water to steep the tea for 5-10 minutes and then determine the amount of caffeine released. The problem I have with that is obvious: When we make green tea, for example, we don’t use boiling water and we certainly don’t steep it for 5-10 minutes. That would make it undrinkable. So for me, the question of how much caffeine is actually released in the liquid after a 1-3 minute steep in water that is 175-185 degrees remains unknown, from a scientific perspective.

I can tell you that I make a fresh pot of green tea each morning. After at least 4-5 subsequent steepings, I assume that the last cup of the evening is essentially caffeine free. I add about 30-60 seconds longer for each subsequent steeping. If I were to make a fresh cup of whole leaf tea close to my bedtime, it would inevitably make falling asleep more challenging. Not the case with my re-steeped tea.

I do like the idea however of a naturally-occurring caffeine-free tea, and see its value for a variety of people including those especially sensitive to caffeine and children. I don’t know if the supply is actually sufficient to produce enough for the masses, but I suspect new tea plants can be created using the wildcrafted stock.

I think the future of tea will be something delightful to watch unfold, as growers around the world explore unique varietals. We have much to look forward to.

Photo “Boseong Green Tea Plantation” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial No Derivatives Generic License 2.0 to the photographer Giselle Leung and is being posted unaltered (source)