Drinking coffee is as American as baseball and football. It's an integral part of most people's mornings and along with energy drinks, it's what most people grab when they need an extra boost in the afternoon. In fact, Reuters reported that 64 percent of people living in the United States consumed at least one cup of coffee a day — that's the highest level in six years (1)!
America and the world's love affair with coffee boils down to the main ingredient responsible for that increased energy: caffeine. Coffee isn't the only beverage that contains caffeine; tea contains significant levels of caffeine as well. While tea generally contains less amounts of caffeine, there are several brews that can rival coffee when it comes to increasing mental acuity and giving you that extra burst of energy. We'll explain how caffeine benefits you and rank seven popular teas from most caffeinated to least caffeinated.
Caffeine is a naturally occurring compound that is present in numerous botanical plants including in the leaves and seeds of tea and coffee. Caffeine works as a natural pesticide to protect these plants from infections and disease. In humans, caffeine is a stimulant that increases mental focus and energy.
Tea leaves actually contain more caffeine than coffee beans in their natural state. The reason coffee is typically more caffeinated than tea is because coffee is a more concentrated beverage while tea is diluted using larger quantities of water. In general, a cup of coffee contains twice as much caffeine — between 95 and 200 milligrams — as the average cup of tea. Some pure, unaltered teas such as Silver Needle white tea come close to matching the caffeine content of coffee.
The coffee brewing method also draws out caffeine better than tea brewing methods. Typically coffee is brewed with hot water at higher temperatures for longer periods and is fresher than most teas. During short tea brewing and steeping methods, the caffeine stays in the tea leaves — which are then discarded before consuming — further reducing the caffeine content.
Caffeine is responsible for a variety of health benefits such as reducing the risk of Parkinson's, increasing metabolism after workouts and increasing your reaction time (2). Caffeine contains an amino acid known as l-theanine, which has been shown to boost cognitive function and improve focus (3).
The amount of caffeine tea contains varies depending on the type. As a rule of thumb, white teas contain the least amount of caffeine while matcha green tea powder contains the most when it comes to true teas. Aside from the type of tea, caffeine content is affected by a host of factors including the age of the tea leaves, the temperature of the water used for brewing and consumption and steeping time.
All true teas — green tea, oolong tea, white tea, pu-erh tea and black tea — contain naturally occurring caffeine. That's because all of these teas are derived using the leaves from the tea plant scientifically known as Camellia sinensis. The difference among the true teas occurs during the production process where leaves are fermented and oxidized to differing degrees.
For example, green tea leaves undergo minimal processing and are not allowed to oxidize, while black tea leaves are the result of a long fermentation and oxidation process. This long fermentation process increases the caffeine content of black tea, making it stronger than green teas.
Another factor that impacts caffeine in tea is the temperature at which teas are brewed and steeped. Green and white tea leaves are generally steeped at lower water temperatures — around 180 F rather than 212 F for black tea — which gives caffeine less time to dissolve in the water and results in a less caffeinated tea. Loose leaf teas will also generally have higher amounts of caffeine than tea bags, which contain broken leaves.
Herbal teas, tisanes, and zest teas do not contain any caffeine while flavored teas and infusions contain small amounts. Flavored teas and infusions, such as jasmine green tea and masala chai tea are made using a true tea as the base and infused with flowers or spices. That means that the herbal or spice blends contain varying amounts of caffeine. All of these factors can affect how much caffeine is in your tea, so while industry standard estimates exist, it's hard to pin down the exact caffeine content of tea.
Matcha tea is a go-to energy tea thanks to its estimated 75 milligrams of caffeine. As we know, caffeine content varies significantly because of the way we manufacture leaves and brew tea. Matcha green tea powder contains the most caffeine since it uses every single bit of the green tea leaves. The leaves are ground into a fine powder, packing this tea full of antioxidants polyphenols and of course, caffeine.
Pu-erh tea comes in second when it comes to caffeine content. Long valued in Chinese traditional medicine for its health benefits, this type of tea contains on average 60 milligrams of caffeine. The caffeine helps increase weight loss by speeding up metabolism and burning calories more efficiently. Pu-erh differs from the other true teas in that it is naturally fermented before the leaves are dried. That leads to a caffeine-rich drink without the astringent flavors of coffee.
Packed with 50 milligrams of caffeine, black tea is often recommended as an alternative to coffee for people who want a little pick-me-up without feeling wired. The beauty of black tea is that the flavor possibilities are endless. You can choose a standard breakfast tea or opt for a British Earl Grey tea, which is famous for its citrus infusion of bergamot. Classic black teas include Assam, Ceylon, Keemun and Darjeeling. Black tea is also used as the base of many other blends including chai tea, although the caffeine content is likely decreased in these teas.
Oolong tea contains 40 milligrams of caffeine and helps to improve mental performance and keep you alert all day long. Packed full of minerals and vitamins, oolong tea is a favorite among tea drinkers. Largely cultivated in China and Taiwan, oolong tea is a dark, amber red tea featuring a sweet and fragrant aftertaste.
While yerba mate doesn't have as much caffeine as coffee, it delivers caffeine without the jittery effects and provides a host of nutrients you just won't get with a cup of joe. Cultivated in the South American rainforest, this tea is traditionally brewed using clay gourds, is sipped through a bamboo straw and enjoyed as part of cultural and social ceremonies. You can even brew this tea just like you would a regular cup of coffee using a French press or coffee machine. Revered by South Americans as a "drink of the gods,” yerba mate offers sustained energy through caffeine and 24 different vitamins.
Green tea boosts energy and can help increase your overall stamina and endurance. Japanese researchers conducted a study that found athletes who consumed four cups of green tea every day over a 12-week period saw their endurance increase anywhere from 8% to 24%. As with some of these other less caffeinated teas, you can drink several cups throughout the day without worrying about feeling wired like you do when consuming a few cups of coffee.
Typically, white tea is the least caffeinated of the true teas. This is largely because it is brewed at lower temperatures where the caffeine is not extracted from the leaves. It's important to note that there is an exception here and you can consume certain white teas for energy in place of coffee. The purest white teas such as Silver Needle contain almost as much caffeine as black teas. That's because this type of white tea is made using the buds of the flower rather than the leaves other white teas use. These flower buds contain high levels of caffeine to fend off insects resulting in the increased caffeine content of the highest quality white teas.
While tea doesn't have as much caffeine as coffee, it's a great alternative if you still want that extra energy without feeling jittery or limited to just one cup. Play around with the different true teas and see which ones work best for you. Whether you're trying to swear off coffee for good, or just want an afternoon alternative that won't keep you up all night, caffeinated tea is a good solution.
Remember, if you want to replace your coffee with a piping hot cup of tea or a refreshing glass of iced tea, you'll want to pay extra attention to your brewing methods and tea leaves to maximize caffeine. Matcha, pu-erh and black teas have the most caffeine so these are a good place to start if you need more energy.
Make sure to use loose tea and use boiling water to get the most of caffeine. Finally, allow the tea to steep longer to release the caffeine from the leaves.