Tea, tisane, herbal tea, decoction: What’s the difference?

Every tea, tisane, and herbal tea is an infusion of hot water and selected ingredients to extract the flavors. Tea is made uniquely with the leaves of the tea plant, but tisanes and herbal teas are infusions made with any other plant, fresh or dried. The world of teas and infusions is about to open up for you.

Dried tea leaves and herbals on the spoons lying on the white linen.

What is tea?

Tea is a steeped hot beverage made with leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, which is an evergreen plant called tea. Tea is commonly prepared by pouring hot water on the top of the tea leaves to infuse the flavors. The tea leaves are steeped for a time suitable for the type of tea and then you take the leaves out and you have yourself a pot or a cup of tea. Perfect. If you cool your tea and add some ice cubes you can call it iced tea.

Later on in this article, I will refer to this tea drink made from the Camellia sinensis plant as true tea, when discussing the other infusion types that might be mixed with tea beverages..

Different types of tea

All the teas are from the same tea plant, Camellia Sinensis, but they are all manufactured differently. In descending order, the white teas are the least processed and the dark teas such as pu’erh teas are the most processed. Each style adds another layer to the process.

White tea 

Least processed tea, for it has only two steps: withering and drying.  After gathering the tea leaves they are spread with thin layers to wither under the sun. Some famous white teas are White Peony (Pai Mu Tan) and Silver Needle (Bai Hat Yin Zhen).

Green tea

Green tea has one processing step more: Withering, fixing, and drying. Tea leaves are fixed using heat to prevent oxidation. For example, Chinese green teas are pan-fried while Japanese green teas are steamed. Some famous green teas are kukicha, matcha, and sencha.

Yellow tea

The preparation of yellow tea has four steps: Withering, fixing, wrapping, and drying. The leaves are wrapped in paper or cloth which causes only a mild fermentation. This means that the tea has a mellow taste (opposite to the dark teas that are fully fermented). A famous yellow tea is Mount Jun Silver Needle (Jun Shan Yin Zhen).

Oolong tea / Wulong tea

Oolong tea has four steps manufacturing process: Withering, bruising, controlled oxidation, and drying. Oolong tea is semi-oxidised. Making oolong tea (also called wulong tea) sounds quite brutal for the characteristic step in this tea type is called bruising, in Chinese they call it “rocking the green”. The reality is less horrible, for it just means the way the leaves are tossed and turned to expose the enzymes to oxygen. Some famous oolong teas are Dong Ding Oolong and Oriental Beauty (Dang Fang Mei Ren).

Black tea, green tea, and hibiscus herbal tea dried tea leaves in small bowls and different colored ready-steeped tea in the mugs.

Black tea or red tea

Black tea also has four steps: Withering, rolling, oxidation, and drying. Black tea is 100 % oxidized. The Chinese call this tea type red tea, you know, when you have steeped the black tea, the color of the tea looks quite red, doesn’t it? After withering the leaves they are rolled generally by machine. The rolling breaks down the leaves and exposes the enzymes more to oxygen. The famous black teas are Assam, Ceylon, and Darjeeling.

Dark tea

The processing steps of dark teas vary, but the characteristic of the process is fermentation. Dark teas are fully fermented by natural or artificial fermentation. I have heard people call them ” fermented black teas” as well. Due to this fermentation process, this tea family is the only teas that get better when they age and they have very unique flavors. Some famous dark teas are Pu’erh, Liu An, and Liu Bao. 

| RELATED: Best Books on Tea and Infusions | Find your new favorite!

Teapot on the wooden table with a fallen tea strainer on its side with tea leaves scattered around. On the top is written: " tea vs tisane - what's the difference?"

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What is tisane?

Tisane [tə’zan] or tisane tea is a drink made by infusing botanicals, like herbs, flowers, fruits, roots, and spices. So we could say that you can use any other plant than the actual tea plant to call it tisane. Tisanes are mainly caffeine-free and have several health benefits, no doubt. As true teas, tisane teas can be served both hot and cold.

Ten to twelve years ago, when I was working at a fine dining restaurant, I referred to a tisane beverage as “tea” which was technically wrong. My dear colleague reminded me carefully that I was speaking incorrectly about our infusion selection. He was very serious that I should have referred to them correctly. I can tell you that since then I have been strictly clear with the infusions and teas to not mix them!

Different types of tisanes

The tisanes can be divided into groups depending on the part of the plant that is used for the tisane. Fruit tea is a tisane as well as peppermint tea, despite the names. The ingredients can be fresh or dried. Here are a few other examples:

  • Herb or leaf tisane: Mint, lemon verbena, lemon balm, thyme
  • Flower tisane: Chamomile, hibiscus, jasmine
  • Fruit tisane or berry tisane: Rosehip, elderberry, lemon
  • Root tisane:  Ginger, echinacea, turmeric
  • Spice tisane: Cardamom, cinnamon, clove

So you can easily make your own tisanes with any fresh or dried plant and hot water.

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Mint leafs tied in the bouquets with jute yarn to dry for herbal tea.

The key differences between tea and tisane

Though both tea and tisane are made by steeping the chosen ingredient and hot water, they have three main differentiating factors: the main ingredient used in steeping, the caffeine content, and the flavor profile.

Main ingredient

True tea is made from the Camellia sinensis tea plant while the tisanes are made from other plants. Teas are mainly made with infused leaves while tisanes can be made with any part of the plant that is infused with hot water. 

Caffeine content

All tea leaves contain caffeine, (in tea it is actually called theine) which might be an issue if you are pregnant or you do not want to stay up all night. The amount of caffeine is quite low in low-processed teas, like white, green, and yellow, that stay between 15 to 45mg per 240ml (8oz) serving. With the same idea the most processed ones are the ones with the highest caffeine content between 40 to 70 mg. To compare an average cup of coffee contains 95 mg of caffeine, so teas win coffee in any battle regarding the lowest caffeine content.

Flavor profile

True teas are all made from tea leaves, so the flavor profile stays more similar between them. The manufacturing style gives the differences between different teas and some will give more bitter notes to the prepared tea. Tisanes on the other hand can be fruity or spicy or anything in the world depending on the ingredient used. So, if you have tasted true teas before and you think you are not a fan of them, maybe you should dunk your biscuits next time into a tisane that has often a more approachable flavor than true teas. Another good option would be flavored or blended teas which we look closer in the next chapters.

| RELATED: Why does my tea taste bitter? How to avoid tea bitterness

What are flavored teas and tea blends?

When the tea leaves are blended with some other plant we describe it as a flavoured tea or tea blend. The blend can have only two ingredients or include several different botanicals mixed all together. Flavoring can come also through manufacturing. For example, Lapsang souchong has a smoky flavor for it has been dried over pinewood fires.

Most famous tea blends

  • Earl Grey is a mixture of black tea and oil from the rind of bergamot orange. It has a unique taste, that is one of the most known in the world.
  • English Breakfast is a blend of several different black teas, that differs from producer to producer but commonly there is used at least black tea varieties Assam and Ceylon.
  • Chai tea or Masala Chai is made with black tea milk, sugar, and spices that vary but characteristics are cardamom, ginger, and cinnamon.

What is herbal tea then?

Though herbal tea has the name “tea” in it, it is not technically tea either. Herbal tea is an infusion of herbs, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits, roots, or seeds, and actually is the same as tisane. The French word “la tisane” translates as “herbal tea”. To be precise, herbal tea should be called herbal infusion or tisane, but herbal tea has stabilized its place in the English language, so I think we have lost the game there.

Many relate the name “herbal tea” to vegetarians, tree-huggers, and homeopathic and Ayurvedic remedies, and well, they are not completely wrong there. Herbal teas are often used also as medical treatments to ameliorate one’s health like with peppermint you can relieve an upset stomach. Herbal teas are also (almost all) a perfect caffeine-free alternative to true teas. 

Tiny toddlers hand is trying to grasp the dried chamomile herbal tea from the spoon, other spoons are laid around the white linen and filled with different dried herbs.

Popular types of herbal tisanes / herbal teas

Because the world of tisanes and herbal teas is so fun, the following list of herbal teas are all also tisanes.

  • Chamomile tea is mentioned in a Papyrus roll back in 1550 BC in ancient Egypt, so it is maybe the oldest and most famous herbal tea. (Source.)
  • Rooibos bush from South Africa is used to make red-colored rooibos tea with the stems and leaves of the bush. Many prefer Rooibos, “the Red Bush Tea” over true teas because it is naturally caffeine-free, but has some similarities in flavor profile for some.
  • Honeybush is quite similarly processed as rooibos and its flowers have a honey-like scent, which has inspired the name.
  • Yerba Mate is a herb grown in South America. It has an earthy flavor and similarly to the Camellia Sinensis tea plant, it contains caffeine (Source). So choose the Chamomile over Yerba Mate in the evening if you want to catch some z’s.

And what about the infusions and decoctions?

Infusion is a drink made by pouring hot water over the chosen ingredients to extract their flavors into water with steeping. That’s in the tea world. The truth is that infusions go beyond the tea world and tisanes. Basically, you can use many different ingredients as solvents, water is only one of them. Oils and alcohol are also very common solvents to infuse for example herbs and the solvent doesn’t need to be hot to extract the flavors and then the infusion time is naturally longer – even several years. Some examples of infusions are antibiotics, liquors, and tinctures (botanicals infused with alcohol). 

But back to the world of tea and tisanes. 

A decorated teapot and a tea infuser on its side on a wooden table with tea leaves rolling out from it to the table.

Decoctions are drinks that are made with simmering water. The ingredients are steeped in the water that remains on the heat source and the temperature rests hot. The decoction method is ideal for ingredients that are reluctant to give up their flavors by just infusing (source). That means things like cinnamon, which is a bark of the wood, release its flavors more easily with the continuous decoction method than with infusion, which is a more short-term method. Another example in the food world, a chicken broth, is a decoction, for the flavors of chicken and vegetables are infused into the water by simmering the water and the ingredients longer period. 

Summary of all

Anything that is made with simmering water is a decoction. All teas, tisanes, and herbal teas are infusions for they are made with hot (or cold) water poured on the chosen ingredient to extract the flavors. All herbal teas are tisanes and tisanes herbal teas, for they mean the same. Tisane is just a word derived from French. Tisanes and herbal teas are not teas, for they are not made of the tea plant itself. They are made of any plant excluding Camellia sinensis, the tea plant.

That concludes that tea is made only from the tea plant, though the word tea is used overlapping with the meaning of tisanes and infusions. 

Huh. 

Got it all out of my chest. 

I will go and steep some tea now. Or should I choose some Chamomile tisane to calm down a bit?

Which tea or tisane is your favorite?

Let me know in the comments which tea or tisane is your favorite! Do you call them herbal teas or tisanes? I’m curious to know…

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A hand holding a herb bouquet made of mint against the wooden surface. The text overlay says " Herbal tea vs tisane what's the difference?"

Book resources

I have used several resource books to provide the most accurate information on top of my knowledge on teas and tisanes. Here are the resources I have used:

If you are interested in books on this topic check my post about the Best Books on Tea and Infusions that I recommend reading! And actually, all of these reference books above are also listed and reviewed in the post mentioned.

Read more about tea and infusions

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