Getting the Facts Straight on Tea: From a Non-Tea Drinker

Supposedly in the United States people consume some 80 billion servings of tea. Depending on the age demographic, an estimated 80-87% of the population regularly have it. On a given day half of those people will have a cup. The country is the world’s third largest tea importer and the only Western nation to continually increase those imports.

Most of my life I thought coffee, soda and alcohol were the only heavily consumed drinks in the US. Before college I rarely met a soul who claimed to drink tea. I’m going to guess that, assuming these statistics are true, tea drinkers must be modest folk who feel no need to boast their beverage preferences. Meanwhile, if someone is addicted to coffee or caffeinated soda, usually they will answer many unrelated questions and comments with, “I haven’t had my coffee/[chosen carbonated beverage] yet!”

I hate tea. I’ve tried it on many occasions and have yet to “acquire” the taste—why I need to acquire it when there’s a myriad of yummy and even healthy drinks out there that I don’t need a trial period for, I don’t know. Bitter stuff. Watery stuff. How does it possess both flavor profiles at once, regardless of the length of steeping?

However, I do love ginger root and honey. I can drink this “tea” any day. Is it even a tea? What counts as a tea—is the word colloquial or limited to a particular plant? If it’s limited to a particular plant, how come we refer to native plant infusions as herbal teas?

Tropical Red Flower: Likely a Ginger
Searched for an image of a ginger flower, and it turns out I already had an image. Not sure which species it is, but it lives in the climatron at the Missouri Botanical Garden in Saint Louis.

Foremost, “tea” does refer to a singular species: the leaves of the tropical Asian shrub or small tree (it can grow in both habits) Camellia sinensis. White teas, black teas and green teas are all differently-prepared versions of the same leaves.

Tea flower
Camellia sinensis flower. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Miltos Gikas.

So why do we have “teas” for lemon, lavender, ginger, spruce, and just about any other nontoxic plant that has been added to hot water in other cultures across time and geography?

This is where living in North America, and the terms Americans and Canadians use, is possibly the true source of my confusion. In both countries—at least in the regions of the two countries that I’ve lived or frequented—we use “herbal tea”, much to the disdain of true tea connoisseurs. However, much of the rest of the world prefers to be technically more accurate and call such drinks tisane, or more generally, infusions, decoctions and brews.

Makes sense considering tea is one species, we give it a specific term while other herbal drinks, as a category, get a general term.

The fun part now is telling people I drink ginger “tisane”. No one I know has ever heard of it! And I don’t mind enlightening them with trivia.


  • Featured photo, “Lemongrass Tisane”, courtesy of Flickr user Andrea Nguyen.

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