Is it fair to call it "tea?"

We at Hugo Tea, being fond of exactness and quantifying things, have been puzzling over the perennial tea v. herbal tea debate for some time now.

Being intelligent Steepsterites, we all know that tea—proper tea—comes from a single species of plant, the glorious Camellia Sinensis.

Nevertheless, marketers, coffee-peddlers, casual passerby’s, and persons of every-sort (including tea-drinkers!), refer to herbal drinks and various other concoctions as “tea.”

Granted, there is the occasional “Tisane” (a more appropriate name), but “Herbal Tea” seems to be preferred name for non-tea tea.

Does this perplexity cause anyone else trouble? Is “tea” only Camellia Sinensis, or as convenience would have it, is “tea” any plant-based drink that is steeped?

Which should we use? Which should we promote?

46 Replies
momo said

There are more important things to worry about in the world. People aren’t less intelligent for not knowing. It’s pretty commonplace to just refer to it as tea, and it doesn’t hurt anyone to call it tea. I would be incredibly turned off if someone is like, that’s sleepytime tisane not tea blah blah camellia sinensis blah blah and think they were a giant snot.

But alas, it isn’t a matter of being more intelligent than another—if that were important, there would be better ways than to test the accuracy of someone’s language. Rather the issue is about consumer information.

Most would think it silly to call wine beer or beer wine just because they have a similarity (i.e. alcohol content). And in that vein the examples could be endless. Just as coffee drinkers are sure not to confuse espresso and coffee, though they are made from the same bean.

And in that regard, isn’t it a matter of accuracy, not snootiness?

And you are quite right that the issue is virtually a non-issue on account of it’s triviality. But we urge you not to attach any urgency or agenda to our simple query. It’s a purely recreational thought experiment—not a call to arms.

VeryPisces said

Well, Hugo Tea, YOU said “being intelligent Steepsterites” which implied intelligence is required. ;-)

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tperez said

I think “herbal tea” is fine, not sure what else you’d call it

“Tisane” too, but I guess I just don’t like the word… lol

We never know whether to say TEEsane or TISane

cuppaT said

Hmmm. I thought it was pronounced tiZAHN.

I myself say it “tiZAN” – which is what suggests haha


Will said

Yeah, it’s French; pronounced roughly ‘tee-ZAHN’, as far as I know.

There’s a sound recording here: suggests that tee-ZAHN is the correct pronunciation in French, but also suggests an English pronunciation of ti-ZAN or ti-ZAHN (also with sound recording)

Either way, looks like the emphasis should be on the second syllable.

tperez said

Hmm, well I like it more now that I know I get to say it with a French accent! haha

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cuppaT said

My thoughts: It’s kinda like medical terminology. You would use the specific, more correct term when conversing with an aficionado, but the generalized term when conversing with the public. A company whose advertising contains the words “grab your brew” is most likely focusing on the general public — but us aficionados know who you are and that you know the correct terminology and we’ll still buy your products.

Angrboda said

I think this is a very good point.


Let’s pose a follow-up then. Does it add anything for then prospective tea drinker to know that all tea comes from the same plant? That is a pretty fascinating tidbit and one that most people don’t know. Does that add to your enjoyment of tea at all?

I mean… I don’t know. At first, that was cool to know, but once the novelty wore off, I’m not sure I enjoy tea more or less because it’s all from one plant.

I learned a lot about tea from tea companies’ websites, for sure, but I don’t think less of companies that refer to herbals as “herbal tea” instead of “tisane.”

Angrboda said

When I heard for the first time that all true tea originated from the same plant, I’m not sure I fully believed it!

Again, I agree completely with Michelle and cuppaT below. :)

Will said

If I’m not mistaken, some pu’er is made with Camellia taliensis (a very old tree of this variety died recently — see — a different large-leaf varietal, instead of C sinensis v. assamica. I have also heard some anecdotal reports of other non-c. sinensis teas being used for pu’er in certain cases.

That said, it is generally speaking true that most tea we drink is the same plant (though there are multiple varietals which do have certain characteristics that are distinct from one another). Even though much of what we taste has to do with the way the tea is made, there are sub-varieties which are more commonly used for one type of tea or another, and I think it makes sense that both the varietal and growing conditions have some effect on the taste of the final tea.

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cuppaT said

A prospective aficionado might well take the time and trouble to do some internet research on the specifics of tea, whereas a simple prospective tea drinker probably won’t. Both will still enjoy the tea. You could put a little “history of tea” page on your website though, as other companies have; it’s a nice addition.

Hugo Tea does have a cursory About Tea page on our site that references such things. But we choose to keep the information streamlined for easy digestion.

cuppaT said


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Will said

I try not to be too pedantic about it, or correct people about it; at the same time, if you know the correct term, maybe best to use it.

FWIW, in Asia, 茶 is associated with steeped drinks other than c. sinensis too, though generally as a compound word. For example, juhua (gook fa) cha is chrysanthemum tea in Chinese, insam cha is ginger tea in Korean (, and so on.

So I think there is some precedent aside from common usage for using ‘tea’ to refer to a steeped beverage.

This is an interesting note here. Good details.

That is a very good point and one that I have somehow managed to overlook up till now. With this in mind, my opinion is that if the Chinese use ‘cha’ to refer to brewed drinks made from other plants then maybe we should lighten up. I mean, they kinda outrank us on the whole ‘what is tea’ question, don’t you think?

I don’t know any Chinese, but I speak Japanese. Yes, as a compound word 茶 is used to name many drinks.
However, by itself it only refers to tea from the Camellia Sinensis plant, there is no other word for it. Normally they just add the honorific “o”, so that tea in Japan is referred to as ocha.
This also brings the question, if tea where to be the general word for all infusions, how would we call tea from the tea plant? C. Sinensis tea?

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CupofTree said

To me, tea is anything from brewed pine needles to a cup of the fanciest black whole leaf. It’s all tea and it makes me happy to simply say and see the word tea, whatever kind it may be!

Pine-needle tea can be quite nice actually.

CupofTree said

Yes it is. Douglas Fir tea from Juniper Ridge is the best though :)

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Tea, as described as such, is from the plant Camellia Sinensis or Camellia Assamica. Everything else is an infusion of (insert horrifying ingredients here). I cringe when someone says “herbal tea.”

Herbal? No thanks!

Will said

As best I know, the Assamica (big leaf) varietal is Camellia Sinensis var Assamica (vs. C. Sinensis var Sinensis), not a separate species.

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Actually, assamica IS a true subspecies as is the Cambodian variety lasiocalyx. In fact, the assamica variety is a tree rather than a bush and has larger leaves so the differences are very apparent.

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As an advocate for tea growers (true tea growers) I say it would most respectful to use proper terminology. The trend of herbal teas has affected the global tea market and many of my tea farmer friends are having trouble to properly educate the market and sustain their business. As a retailer of tea myself ( I believe it is our responsibility to educate our customers and sell a true and genuine product.
In Hawaii the tea growers are facing a similar issue with retailers that sell “Hawaii style teas” which are Chinese or Indian blends with added flavor. These products are diluting the brand of Hawaii Grown Tea and setting up the market for issues in the future.
Tea is one of humanity’s most important products, let’s respect it and share it with the world!

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Babble said

People misuse things all the time. For instance, people are always misuing the word “literally”, but I’ve learned to let it go. People also use the phrase “Drink the Kool-aid” when… historically, they should actually say, “Drink the Flavor-aid”. But, I digress.

I’m excited to hear about tea at all where I live. Even if someone mentions Celestial Seasonings, I’ll get excited. When tea becomes so saturated to the point that everyone is drinking it, maybe then I’ll start critiquing their uses.

By the way, I think you would get a vastly different response if you posted in more “by the book” communities like Teachat and r/tea .. Steepsters in general are very laid back and less concerned with particulars. We’re like the stoners of the tea world, LOL.

Claire said

I love that Steepster is so laid back! I don’t mind if people call herbal tisanes just “tea,” it’s a common use of the word and unless someone is a tea fanatic (like us) it probably doesn’t matter to them that it’s not technically tea.

This reminds me of a comment I saw the other day where someone posted not to “judge a book by it’s cover, if we did no one would have read Shakespeare”. I thought about explaining quartos and folios and then thought you know, at least they’re thinking about Shakespeare!

tperez said

Lol, very true :)

I like literally don’t even know what you mean, man. ;)

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