ALL ABOUT BLACK TEA

Iced tea, sweet tea, English Breakfast, Earl Grey, and afternoon tea have something in common: they're all typically made using black tea. The most widely consumed type of tea in the West, black tea is the most heavily oxidized of all the tea types, generally with the highest levels of tannins and caffeine, making it brisk and uplifting. Read this lesson to understand the ins and outs of this beverage, and how it compares to other tea types.

BLACK TEA NAMING

To avoid any confusion moving forward, we want to touch on some naming conventions. What most Westerners call “black tea” is known in China as “red tea” (hong cha), based on the reddish color of the brew. However, the South African tisane Rooibos is sometimes colloquially referred to as "red tea" as well. What’s more confusing is that there is another kind of Chinese tea called “black tea” (hei cha) which is characterized by post-production fermentation (such as ripe pu’erh). This type of tea can also be referred to as “dark tea,” so that’s the term we will go with. If you're in a tea parlor in London and ask for a cup of "black" tea, one might assume that you are requesting tea without milk added to it (like black coffee). So, how do we deal with all of these competing names? The best we can do is to have an understanding that these different naming conventions exist, and try our best to use the appropriate naming depending on the audience we are speaking to. For purposes of our lessons going forward, we will use the following terms that are most widely accepted in the U.S.:

BLACK TEA: Refers to tea that generally has a dark liquor, bold taste, and high tannin content due to complete oxidation of the leaf before firing. This is the most widely consumed tea in the West. (Referred to in China as hong cha or “red tea” due to the reddish color of the brewed tea.)

DARK TEA: Refers to a category of teas historically produced in China that are allowed or encouraged to ferment after some measure of processing. Shou/ripe pu-erh is the most famous dark tea. (Referred to in China as hei cha meaning “dark tea” or “black tea”.)

RED TEA: Refers to rooibos or honeybush, which are members of the Fabaceae family of plants grown in South Africa. They are antioxidant-rich caffeine-free tisanes that are processed and prepared similarly to true tea.

Left: Black Breakfast Tea by Firepot Nomadic Teas | Middle: Pu-erh Tea Cake ("Dark Tea") | Right: Rooibos ("Red Tea")

BLACK TEA ORIGINS

Black tea is the most consumed type of tea in the world. Although China is the birthplace of tea and the largest producer of tea, most black tea varieties come from India. Why do Westerners prefer black tea, while the more delicate, fresh green tea remains at the center of tea culture in Eastern society?

As its popularity spread throughout the world, tea was processed for export to neighboring countries and eventually across oceans. It was discovered that the more oxidized black tea would retain its freshness and flavor better over long journeys, while green tea was difficult to transport as it turned stale much more quickly due to a lack of oxidation. In the earliest days of border trade between China, Tibet and other neighboring countries, tea was fermented, dried and pressed into bricks to be used as currency. To this day, most of the black tea produced in China is exported out of the country.

Although Westerners had known about tea earlier on, it was not imported by Europe until the 17th century, after the Dutch East India Company brought over the first shipments of Japanese and Chinese tea. Thomas Twining opened the first known tea shop in 1706, and it still remains in London today. Tea rose in popularity in the American colonies throughout the 1700s, and English demand for tea spiked in the 1700s as England imported more sugar from its Caribbean colonies. Some claim it was the increasing trend of adding sugar to tea that increased the demand for strong black tea over other types.

The next leap in black tea production came in the 1800s when the British discovered they could grow tea in Assam and Darjeeling in India, and moreover that the native Camellia sinensis assamica tea plant variety was much better suited to produce hearty, bold black teas that were in high demand. By the mid-1800s, the British were developing their own tea states in India, a British colony at the time, marking the beginning of a new tea industry in India and an end to Western reliance on Chinese-grown tea.

HOW BLACK TEA IS MADE

To understand what makes black tea black and green tea green, it’s important to know that all tea originates from the same plant species — Camellia sinensis. It’s the variety of this tea plant, the growing conditions, and how the plant’s leaves are processed once they're harvested that determine the final tea type.

BLACK TEA VARIETIES

Technically, any type of tea — white, green, yellow, oolong, black or pu-erh — can be made from the leaves of any Camellia sinensis plant, but traditionally tea farmers will decide which type of tea to create based on the variety of leaf and its terroir – by “listening to” the plant, they are able to bring out the very best characteristics through certain processing methods. Black tea is unique in that any tea leaf variety can be processed as a black tea and it will most likely turn out well – it’s the least “fussy” of the tea types. However Camellia sinensis assamica is typically the preferred varietal used to produce black tea.

The assamica (ah-SAH-mee-ka) strain is a larger-leaved varietal native to the Assam region in Northern India. Unlike the smaller-leaved sinensis varietal that prefers cooler climates, the assamica strain thrives in high humidity, generous rainfall, and warm temperatures. The assamica plant can be found growing 30-40 feet in the wild, and if left unattended, can produce much larger leaves - up to 8 inches. Under perfect conditions with proper fertilization, the Assamica plant can be harvested every 8 to 12 days throughout the year. Because of the tremendous yields, it is the preferred crop in Northeast India, Sri Lanka and Africa. The unique climate in Sri Lanka allows the harvest from this hardy bush to continue year-round. The Assamica leaf is ideal for producing strong, malty, black teas. Other Chinese teas requiring lengthier production, such as oolong and pu'erh, are also made from the larger leaves of the Assamica plant.

OXIDATION LEVEL

What makes black tea different from green or other tea types is that during the production process, the tea leaves are allowed to fully or mostly oxidize before they are heat-processed and dried. Oxidation takes place when the cell wall structures of the tea leaf are broken and enzymes are released to begin the oxidation process – a naturally occurring chemical reaction in which the atoms of one substance lose one or more electrons to another substance. We see this occurring in daily life – think of an avocado or apple turning brown if you cut it and leave it out for a while. However, heat stops the process of oxidation by deactivating the enzymes.

During oxidation of tea leaves, oxygen interacts with the tea plant’s cell walls to turn the leaves the rich dark brown to black color that black tea leaves are famous for. Oxidation alters the flavor profile of a black tea as well, helping add malty, fruity or even smoky notes, depending on the tea.

From a chemistry perspective, all tea types contain varying amounts and types of phenols and polyphenols – natural plant compounds that affect flavor and mouthfeel and provide certain health benefits. These include catechins, theaflavins, tannins and flavonoids. Green tea is known for its high levels of catechins (the most famous being EGCG, which may have powerful antioxidant properties). With increasing levels of oxidation, catechin structures turn into theaflavins and thearubigins, contributing to the bitterness and astringency of steeped black tea, as well as the dark reddish color. A lot of research is being done on different types of polyphenols in each type of tea, as well as the health benefits they provide.

PROCESSING

Black teas are typically produced using one of two methods – orthodox and non-orthodox. Orthodox methods were originally developed by the Chinese and strive to preserve the integrity of the leaf, whether by hand or by machine. Non-orthodox methods use machines to crush leaves into small pieces in a timesaving, high efficiency manner.

ORTHODOX: China first developed a method of green tea production that was done entirely by hand, and variations of this style were adapted in order to create other teas. When the British started producing black tea in India and Sri Lanka, they developed machinery to accomplish some of the steps that the Chinese had been doing by hand for centuries. In orthodox production, tea leaves remain whole or only partially (non-intentionally) broken during processing. Tea leaves are plucked from the garden, withered to reduce moisture, rolled or crushed to rupture the cell walls of the leaves and trigger oxidation, and then allowed to oxidize for a few hours to develop their color and flavor. The leaves are then fired with heat that stops oxidation and reduce moisture content further, and finally sorted or graded. The intent of orthodox tea production during every step is to preserve the integrity of the leaf.

NON-ORTHODOX: Non-orthodox methods were devised to reduce the laborious parts of orthodox production in order to save time and money. The most commonly used non-orthodox method is CTC (Crush-Tear-Curl), which was invented in the early 1930s expressly to process black tea. Instead of crushing and rolling leaves by hand or machine after they are withered, the leaves are passed through a machine that literally crushes, tears, and curls leaves into irregular tiny balls. The smaller pieces of leaves are more quickly oxidized, producing a one-dimensional, consistent, strong and bold black tea. The cut pieces also easily fit into commercial tea bags, which are in high demand in countries where people commonly drink tea with milk and sugar.

A single batch of black tea is completed within a day using the orthodox process; while CTC can be completed in just a couple hours. Also, while some other teas may or may not receive a thorough grading after final drying, black teas are always graded and sorted because many more sizes are created during the rolling stage. Sorting them for uniformity is crucial so the flavor of the tea remains uniform from cup to cup, due to the leaf size, surface area exposed, and flavor extraction rate.

ORTHODOX OR CTC - WHAT'S YOUR PICK?

Whether you prefer orthodox or CTC black tea depends on the aspects of tea that you value most – if you like cheap, convenient, strong tea, and typically add other ingredients such as milk or sweetener, you might prefer CTC, which is generally cheaper and available in tea bags. If you value a more complex flavor experience, and enjoy the process of brewing full-leaf tea without the need to add milk or sweetener, then orthodox tea leaves might be a better match.

Pictured: Orthodox Tea by Terroir Tea Merchant (left) and CTC tea by Harney & Sons (right)

TYPES OF BLACK TEA

Black tea is grown and processed all over the world, but three of the largest producers of black tea today are India, Sri Lanka, China and Kenya.

INDIA

Ever since the British commercialized the tea industry of India, the preferred type has been black tea. Some of the most recognizable black teas in the world come from India, and they are named after the regions they come from:

  • ASSAM: The rainy, tropical Assam region in India is the largest tea-growing region in the world. Assam teas are known for their bold and malty flavors, and they stand up well to milk and sugar. Assam tea is found in many breakfast tea blends. 
  • DARJEELING: The Darjeeling district is located on the edge of the Himalayan Mountains. Known as "The Champagne of Teas”, Darjeeling is a softer, more herbaceous black tea with greenish-gold liquor. It is harvested in flushes that are appreciated for their distinct characteristics – the first flush is delicate and light, while second flush is prized for its classic “muscatel” flavor. Darjeeling has a unique mouth-feel and astringency and generally is enjoyed on its own, without milk.
  • NILGIRI: The teas of the Nilgiri Hills in South India are grown at mid or high elevation, exhibiting sweet and fragrant flavors. They are sometimes used in chai blends.
SRI LANKA
  • CEYLON: The first tea bushes were planted in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1867. “Ceylon” tea refers to the black tea produced in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s tea gardens are spread across different climates and elevations – from cool and mountainous to humid and tropical. Ceylon teas can vary depending on where they grow, but they are generally known to be strong and brisk with a hint of spice, Sri Lanka produces a large portion of higher quality black teas exported into the world market.  
CHINA

China is known to be the birthplace of all tea, including black tea. Chinese black teas have special leaf styles and shapes from certain provinces – one famous example is Keemun teas from Anhui province. They are especially suitable for drinking straight up, without added milk or sweetener. Chinese black teas generally are more delicate and complex, with a sweet finish.

KENYA

Kenya has ideal conditions for growing tea – tropical, with rich volcanic soil, and well-distributed rainfall. Black tea was first produced here in the early 1900s, mainly to supply the British Empire’s demand for strong, bold tea. The British initially provided the machinery, and education in cultivation and processing. Kenya now leads Africa and the industry in the CTC style of tea production, producing and exporting mostly black tea. Kenyan tea is known for its assertive, full-bodied style. The exports are generally a uniform dark black tea, blended together and shipped primarily to the UK.

POPULAR BLENDED / FLAVORED / SCENTED BLACK TEAS

In the U.S. and other Western countries, we're accustomed to the typical strong black tea that can stand up to sweetener and cream or lots of ice. Black tea blends well with different oils, inclusions, and herbs because of its strong flavor that isn’t easily drowned out by other ingredients. Here are some popular black tea blends and flavored teas you may have heard of:

  • EARL GREY: Earl Grey is one of the most recognized flavored teas in the world. The wonderful aroma of Earl Grey is due to bergamot oil, which is extracted from the rind of bergamot orange, a fragrant citrus fruit. You can find many variations of Earl Grey depending on the tea base used or ingredients added to it – sometimes lavender or chunks of citrus peel will be added to accentuate the flavor. If you’re in the mood for a latte, London Fog is a popular combination of Earl Grey, steamed milk, vanilla syrup and sometimes lavender.  
  • BREAKFAST BLENDS: Breakfast teas are black tea blends known to be full-bodied, robust and rich. There are different variations, such as English, Irish, and Scottish Breakfasts. The blend may include several black teas derived from various origins such as India, Sri Lanka, Africa and China. The “breakfast blend” was probably originally created in Scotland – Queen Victoria admired it and brought a stash back to London, where it was named “English Breakfast” and became a longstanding and appreciated British custom. Irish Breakfast is generally more robust than English breakfast, with a stronger Assam component, giving it more of a malty flavor and reddish color. It is believed that this tea grew in popularity when the British East India Company was producing tea in Assam, India. In Ireland, dairy is traditionally a major part of the diet, so many people drink tea with milk. Scottish Breakfast is generally the strongest of the bunch – and this could be due to Scotland’s soft water. Breakfast Tea is drunk in the morning, as well as throughout the whole day.
  • LAPSANG SOUCHONG: Lapsang souchong is commonly referred to as smoked tea. It is a black tea scented with pine smoke – the leaves are traditionally smoke-dried over pinewood fires. You can find different levels of smokiness – from delicate to ashtray. The origin legend says that during a time of upheaval in China, a group of bandits rode through a tea-producing village, looting and burning houses. After the bandits left, the villagers ran to put out the fires and discovered the pine storage shed holding tea was only partially burned – they salvaged as much tea as they could, but were disheartened when they tasted the tea and found it tasted like smoke. The farmer brought his tea to a Dutch trader, who asked to try the tea – he loved it and said he had never tried anything like it, and asked to pay triple for this new delicious tea. Lapsang souchong is often used as a smoky rub or seasoning for meats and other dishes – try cooking with it to get a smoky barbecue-like flavor without heating up the grill!
  • MASALA CHAI: Masala chai is a mix of black tea leaves and aromatic, warming Indian spices and herbs. The traditional spice mix includes cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, ground cloves, ground ginger, and black peppercorn. It is a traditional Indian beverage which has been adapted in the West with different changes to the classic method of preparation. The traditional way of preparing masala chai involves decoction by actively boiling a combination of water with loose leaves, milk and whole spices. If you're traveling to India, it's important to order a Masala Chai instead of just "chai" given all tea is called "chai" there.

Pictured: Violet Femme (Earl Grey with vanilla and lavender) by Zhi Tea (left) and Masala Chai by Rishi Tea (right)

WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN BUYING BLACK TEA

As with wine, coffee, and other types of teas, not all black teas taste the same – there are many variables that give black teas their own unique flavor profiles, including the leaves’ growing condition, climate and location, variations in the oxidation and heating process, and the shapes, sizes and intactness of the finished leaves.

Black tea generally has the strongest, boldest flavor of all tea types. The brewed liquor can range in color from amber to red to dark brown, and its flavor profile can range from savory to sweet, and from bitter to smooth. Flavor notes in black teas vary greatly; some are flowery, some malty, some spicy, and some nutty.

In order to make an educated choice on a black tea to purchase, it helps to be familiar with different types, grades and qualities of teas (for example, unbroken leaves are generally graded higher than broken/crushed leaves and will produce smoother, more complex flavor). If you go to a specialty tea store, you should look at the leaves, smell them, and ask to try a sample of brewed tea. Some teashops or stores even serve tasting flights, so you can compare different types side-by-side. Trust your taste buds and your nose – if it doesn’t smell or taste good to you, the price and description shouldn’t convince you otherwise.

CAFFEINE CONTENT IN BLACK TEA

Black tea is generally believed to have more caffeine (up to 61mg per cup) than other teas, and less than coffee, which has up to 200mg per cup. Followed by black tea on the caffeine scale are oolong, and then green tea (however there are exceptions, such as matcha). But, like any beverage brewed from a caffeinated plant, there are several factors that can determine caffeine levels in your cup of black tea, including how the leaves were grown, processed, and brewed. Read more about caffeine in tea with Lesson 109.

STORING BLACK TEA

Fortunately, dry tea is very shelf stable and will never spoil if stored correctly. But while it doesn’t go “bad”, tea can get stale and gradually lose flavor over time. This happens more quickly with certain teas that are more delicate or seasonal, such as green teas. Also, smaller or broken tea leaves allow more exposure to air and will go stale faster. Oxidized black tea is more shelf stable than green tea, and this could be due to the higher content of polyphenols, which atrophy at a slower rate than other compounds. Many black teas can last up to 1-2 years if stored properly in a cool, dark place and in an opaque, airtight container away from light, moisture and pantry items like coffee and spices that can leach flavor into the tea leaves. What about refrigerating tea? Generally you shouldn’t for tea you access regularly, because there are various scents and exposure to moisture. Refrigeration is, however, a good idea for long-term storage of green tea, matcha, or oolong in a sealed container.

PREPARING BLACK TEA

To brew the perfect cup of black tea, check the vendor’s package or website for instructions specific to the tea you purchased, because black teas sometimes have different ideal brewing temperatures and steeping times. Here are a few general black tea brewing tips to keep in mind:

HOW TO BREW BLACK TEA

WHAT YOU'LL NEED

  • Water Kettle or Pot to Heat Water
  • Tea Leaves / Sachets / Bags
  • Teapot with Filter / Teacup / Personal Mug and Filter

STEP ONE: HEAT THE WATER

  • 205℉-212℉ // Soft boil

Exception: An exception would be more delicate black teas such as first flush, or spring harvested, Darjeeling – the first flush harvest is made from very delicate leaves and often the finished product looks very much like a green tea (even though it is processed like a black tea). This tea is better with slightly cooler water and a shorter steep.

Pro Tip: Use filtered water for the best tasting cup!

STEP TWO: MEASURE THE TEA

  • Generally 1 rounded tsp/1 tea bag per 8 oz. (1 cup) of water

Pro Tip: Add tea leaves to an infuser that lets them open fully, or you can put them straight into the teapot and use a strainer when you're pouring a cup!

STEP THREE: STEEP THE TEA

  • 3-5 minutes

Pro Tip: Don't let your tea steep for too long! It's best to take the leaves/sachet/bag out when the time's up so you aren't left with a bitter cup. Taste your tea after the recommended steeping time and then decide if you’d like it to steep a little longer.

Pro Tip: Cover your tea while it steeps to keep all the heat and aroma in the steeping vessel.

Additions: Most black teas are strong enough to stand up to milk and sweetener. But if you want to truly enjoy the subtle flavor differences between the many varieties of black tea, try sipping them plain with no additions.

STEP FOUR: ENJOY :)

Check out this short video on how to prepare black tea:

how to steep black tea

 

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2 comments

  • these lessons are great! Learning about the different types of teas is amazing. So many to choose from.

    Kriss
  • I really enjoyed the Zest black tea with a high caffeine content. Could I get some samples similar in my next box? I like a variety of no and high caffeine teas.

    Candace Simmons

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