ALL ABOUT BLACK TEA
Iced tea, sun tea, sweet tea, iced tea, English Breakfast, Earl Grey, and afternoon tea all have something in common: they're all typically made using black tea. Read this lesson to understand the ins and outs of this beverage, and how it compares to other tea types. What we call black tea is known in China as red tea (hong cha), referring to the reddish color of the brew. This reason for the discrepancy is said to be due to a simple error in translation. The mistake stuck, and Westerners have been describing it using the wrong color ever since. It is important to note that this is not to be confused with the South African tisane Rooibos, which is colloquially referred to as "Red Tea" as well. If you're traveling to London, visit a tea parlor, and ask for a cup of "black" tea, one would assume that you are requesting tea without milk added to it.
BLACK TEA ORIGINS
Tea is considered to have originated in China. But it’s the delicate, fresh-tasting green tea that became popular in Eastern society and is still the base of tea culture there today. As tea culture spread and tea was processed for export to trade beyond regions, 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 than its minimally oxidized green tea cousin. 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.
The Dutch first brought tea to Europe in 1610, it arrived in England in 1658, and then it rose in popularity in England’s American colonies throughout the 1700s. Demand for tea experienced huge leaps in the 1700s as England expanded sugar imports from its Caribbean colonies. By 1800, the English were annually consuming 2½ pounds of tea and 17 pounds of sugar per capita. Some claim it was the increasing trend of adding sugar to tea that spiked the demand for strong black tea over the more delicate green tea imports.
The next leap in black tea production came in the 1800s when the Camellia sinensis assamica tea plant variety was discovered in 1823 in the Assam region of India. This native variety was much better suited to the production of the hearty, bold black teas that were in high demand. Not long after, in 1835, the English started planting tea gardens in India’s Darjeeling region, near Nepal. Since India was a British colony, these different varieties of black teas quickly became popular exports to England.
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 exact plant—Camellia sinensis. It’s the variety of tea plant and how the plant’s leaves are processed once they're harvested that define the tea-type.
- Orthodox In this more time-consuming method of production, tea leaves remain whole or only partially broken during processing. The process for making black tea is very linear, meaning all five steps of tea processing (plucking, withering, rolling, oxidizing, firing) are observed in order, not repeated as in oolong, or with some steps eliminated, as with green tea. Tea leaves are plucked from the garden, withered to reduce moisture, rolled in a variety of ways to bruise the leaves and start oxidation, oxidized to create color and flavor, fired to apply the heat that stops oxidation, and then graded for quality.
- Non-Orthodox or CTC (Crush-Tear-Curl): In this sped-up version of the production process, the tea leaves are cut into fine pieces instead of rolled. 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 we here in the U.S. (historically, anyway) have preferred over loose leaf tea.
TYPES OF BLACK TEA
Black tea is grown and processed all over the world in varying geographies and climates. Three of the largest producers of black tea today are India, Sri Lanka and Africa. In fact, half of the world’s tea production comes from India. Some of the most popular styles of black tea coming out of these top-producing countries include:
- Assam India’s Assam region is the largest tea-growing region in the world. The rainy, tropical climate produces a tea known for its bold and malty characteristics that stand up well to milk and sugar.
- Darjeeling Known as "The Champagne of tea" with muscatel flavor notes, Darjeelings are grown in a smaller, mountainous tea-producing region of India. Darjeeling is a softer, more herbaceous black tea that can change season to season with the climate. Darjeeling is often used as the tea base for India’s popular spiced beverage, Chai.
- Ceylon Much of Sri Lanka’s economy depends on its more than half a million acres of tea gardens that range in location from cool and mountainous to humid and tropical. Most of Sri Lanka’s tea export is black tea, known as Ceylon. 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 is also known for its cinnamon production.)
- Kenyan Being a latecomer to tea production (early 1900s), Kenya learned fast and 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.
POPULAR BLACK TEA BLENDS
In the U.S., we're accustomed to the typical strong black tea that can stand up to sweetener and cream or lots of ice with our black tea. Blending black tea with different oils, inclusions, and herbs is easy given the strength of its leaf. Here are some popular black tea blends you may have heard of:
- Earl Grey The wonderful aroma of Earl Grey is due to the bergamot oil, which is extracted from the rind of bergamot orange, a fragrant citrus fruit. There are many variations of Earl Grey blend depending on the ingredients used to prepare it. One of the most popular is Lady Grey, a blend which combines classic Earl Grey with lavender or Seville oranges. Other well known and appreciated blend is London Fog a combination between Earl Grey, steamed milk and vanilla syrup.
- English Breakfast English breakfast tea is a black tea blend usually known to be full-bodied, robust and rich. It’s a blend that works well with milk and sugar, traditionally associated with a typical English breakfast. It is a highly traditional blend of strong black teas originating from Assam (India), Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Kenya. It was a blend popularized by Queen Victoria, becoming a longstanding and appreciated British custom.
- Irish Breakfast This is another blend of several black teas, generally Assam (India) teas. Irish breakfast is very strong, most commonly served with milk just like the English breakfast. There are some consumers who prefer it blended with sugar and lemon, without the milk. Though it is mainly consumed in the mornings, instead of coffee, Irish breakfast is also chosen in the evenings due to its sweetness and smooth texture.
- English Afternoon This blend is medium bodied, bright and really refreshing. The blend contains Assam (India) black teas and Kenyan black teas mixed with Ceylon (Sri Lanka) black tea varieties. The Ceylon teas add a light touch to this tasteful blend. Alongside with English Afternoon blend always stands a delicious selection of cakes such as muffins or miniature sandwiches. The tea is traditionally poured from heavy, ornate, silver teapots into delicate china cups and served with milk or lemon, adding a touch of elegance to this famous English custom.
- Masala Chai The perfect combination of black tea, spices, milk, and a sweetener such as sugar or honey. 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 they call all tea "chai" there.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN BUYING BLACK TEA
When choosing a black tea to sip, remember that not all black teas taste the same. Just like wine, there are so many variables that give individual black teas their own particular flavor profiles, including where it was grown, if it grew near other crops that affected its flavor (e.g. rose bushes or coffee plants), what kind of climate it grew in, if it was fertilized naturally or with chemicals, how long the leaves were allowed to oxidize when processed, what kind of heat treatment the leaves received to stop oxidization, and whether the leaves were left whole (orthodox) or cut into smaller pieces (non-orthodox) for packaging.
Generally, black tea is stronger, bolder and richer than green tea. A brewed black tea can range in color from amber to red to dark brown, and its flavor profile can range from savory to sweet, depending on how long it was oxidized and how it was it was heat processed. Black tea typically has more astringency and bitterness than green tea, but if brewed correctly it should be smooth and flavorful.
The flavor of black tea varies greatly; some are flowery, some malty, some spicy, and some nutty. Generally, black teas should be steeped using boiling water for three to five minutes. An exception would be first flush, or 'spring', Darjeelings. 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. Special attention should be given when preparing black teas, as steeping them too long will quickly result in a bitter taste. Due to their stronger flavor and the use of hotter water, black teas generally cannot handle multiple infusions very well, unlike some other varieties.
CAFFEINE CONTENT IN BLACK TEA
Between coffee, black tea and green tea, coffee generally has the most caffeine content at up to 200mg per cup, then black tea at up to 61mg per cup, followed by oolong, green, and lastly, non-caffeinated herbal tea. But, like any beverage brewed from a caffeinated plant, there are a lot of factors that can determine caffeine levels in your cup of black tea, including how the plant was processed and how the beverage was brewed.
BUYING AND STORING BLACK TEA
To ensure you’re getting the freshest black tea you can sip, be sure and buy it from a reputable company that can tell you when and how the tea was processed and packaged.
While it won’t really go “bad”, tea can get stale if it sits around too long. Oxidized black tea is more shelf stable than its delicate green tea cousin. Many black teas can last up to one to two 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.
PREPARING BLACK TEA
To brew the perfect cup of black tea, ask your tea vendor for brewing instructions specific to the tea you purchased, because many black teas have different ideal brewing temperatures and steeping times. Here are a few general black tea brewing tips to keep in mind:
- Water temperature? Generally, black teas should be steeped using boiling water. An exception would be first flush, or spring harvested, Darjeelings. 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. Use fresh, pure, cold filtered water. Spring water is the best!
- How much tea? Generally, using about 2 grams (1 teaspoon) of loose leaf tea per 8 oz. cup of water is a safe bet.
- How much time? 3-5 minutes
- Milk/Sugar? Most black teas are strong enough to stand up to milk and sugar. But to truly enjoy the subtle flavor differences between the many varieties of black tea, try sipping them plain with no additives.
- PRO TIPS
- Most high-quality loose leaf black teas can be steeped multiple times.
- Be sure to not oversteep your tea! The longer your tea steeps, the more quickly it will release any bitterness and astringency. Taste your tea after the recommended steeping time and then decide if you’d like it to steep a little longer.
- Be sure to cover your tea while it steeps to keep all the heat in the steeping vessel.