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What is Black Tea?

What is black tea?

Largely enjoyed as ice-tea, tea bags or tea blends, black tea is made from completely oxidized tea leaves. Known for its bold flavor, it accounts for the majority of the tea sold in western culture and it comes from the plant Camellia Sinensis. In Chinese culture, black tea is known as red tea, or hong cha, due to its deep copper color.

Black tea can usually be processed in two different ways.

Estimated to have been developed in the 18th century, the black tea processing method is achieved by a series of steps, which allows for its unique aroma and taste. 

  • Whole leaf (Orthodox) - The most labor-intensive method, the tea leaves are picked and remain whole or somewhat broken during this process. After being plucked, the tea leaves are left to wither, this helps the leaf soften and lose a high percentage of moisture. The leaves are then rolled in order to trigger oxidation. Depending on the conditions of the environment, the time period can vary. The oxidation process largely defines aroma and the color of the tea. The tea leaf is then dried to eliminate any residual moisture and stabilize the oxidation. Sorting and sifting is then carried out, manually or mechanically, to sort the leaves into different grades and separate unwanted branches, residue or dust. Firing, which further reduces moisture, is optional.
  • Crush Tear Curl (CTC) - Fast and Furious version of the production method. It’s similar to the starting point and end-stage of the Orthodox method, except the rolling. The tea leaves are cut into finer pieces which creates more surface area suitable for oxidation, torn and curled mechanically. The result is a stronger, more uniform and consistent product. This method is well suitable for tea bags.

Step by Step

This is an approximated step by step of how black tea is made, since it may change depending on the tea maker.

Orthodox: Withering → Rolling → Oxidizing → Drying → Sorting → Firing (Optional)
CTC: Withering → Cutting/Tearing/Curling → Oxidizing → Drying

 

Oxidation

As opposed to green tea, black tea leaves are allowed to fully oxidize before being dried. The result of oxidation is what turns the leaves dark. (Similar to an apple browning when is exposed to air)

High oxidation changes the flavor as well, adding a maltier, sweeter note to the tea. Strikingly different from green tea, where minimally oxidized tea leaves are used. Minimal oxidation means green tea is lighter in color and has a more vegetal and grassy flavor profile.

Note that this is broad strokes, tea is a product of the tea maker, therefore flavor, aroma, and color may change depending on production style. Like any other type of tea, black tea can have a variety of colors and a wide range of flavors.

red jade taiwan black tea crimson grace taiwan black tea blossom dearie taiwan black tea

Sinensis versus Assamica

We know that all the tea comes from the plant Camellia Sinensis (Also known as Camellia Thea) - within this plant there are two main varieties used to produce black tea.

  • Camellia sinensis var. Sinensis is a smaller leaf, known to be native to China. The leaf is small and narrow and grows in cool climates.
  • Camellia sinensis var. Assamica originated in India (Assam Region) and is the most common variety for black tea use. The leaf is larger and prefers a warmer climate.

sinensis vs assamica

Types of Black Tea

There are various types of black tea grown throughout the world. Here are a few of the most known ones.

  • Assam - Grown in the Assam state of India. A type of tea frequently used for tea blends.
  • Darjeeling - made in Darjeeling District of India, it’s one of the most popular types of black tea.
  • Lapsang Souchong - Grown in China. The tea leaves are processed and dried over a fire made of pinewood. It’s characteristic is its distinctive smoky aroma.
  • Ceylon - black tea is grown and produced in Sri Lanka. It is known to be commonly used in tea blends.

Black tea is also known to be blend with other ingredients like is the case of Earl Grey (Black tea and bergamot oil), Chai (Black tea and spices), or English Breakfast (Mix of various types of black tea, enjoyed with milk and sugar).

The term "black tea"

This is where it gets somewhat confusing… In the 18th century, before “Red Tea” was invented and exported out of China, the label “black tea” was referred by the west (Dutch and British Traders) to Oolong. Somehow the label just stayed on, although the type of tea brought to Europe gradually changed - From Oolong to Red Tea. In Chinese culture, Black Tea is referring to Pu'er tea. The term Black Tea tea is known as Red Tea in China because the term “Black Tea” already existed in the East prior to the invention of “Red Tea”.

The reference to “Black” may be linked to the look of the dry tea leaves.

To add to the confusion, and certainly an opportunity for another explanation, Pu’er is also commonly known as dark tea.

 

Black tea history

There is a short anecdote about the rise of red tea in northern Fukien. After the opening of five treaty ports, early 19th century, a number of western tea trading companies established offices in Fuzhou to buy tea more easily from tea producers. One night during the Taiping Rebellion a tea processing facility in Wuyi mountains was lodged by rebel troops who used bags of freshly picked tea leaves as bedding. After they left the owner panicked when he found out that the tea leaves had turned dark and gained a different aroma than usual. Regardless of what happened, and not wanting to operate at a loss, he proceeded to process the tea leaves and ship them to Fuzhou. Anticipating the worst, the tea maker was surprised to know that foreigners actually liked this tea and wanted more. After making a small fortune and receiving a standing order for the same type of tea for the following years he spread the word to other tea makers of the providence. It later became known as a premium red tea producing area.

Due to being a highly oxidized tea, black tea can be preserved for a longer period of time as opposed to the low oxidation green tea, which must be consumed in a short period of time. In addition, the production of black tea is less laborious in comparison to oolong. With that in mind, one could safely assume that black tea had a higher commercial value to the tea merchants.

Black tea as we know it today

At the beginning of the 19th century the Camellia Sinensis Assamica tea plant was discovered in the Assam region of India. With black tea in high demand and the plant being discovered, the British embark on their first attempt to grow and produce black tea. Due to their lack of experience their crop didn’t live up to the expectations. The British then decided to jump on an espionage mission to steal the secret of tea from China.

In the mid 19th century a British spy managed to gather essential information plus a workforce of Chinese laborers and got the cultivation of tea in India carried out.

Specializing in black tea, India soon surpassed China, and with the invention of CTC, the beginning of the 20th century, the production skyrocketed. Because India was a British colony, the black teas produced here were a popular export to England.

chinese men working in assam

By Joseph Lionel Williams after Thomas Brown, 1850 - Image reference: V0019221 Origin: Assam, India, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=580267

Taiwanese Black Tea

Black tea is known to be introduced to Taiwan during the Japanese occupation (1895-1945). Although Taiwan is best known for its precious oolong tea, in 1937 black tea accounted for more than half of the overall production. The purpose of the Japanese initiating black tea production in Taiwan was an attempt to have a share in the international black tea trade market. Since then, Taiwan shifted the majority of tea production back to Oolongs.

A popular black tea in Taiwan is called Red Jade Tea or TTES. no 18 and it’s grown most commonly in the Sun Moon Lake region.

taiwan black tea factory

In 1937, Taiwan Black Tea packed in boxes and ready for export.

Caffeine content in black tea

Of all the beverages that are brewed with a plant that contains caffeine, coffee is known to have the most caffeine content per cup. When it comes to tea, it gets a bit more complicated than simply stating that black or green tea has the most caffeine.

Here are some guidelines for caffeine content in tea.

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