April 30, 2019

The Scoop on Black Tea


While all black teas are made from the fully oxidized leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, all black teas are not the same. There are many types of black tea. They look and taste different. If you read my Q&A with The Daily Tea you'd know that the first tea of my day is a black tea so I spend a lot of time thinking about this type of tea. Here I share my notes on black tea with you.

How is black tea made?

To make black tea, the tea leaves must be completely oxidized. The typical process includes the following steps: plucking, withering, rolling, oxidation, drying, and sorting. Rolling breaks down the cells within the leaves and exposes them to oxygen which triggers the oxidation process. Oxidation times vary and the length of oxidation influences the aromatic profile of the tea. Once the leaves have been oxidized to meet the tea master's criteria, they are dried to stabilize the tea.

Where is black tea produced are the black tea producing countries?

This questions is not simply one of geography. It is also central to figuring out the different types of black tea. Since all (black) tea is produced from Camellia sinensis, theoretically, black tea can be produced wherever C. sinensis is grown. The top 10 tea producing countries are China, India, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Turkey, Indonesia, Myanmar, Iran, and Bangladesh. I'll focus on the black teas produced in China, India, and Sri Lanka. The variety among the countries is the result of many factors including processing, variety, harvest period or flush, and altitude.



CHINA

When I think of Chinese black tea (or red tea/hong cha as this tea style is known in China), the following teas come to mind.
  • Keemun (Qimen) (Anhui) - a thinly twisted, tippy tea made from leaves with notes of fruit, smoke, and cocoa
  • Yunnan Black Tea aka Dian Hong - a twisted, golden tea made from buds only or a mix of leaves and buds with sweet, wood, and fruit notes
  • Jin Jun Mei (Fujian) - a very expensive bud only tea with floral, fruit, and chocolate notes
Lapsang Souchong is another Chinese black tea I like, and highly recommend this one. My other favorite is no longer available.

INDIA



My favorite Indian black teas are from Assam and Darjeeling. Indian and other South Asian black teas are graded by the integrity of the tea leaves ranging from broken leaves which are used in tea bags to whole leaves (Broken Orange Pekoe to Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) to whole leaves and buds (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe to Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe). In addition to grades, Darjeeling teas are also categorized by time of harvest or flush. First flush teas are made from an unopened leaf bud and two young open leaves. Second flush teas are made later in the season with a medium pluck of older leaves and leaf buds. Other harvests are the Monsoon and Autumnal flushes.
  • Assam - this type of black tea typically malty, fruity, and sweet; the highest quality Assam are bud only teas
  • Darjeeling, first flush - the loosely rolled leaves of this tea are not fully oxidized (so is it technically not a black tea?) yielding grassy (hay) and floral notes
  • Darjeeling, second flush - the defining flavor of this tea is muscatel

SRI LANKA


Like India, Sri Lanka also grades its black teas. Sri Lankan black teas are further distinguished by altitude similar to Taiwanese teas. In general, high grown teas are delicate while low grown teas are more robust in body and flavor.
  • Low grown teas (below 2000 feet) - Ruhuba and Sambaragamuwa
  • Mid altitude teas  (2000-4000 feet) - Kandy 
  • High grown teas (4000-6000 feet) - Nuwara Eliya, Dimbula, Uva, and Uda Passellawa

How do you drink black tea?



The most convenient way to drink black tea is to steep a tea bag in a cup. One tea bag to 6-8 ounces of boiling water. Tea bags vary in quality of the leaves and the bag itself. You can find non-plastic tea bags filled whole leaf tea. Go the extra mile and look for biodegradable tea bags. Better yet are compostable bags. You can move towards a zero waste tea life by composting your tea leaves and bags.

If you prefer to use loose leaf tea, you can prepare your black tea Western style (low leaf weight, high water volume, long steep time) or gongfu style (high leaf weight, low water volume, short steep time). Here are some general numbers.

WESTERN

One heaping teaspoon of tea (2 to 3 grams) to one cup of water (6-8 ounces or 250 ml) is a general rule of thumb. Steep for three to five minutes depending on the tea. I steep two teaspoons of loose leaf in 250 ml of boiling water for three minutes and 30 seconds.

GONGFU

A small steeping vessel for gongfu holds 200 ml or less of water. My smallest teapot holds 70 ml of water. To determine the amount of tea you need, use the one gram to 15 ml ratio. After rinsing your leaves, start with a short steep time then increase the infusion time to experience the evolution in flavor. You can use a gaiwan too. Read my guide to gong fu tea for step-by-step instructions.

COMPARATIVE TASTING

If you have multiple black teas you can compare them using professional tasting sets. Read my guide to drinking Darjeeling tea for complete instructions on cupping teas.


What food pairs well with black tea?

My tea amigos and I set out to answer this question in our Tea Pairing 101 focused on black tea. The answer is finger sandwiches! My favorite tea and sandwich combination in the Black Tea and Finger Sandwich pairing challenge was Lapsang Souchong (Joseph Wesley) + Cheddar Cheese (Bosie Tea Parlor). A pairing of finger sandwiches and black tea makes sense when you consider that both are the backbone of afternoon tea.

This is not a comprehensive guide to black tea so I'd love to hear from you what I should include in version 2.0.

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