How do I find the best black tea?
One of the most interesting aspects of tea is that there can be no “best” tea. The variations between and within each tea type are too wide to judge narrowly. The question we always ask ourselves when sourcing tea is “Is this tea a good value?” This is not a question of high or low price, but price vs. quality. Some tea is inexpensive because it’s not very good. Some tea is very expensive for reasons we cannot justify. But many teas are fairly priced for their quality and purpose. If you know what kind of tea you are looking for and how much your budget can afford, then you will be able to find a good value. As frugal Midwesterners, we understand there’s a time to pinch pennies and a time to spend the money. We have teas and tools for both those moments.
What is Black Tea?
Oxidized tea leaves
Black teas are leaves that have been quickly and heavily oxidized. This gives the leaf and the liquor a dark appearance and significantly changes the aroma and flavor. Oxidation is the natural chemical reaction that begins once the leaves are exposed to air (like an apple does after being cut open). Though all teas (other than green tea) go through some degree of oxidation, black tea is the only one that is defined by its high level of oxidation.
Black Tea vs. Green Tea (and Other Tea Types)?
The predominant difference between them is black tea is oxidized; green tea is not oxidized.
Other types of tea are oxidized to some degree, but the high levels of oxidation in black tea give it distinct characteristics that cannot be found in other tea types. It is these unique characteristics that make a black tea discernable from wulong tea. Even wulong teas with the highest oxidation levels will not taste like black tea.
Conversely, it is not uncommon now to find black teas made with traditionally wulong tea cultivars and even share some wulong processing techniques. However, the high oxidation levels of black tea will produce a different cup character from traditional wulong. That makes it impossible to confuse the two by taste even if they are similar in appearance.
How is Black Tea Made?
Withering tea leavesOxidation is a natural chemical reaction carried out by enzymes within the leaf. This reaction starts once the internal components of the leaf are exposed to air and doesn’t end until the leaves are “fired” (a quick burst of heat that neutralizes the enzymes and stops the process). It is oxidation that creates melanin within the leaf and turns it brown. There are two basic types of black tea production, orthodox tea and CTC (crush, tear, curl).
This could be called the traditional way of making black tea. Each tea producing region has many variations of how the following steps are carried out, but they are all similar.
Withering: Spreading the leaves out horizontally to let the air circulate around them. This is to reduce moisture so the leaf is limp and flaccid and won’t break during the next step of rolling.
Rolling: The leaves are placed in a machine and rolled in a circular motion to break the cell walls on the leaf surface and start the oxidation process.
Oxidation: The rolled leaves are spread out onto trays and allowed to oxidize for approximately 4 hours. This is the sole factor that defines black tea.
Drying: The oxidized leaves are subjected to low levels of heat to slowly remove the remaining moisture in the leaf and lock in the developing flavors and aromas.
Grading: Since the leaves will not be uniform in size, they are sorted, sifted and graded. Some sorting may be done during earlier stages as well as at the end.
CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl)The process here is similar to orthodox, except after withering (and maybe briefly rolling), the leaves are fed into a machine that does exactly as the name suggests – it crushes, tears, and curls the leaf. This creates smaller leaf particles that will oxidize faster and curls the leaf up into uniform size. It is the most economic means for producing large quantities of simpler teas with a stronger cup.
Where is Black Tea Produced?
Fujian province, China
Black tea is the most common type of tea produced anywhere in the world. Black tea originated in China (all tea types do), but it’s popularity in the west makes most of it destined for export. Countries that once were British colonies – mainly India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya – make almost exclusively black tea and in a style geared more towards those tastes and purposes. These four countries make up the bulk of all black tea produced worldwide (though there are MANY more countries that produce black tea as well).
Historically, black tea has not been popular in China (a broad generalization, but mostly true). Certain regions produced some black teas that had local popularity, but green tea dominates the domestic Chinese market. These preferences have started to change recently with the popularity of Jin Jun Mei and other Chinese gonfu-style black teas that reflect China’s tastes and preferences.
It’s worth mentioning that what we call “black tea” the Chinese call “hong cha”, which translates as “red tea” (referring to the color of the steeped tea). What we call “dark tea”, the Chinese call “hei cha” which translates as “black tea.” “Hong cha” in Chinese and “black tea” in English are synonymous, even though they don’t translate.
As with most teas in China, each region produces its own unique specialties. Below is a list of provinces and the most famous black teas they produce:
This is the home of Qimen tea (often spelled “Keemun”). Qimen teas have a dark, chocolate, earthy characteristic with a thick, textured body. The smaller leaf varieties are great as breakfast teas and the larger leaf gongfu styles can offer softer and more nuanced features.
This is the origin of the famously pine smoked “Lapsang Souchong” (Chinese: Zhengshan Xiaozhong) from the Wuyi mountains. In reality, Lapsang Souchong is the generic name for all black teas produced in this area. The non-smoked varieties have a more floral-sweet character than Qimen and are under-appreciated in the west. Currently there is very little smoking happening in Wuyi, because the pine forests there are now protected.
The city of Feng Qing and its surrounding area is the heart of Yunnan black tea, which is commonly referred to as “Dian Hong”. Yunnan teas come in a large variety of styles that are too numerous to cover here, but they tend to share the characteristics of being heavy-bodied with tobacco-like flavors and more pointed and spicy nuances.
There are other Chinese regions that produce large amounts of black tea (some of it very good), but these three are the most famous. We often carry black teas from Hunan and Guangxi provinces, both of which are famous tea regions, but mostly known for other styles. However, younger generations in China are bringing new techniques to old tea fields (and sometimes old techniques to new tea fields) and we are frequently presented with Chinese black tea styles we had not seen before (See Red Dawn).
Tea is native to India, but tea cultivation was imported (or perhaps smuggled) from China. This was to satisfy increasing demand for tea in the west and break the natural monopoly that China held over the tea trade. Though British rule of India is now history, tea is embedded in the culture with masala chai teas (a blend of tea, milk, sugar, and spices) being the recognized national drink. Though India makes tiny amounts of green tea, traditional Indian tea is black. These are the three most famous India tea producing regions:
Arguably the most famous tea region in the world. Darjeeling is a city located in northeast India and any tea bearing its name must come from the designated region surrounding it. This is the home of those original Chinese plants whose smaller leaf and structure perform well in the Himalayan climate. Darjeeling teas have an unmistakable floral spice and a musty grape-like sweetness commonly referred to as “muscatel.”
The home of India’s native tea plants, the Brahmaputra river valley’s lower elevation and subtropical climate produce an environment suitable for this larger-leaf subspecies to thrive. Assam black tea is known for its bold, full-bodied cup with a strong malty presence. Assam teas are often featured in breakfast tea blends, but the fine summer harvest (known as “Second Flush”) will produce high quality orthodox teas that command higher prices.
Nilgiri is the most popular and prolific tea producing region of Southern India. Niligiri translates to English as “Blue Mountain” because the area is covered with the kurinji flower that blooms only once every twelve years. Most of the black tea produced here is used domestically as a base tea for masala chai or for export as an iced tea because of their smooth, fruity appeal.
Lumbini Tea Factory, Ceylon
Ceylon (Sri Lanka)
Tea from Sri Lanka goes by its colonial name of Ceylon. Like India, traditional Ceylon tea is black tea, though small amounts of green and white tea are produced as well. The tiny island suffered a severe blight in 1869 that wiped out the coffee industry. This led to coffee being replaced with tea plants and now Sri Lanka is the second largest tea exporter in the world. Ceylon teas were home to the original Lipton’s teas that came to define what tea tasted like to many Americans for generations. The flavors tend to be strong and brisk, suitable for both iced tea and breakfast blends.
Tea is not native to Kenya and it was not produced commercially until the mid-1930’s. Kenya is now one of the largest tea producers in the world. Its unique climate and geological position make it ideal for growing tea. Most of the tea produced in Kenya is inexpensive CTC tea destined for tea bags, but there are increasing efforts to produce high quality orthodox tea. Kenya teas tend to produce cups that are full-bodied and brisk, but with a uniquely sweet juniper flavor.
How to Prepare Black Tea
There is no right or wrong way to make black tea. It can be steeped many ways and with many different steeping tools. Here are two basic approaches to it:
Western steeping method:
Porcelain brew-in mug with stainless steel infuser
This is for when you are steeping a lesser amount of leaves for a longer period of time (usually for a single mug or a teapot). This is the most common method in the United States and is symbolized by the tea bag. If you are using loose leaf tea (and we suggest you do) our suggested portions for black tea are:
3-4 grams of dry tea leaves per 8-12 ounces of water. Steep for 3-5 minutes at water that has just been brought to a boil. Always adjust to suit your tastes. Because you are steeping the leaves in near boiling hot water for a long period of time, re-steeping does not generally yield as favorable results as the first steep, but there’s no law saying you can’t do it.
Traditional Steeping method:
Golden Needle black tea gongfu style in a gaiwan
This uses a larger quantity of leaves in smaller amounts of water for shorter periods of time. The leaves will yield many steepings this way. There are numerous ways to do this and they are a lot of fun to explore (and zero reason to be intimidated). The below instructions are a good baseline to start from if using a gaiwan, but can be adjusted based on the equipment you are using:
Use approximately one gram of tea per fluid ounce of near boiling water in your gaiwan. Steep the leaves for 5 seconds and decant. Discard this brief initial steep, which is known as a rinse. Re-steep the same leaves now for approximately 15-30 seconds. Decant into your cup or serving pitcher and enjoy. Repeat as much as the leaves continue to yield satisfactory results – increasing the steep time of each round. Take notice of not only the flavor in the cup but the aroma and the appearance of the steeped leaves. This is all part of the experience. Adjust any above-mentioned factor to suit your tastes.
How Much Caffeine is in Black Tea?
All tea comes from the same plant (Camellia sinensis), so all tea has caffeine. There are three factors in your control that determine how much caffeine ends up in your cup:
- How much leaf you use (more leaf equals more caffeine available to extract)
- How hot you steep it (the hotter the water, the more caffeine extracts into your cup)
- How long you steep it (the longer it steeps, the more caffeine is extracted from the leaf)
Black teas tend to be noted as having the highest caffeine content of all tea types, but that is because of common instruction to steep with water at a full boil and for extended time of up to four to six minutes. Any type of tea made like this will deliver a lot of caffeine in the cup.
Ms. Zhao Yu Jie’s Wild Mountain Black
Health Benefits of Black Tea
Tea is one of the healthiest beverages in the world, especially as a preventative approach for long-term physical and mental health. TeaSource doesn’t make any claims about its teas as prescriptive solutions to any particular health issue since this is not our area of expertise.
Here are a couple articles to read if you are interested in learning more about the health benefits of tea:
From the NIH:
From “Medical News Today”:
https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/269538#benefitsThe health benefits of tea, though considerable, are not the foremost purpose for drinking it. Tea is for your enjoyment - in whatever way you choose to do that. And that enjoyment is good for you all by itself.