Black tea, the world's beverage
Considered to be one of the most consumed drinks on the planet after water, black tea is a true monolith of the beverage world. The origins of black tea are not as antiquated as its cousin, green tea, but black tea still has a story to tell, and one that it continues to tell every day to the millions of people who wake up to a cuppa black tea in the morning or an afternoon tea time featuring none other than black tea. Keep reading to learn more about different varieties of black tea!
What is black tea?
Let’s go back to the fundamentals of black tea by taking a closer look at its origins and what black tea is. Tea origins of tea go back to anywhere from 2000 to 5000 in China and some of the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia. Originally, tea or Camellia Sinensis was boiled in large cauldrons and eaten as a culinary staple. Over time, this practice developed into drinking boiled leaves for medicinal purposes. Then, as tea culture developed further the leaves would be processed in various ways and enjoyed for cultural, religious, culinary, and medicinal purposes.
Camellia Sinensis is used to produce green, white, Oolong, yellow, black, and fermented teas like Pu-erh. Though these leaves all taste, look and smell pretty diverse they all ultimately come from the same plant or one of its variants. The Camellia Sinensis usually comes in two main variants, with tons of other smaller cultivars and variants, some being discovered every day.
The first variant is Camellia Sinuses var Sinensis which are the plants that generally grow in China and are commonly used to produce green tea and are also sometimes referred to as “Chinese tea”. Meanwhile, the Camellia Sinensis var Assamica or the Assamese tea plant generally grows in Assam, a region in India and parts of Southeast Asia. The Assamese variant plant is usually used to produce black tea leaves. Both plant types can be used to produce either green or black tea but usually Camellia Sinensis var Sinensis is for green and Camellia Sinensis var Assamica is for black. The Chinese tea plants produce smaller leaves while the Assamese produce much bigger ones.
The methods used to produce black tea includes allowing the leaves to wither to draw out moisture. Next, black tea leaves are then processed in one of two ways. There is the Orthodox method which sees the leaves rolled and twisted by hand or machine. There is also the Crush, Tear, Curl, or CTC method. This method sees the withered leaves ripped and crushed with a machine. This method is usually used to fill tea bags. After processing, the leaves are then allowed to oxidize, a process similar to fermentation that sees the leaves absorb oxygen. This causes a chemical reaction in the leaves which alters the color, flavor, and aroma of the leaves. The leaves are exposed to heat or simply allowed to dry further to cease the oxidization process. Smoking is sometimes used to cease the oxidization process. Then the leaves are graded and prepared for shipping.
Black Tea Varieties
Single Origin Teas
Single origin teas refer to tea leaves that come from one type of leaf from one region. This is opposed to blends which may include a few different types of tea leaves and perhaps other non-tea ingredients as well. Single origin teas are excellent for showcasing the best of one leaf type and the place where it came from. Here are some excellent examples of single-origin teas.
Darjeeling tea refers to tea produced in India’s Darjeeling region. Like Champagne only being able to be called “champagne” if it is made in that French region, the same goes for Darjeeling tea, which is trademarked as “Darjeeling”. Darjeeling can refer to any type of tea leaf, but the most famous is of course black Darjeeling. In terms of flavor for Darjeeling black, it is often compared to muscat wine, a bit musky, fruity, delicate, and a little vegetal.
The trademark black tea leaf, Assam black tea is often used in blends or tea mixes like Earl Grey and tons of milk teas. This is because Assamese black tea is a bit astringent, bitter, deep, rich, spicy, malty, full-bodied, earthy, and a little spicy.
Black tea produced in Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as the island is also known, is truly diverse. Sri Lanka has multifarious geography and so Ceylon black tea produced in one part of the island will taste quite different from black tea leaves produced in a different part of the island. Highlands and lowlands produce different flavors and aroma palettes that welcome tea lovers to give each region a try. Generally speaking, the Sri Lankan black tea leaves can be fruity and bright and/or robust, malty, earthy, and savory. Ceylon is another black tea leaf type that lends itself to blends like Earl Grey and English breakfast.
🌿 Golden Monkey
This black tea leaf comes from the famed Fujian and Yunnan provinces of China. These two regions have been renowned for exceptional tea for ages with Yunnan of course being famous for pu’erh. But Golden Moneky is another great tea from these southern Chinese regions, too. This leaf type is processed from the buds and first leaves of the tea plant and is the black tea version of Silver needle white and green tea. The flavor and aroma palette for Golden Monkey lacks astringency and has a honeyed peachy flavor.
A classic example of black tea from another one of China’s illustrious tea regions, Anhui province. This black tea type captured the Western world by storm during the turn of the century and its flavor and aroma palette are indicative of the ideal growing region situated between two rivers. Keemun can also be diverse with different styles and methods being employed to prepare these leaves. However, most Keemun is subjected to a slower withering process that unlocks some very intriguing flavor and aroma palettes compared to other black teas. Keemun generally possesses floral, smoky, malty, and even some cocoa-like hints and notes.
🌿 Lapsang Souchong
The legendary Lapsang Souchong leaves are renowned for their unique processing method which leads to their stunning flavor and aroma palette. Also coming from the famous Fujian province, Lapsang Souchong leaves have their oxidization process ceased by being smoked with pinewood. There are several stories and legends as to how this method developed. Some stories say an invading army torched the tea leaves as they marched through the town. Others say that this said army stalled the normal tea cultivation practices and the leaves oxidized too long so the townspeople burnt their drying huts thinking that the leaves had spoiled but gave the leaves a second chance after catching the sweet scent. Several other stories and variations exist, but what is certain is that the burning of pinewood concludes with a leaf that is smoky, sweet, a bit piney, and refreshing.
🌿 Kenyan Black Tea
Though we may tend to associate tea production with the Asian continent, Kenya hosts several ideal regions for tea and coffee cultivation. Kenya hosts geographical and weather factors that lead to excellent tea plants. Volcanic highlands with plenty of rainfall lead to superb flavor and aroma palettes. A bold and robust flavor along with some refreshing briskness and a full body that allows Kenyan Black Tea to be an ideal base for blends and milk teas as well as a single origin tea.
Flavored Black Teas and Blends
Black teas are incredible when enjoyed as single-origin beverages like the leaves mentioned above. However, throughout history, black tea has been enjoyed in blends or prepared as milk teas for various reasons.
The first major reason for black teas being enjoyed as blends or accompanied with milk is because historically black teas were packed into bricks. These bricks would have to be deconcocted to be enjoyed and were thus enjoyed with other ingredients.
In some regions where edible vegetation was scarce like in Central Asia and Tibet, tea also served as a dietary supplement and staple. This is where we find beverages like Mongolian and Tibetan butter teas develop which would be enjoyed for good health.
Another reason black tea was often blended or enjoyed with milk, sugar, or other accouterments is that single-origin black tea can come out exceptionally bitter, robust, astringent, and strong on its own. Hence why things like British-style tea developed or Indian Masala Chai which is flavored with lots of herbs and spices for health and taste reasons. Today, many Breakfast blends and English modes of afternoon tea include leaves from one or more sources. The CTC or Crush-Tear-Curl method of processing is usually the method used to prepare black tea blends.
🌿 Earl Gray
Named after the historical Earl Grey where legends abound as to how the tea in question received its name, Earl Grey's black tea blend makes for a great morning or afternoon tea. Traditionally, Chinese Keemun leaves are used as the base of this blend. The black tea is tempered with bergamot oil. Bergamot is a citrus fruit that is found in the South of France and Italy and gives the tea an innervating, citrusy, uplifting, and very floral. Earl Grey’s citrus can make milk curdle so be careful if choosing to add milk, and perhaps opt for sugar instead.
🌿 Breakfast Blends
There are 3 main types of black tea Breakfast Blends. They are English, Irish, and Scottish.
English Breakfast is usually a blend of Keemun, Ceylon, Kenyan, and potentially other black tea leaves. The flavor and aroma palette are generally malty, a little sweet, bitter, and robust.
Irish Breakfast will often include mostly Assamese leaves but may include Kenyan, Indonesian, and Chinese black tea leaves. Irish Breakfast tends to be red in color and is very malty.
Scottish Breakfast sports lots of Assamese leaves but also Ceylon leaves and may include Indonesian and Chinese leaves, too. Scottish Breakfast features some oaky hints and notes but also has some malty flavors on display, too.
🌿 Masala Chai
This blend traditionally referred to a beverage including milk, herbs, spices, and black tea which are steamed or boiled together and then strained to produce a truly stunning, spicy, and innervating drink. Today, the term masala chai is quite broad and can refer to a blend type that can be enjoyed with or without milk. Masala chai is known for the stupendous flavors and aromas that the spices and herbs like cinnamon and cardamom serve up, but in regards to tea leaves, usually, Assam, Ceylon, or Darjeeling are the leaves of choice.
Black tea is a true marvel of the caffeine world. As one of the most consumed beverages worldwide, black tea has a lot to offer regarding flavors, hints, notes, aroma, and overall tea enjoyment. Black tea is exceptional as single-origin leaves like Keemun or Golden Monkey. Black tea is also exceptional in blends and milk teas as one can discover with Earl Grey or Masala Chai. Of course, the best way to explore the world of tea is to sample lots of different leaves. So, get out there and start brewing. You may discover your new go-to morning or afternoon pick-me-up.
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- “Darjeeling Tea.” Wikipedia, 1 Jan. 2022, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darjeeling_tea.
- “Golden Monkey Tea.” Wikipedia, 12 Dec. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Monkey_tea. Accessed 18 Sept. 2022.
- “Keemun.” Wikipedia, 27 Apr. 2022, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keemun. Accessed 18 Sept. 2022.
- Kirsch, Haldan. “The Differences between the 3 Types of UK Breakfast Teas.” TastingTable.com, 25 Aug. 2022, www.tastingtable.com/981386/the-differences-between-the-3-types-of-uk-breakfast-teas/. Accessed 18 Sept. 2022.
- Wikipedia Contributors. “History of Tea.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 22 May 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_tea.