What You Should Know About Black Tea

published Mar 10, 2014
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Beyond the label of black versus green tea, each of these categories includes a rich array of aromas and flavors. Today we’re taking a closer look at black tea in its various forms, from smoky and chocolatey to bright and citrusy. Wondering when to add milk, or which variety is better for iced tea? Step right in…

What is black tea?

Black tea comes from a shrub called Camellia sinensis. The aroma, taste, and color of black tea depend on factors such as the species of Camellia; the country, region, and garden or estate where it was grown; the year and season of harvest; the manufacturing method; and the grade. Today, black tea is primarily grown in China, India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya.

To manufacture black tea, the leaves are plucked and withered to reduce moisture. Then, the leaves may be left whole and rolled, known as orthodox process, or they may undergo a cut-tear-curl (CTC) process. Finally, the leaves are oxidized and dried. (The oxidation process is sometimes referred to as fermentation but this is a misnomer.) Black tea leaves are more oxidized than white, green, and oolong teas and generally have a stronger flavor and aroma.

In China this tea is known as “red tea” (qi hong or hong cha), referring to the color of its brew, whereas “black tea” refers to pu-erh tea.

Types of black tea

Some of the major types of black tea include:

  • Assam: Grown in northeastern India, this tea is full-bodied, dark, and malty. It is used in many tea blends such as masala chai, English Breakfast, and Irish Breakfast. Good with milk and sugar.
  • Ceylon: Grown in the mountains of Sri Lanka, this tea is lively and bright with citrus notes.
  • Darjeeling: Grown on a small number of estates in India’s Himalayas, this prized tea is delicate, floral, and fruity. It is known as the “Champagne of tea.” Best served without milk or sugar.
  • Keemun: Grown in the Anhui province of eastern China, this tea is full-bodied, smooth, and fruity.
  • Nilgiri: Grown in southern India, this tea is fragrant with low tannins and astringency. Makes a good iced tea.
  • Lapsang Souchong: Grown in the Fujian province of southeastern China, this deep, smoky, robust tea is smoked over pine or spruce wood.
  • Yunnan: Grown in southwestern China, this tea is rich and sweet with chocolate notes.

Black tea blends

Some of the major black tea blends include:

  • Earl Grey: Black tea flavored with bergamot oil, which gives it a citrus fragrance. Often made with Keemun and/or Ceylon teas.
  • English breakfast: A strong blend that goes well with milk and sugar. Often made with Ceylon tea.
  • Irish breakfast: A robust blend that goes well with milk and sugar. Often made with Assam tea.
  • Masala chai: An Indian black tea brewed with spices such as black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger.
  • Russian caravan: An aromatic, smoky blend. Often made with Keemun and Lapsang Souchong teas.

Grades of black tea

Black tea is graded according to the size of the leaf, which can affect its brewing rate and how nuanced or pungent the flavor is. One is not necessarily better than the other; for example, fannings from a high quality tea may taste better than broken leaves from a lower quality tea.

  • Whole leaf: Whole leaf tea requires greater skill to pluck and process and accounts for only about 5 to 10 percent of all tea produced. It is sold as looseleaf tea or sometimes in tea bags.
  • Broken leaf: This is sold as looseleaf tea or used in tea bags.
  • Fannings: Leftover from the processing of higher grade teas, these small leaf pieces are used in tea bags.
  • Dust: Like fannings, these leftover leaf particles are used in tea bags. They have the fastest brewing time and least nuanced flavor.

What is Orange Pekoe?

Orange Pekoe is not a quality or flavor of tea but rather a leaf size, and the term is used when discussing teas from India or Sri Lanka. Tea grades can get very specific within each of the major categories listed above, for example: OP (Orange Pekoe; whole leaves), FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe; extra-large whole leaves), and BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe; broken leaves). For a complete list of abbreviations see this Wikipedia entry on Tea leaf grading.