Black tea 101: Beginner’s Guide
When people talk about tea in Western culture, they’re often referring to black tea. On the other hand, in Eastern cultures (like China and Japan), they generally refer to green tea. So what’s the difference between black and green tea? Black tea 101: Beginner’s guide!
Table of Contents
Definitions of “True Teas”
Not all the tea we know is true tea. Let’s clarify the difference between true teas and herbal teas.
“True teas” are made using leaves from the tea plant known as Camellia sinensis. Teas made from any other plants are not technically true teas.
5 types of true teas
In fact, herbal teas aren’t actually real teas. Instead, herbal teas are infusions. They are made either from steeping spices, herbs, and roots in hot water. These ingredients can also be combined with true teas at which point they’re known as flavored teas.
What makes it black tea?
Black tea is known in the Western world as ‘black tea’ and in China as ‘red tea’. This true tea is the most processed tea variety and the most commonly consumed tea variety in the world. In the United States, 85 % of the tea consumed is iced – a uniquely American preference.
All tea comes from the same plant, a tree-like shrub called camellia sinensis. The leaves and buds of this plant are harvested and oxidized at different levels to produce the various white, green, black, and oolong teas. The longer a tea is allowed to oxidize, the darker it becomes. Black tea is oxidized the longest.
Black tea origins
Though tea is considered to have originated in China, fresh-tasting green tea became popular in Eastern society and is still the base of tea culture there today.
As tea culture spread and tea was exported to trade across oceans, it was discovered that the more oxidized black tea would retain its freshness and flavor better than its minimally oxidized green tea.
In the earliest days of trade between China, Tibet and other neighboring countries, tea was fermented, dried, and pressed into bricks to be used as currency. To this day, most of the black tea produced in China is exported oversea.
The Dutch first brought tea to Europe in 1610, it arrived in England in 1658, and then it rose in popularity in England’s American colonies throughout the 1700s. Demand for tea experienced huge leaps in the 1700s as England expanded sugar imports from its Caribbean colonies. By 1800, the English were annually consuming 2½ lbs of tea and 17 lbs of sugar per capita. Some claim it was the increasing trend of adding sugar to tea that spiked the demand for strong black tea over the more delicate green tea imports.
The next leap in black tea production came in the 1800s when the Camellia sinensis assamica tea plant variety was discovered in 1823 in the Assam region of India. This native variety was much better suited to the production of the hearty, bold black teas that were in high demand. Not long after, in 1835, the English started planting tea gardens in India’s Darjeeling region, near Nepal. Since India was a British colony, these different varieties of black teas quickly became popular exports to England.
Where to produce
Black tea is primarily produced in India and China (In fact, half of the world’s tea production comes from India). Black teas named after these regions are popular across the world. The regional name characterizes the different flavor profiles, which are influenced by the various growing regions and techniques.
- India – Assam and Darjeeling
- Sri Lanka – Nilgiri, formerly known as Ceylon
Black tea processing
Black tea varieties
It’s important to know that technically any type of tea (white, green, yellow, oolong, black or pu-erh) originates from the same exact plant – Camellia sinensis. It’s the variety of tea plant and how the plant’s leaves are processed that define if a tea becomes black or green. Hundreds of cultivars and hybrid plants have evolved from these Camellia sinensis plant varieties over time.
Camellia sinensis assamica is a larger-leafed varietal of the tea plant that is typically used to produce black tea. Originating in the Assam district of India, it grows in warm, moist climates and is prolific in sub-tropical forests.
Camellia sinensis sinensis is a smaller-leafed variety native to China that is typically used to make green and white teas. It evolved as a shrub growing in sunny regions with drier, cooler climates. It thrives in mountainous regions because it has a high tolerance for cold.
How black tea is made
Black teas are typically produced using one of 2 methods:
- Orthodox: In this more time-consuming method of production, tea leaves remain whole or only partially broken during processing. Tea leaves are plucked from the garden, withered to reduce moisture, rolled in a variety of ways to bruise the leaves and start oxidation, oxidized to create color and flavor, fired to apply the heat that stops oxidation, and then graded for quality.
Withering → 1st Rolling → Oxidizing/Fermenting → Drying (110°C/65°C)
- Non-Orthodox or CTC (Crush-Tear-Curl): In this sped-up version of the production process, the tea leaves are cut into fine pieces instead of rolled. The smaller pieces of leaves are more quickly oxidized, producing a one-dimensional, consistent, strong and bold black tea. The cut pieces also easily fit into commercial tea bags, which are more popular with consumers than loose leaf tea.
Withering → Cutting/Tearing/Curling → Oxidizing/Fermenting → Drying (130°C/90°C)
What makes black tea different from green tea is that during the production process.
Black tea: the black tea leaves are allowed to fully oxidize before they are heat-processed and dried. During oxidation, oxygen interacts with the tea plant’s cell walls to turn the leaves the rich dark brown to black color and also alters the flavor profile, helping add malty, fruity, or even smoky notes (depending on the tea). The oxidation process also decreases black tea’s flavonoid content a bit, but this brew is still loaded with beneficial properties.
Green tea: green tea is minimally oxidized. After being harvested, they are quickly heated and dried to prevent too much oxidation from occurring that would turn the green leaves brown and alter their fresh-picked flavor. Less oxidation means green tea is typically lighter in color and flavor than black tea, with more vegetal, grassy, or seaweed notes, depending on the tea.
Flavors & Colors
The Western palate has certainly become used to typical strong black tea that can stand up to sweetener and cream or lots of ice. So for a long time, mass production to meet the demand for tea was more important than quality in the West. However, as consumers learn more about the tea, demand for premium loose leaf teas are on the rise, variety, freshness, and flavor have become important distinguishing factors in choosing black tea.
Factors to decide the taste of black tea:
Where it was grown:
- if it grew near other crops that affected its flavor (e.g. rose bushes, grape vines or coffee plants)
- Do the plants live next to limestone and pine trees or sand and seaweed?
- What kind of climate it grew in – cool or hot
- What time of year is the tea plucked?
How it was processed:
- If it was fertilized naturally or with chemicals
- How long the leaves were allowed to oxidize when processed
- What kind of heat treatment the leaves received to stop oxidation
- The shape of leaves: whole (orthodox) or smaller pieces (non-orthodox)
- How is the plant pruned?
- What parts of the plant are plucked?
- Generally, black tea is stronger, bolder and richer than green tea.
- Black tea typically has more astringency and bitterness than green tea, but if brewed correctly it should be smooth and flavorful.
- Its flavor profile can range from savory to sweet, depending on how it was processed.
- Indian black teas tend to be stronger and more robust, and are often used in hearty breakfast blends that stand up well to the addition of milk and sweetener. Many types of Indian black tea are categorized using a special system of tea grading to denote their quality.
- Chinese black teas typically boast strong flavor profiles and a slightly astringent finish. They are usually consumed on their own without milk or sweetener. They often contain slightly less caffeine than Indian black teas.
Some common traits for black tea flavors:
Malty, smoky, brisk, earthy, spiced, nutty, metallic, citrus, caramel, leather, fruity, sweet and honey.
A brewed black tea can range in color from amber to red to dark brown.
Preparing black tea
To brew the cup of black tea properly, ask your tea vendor for brewing instructions specific to the tea you purchased, because many black teas have different ideal brewing temperatures and steeping times.
General black tea brewing tips:
- Use fresh, pure, cold filtered water. Springwater is the best.
- Black teas are typically brewed for longer periods of time and in hotter temperatures than green teas. Generally, this is somewhere between 200 and 212 degrees for 3 to 5 minutes.
- If you don’t have an electric kettle with temperature control, just remember that at sea level water simmers at 190 degrees and boils at 212 degrees. The boiling temperature drops about a degree for every 100 feet in altitude increase. So, generally, somewhere just off a rolling boil should be perfect for brewing your black tea.
- If your black tea came with specific recommendations for brewing, follow those. But using about 2 g of loose leaf tea per 8 oz. cup of water is a safe bet.
- Cover your tea while it steeps to keep all the heat in the steeping vessel.
- Don’t over steep your tea. The longer your tea steeps, the more quickly it will release any bitterness and astringency. Taste your tea after the recommended steeping time and then adjust the time for your preference.
- Most high-quality loose leaf black teas can be steeped multiple times.
- Most black teas are strong enough to stand up to milk and sugar. But to truly enjoy the subtle flavor differences between the many varieties of black tea, try drinking them plain with no additives.
Buying and storing black tea
Make sure to buy it from a reputable company that can tell you when and how the tea was processed and packaged. While it won’t go bad, tea can get stale if it sits around too long. Oxidized black tea is more shelf-stable than its delicate green tea. Many black teas can last up to 1-2 years if stored properly in a cool, dark place and in an opaque, airtight container away from light, moisture, and pantry items like coffee and spices that can leach flavor into the tea leaves.
Types of black tea
- Congu – Slightly sweet in flavor, this brisk yet rich tea is the perfect starter component to create kombucha tea.
- Lapsang Souchong: Produced in the Fujian Province of China, Chinese tea smoke-dried over pinewood to create a sharply smoky, woodsy flavor and aroma. Considered one of the very first black teas to be introduced to the west. Nowadays, the signature flavor is recreated by smoking the leaves over pine needles. This tea pairs nicely with savory dishes.
- Keemun: This tea from China’s Anhui Province is generally quite smooth, with notes of tobacco, fruit, cocoa, and floral.
- Yunnan black tea: Teas from China’s Yunnan Province with chocolatey, malty, and perhaps spicy flavors. Even though it’s described as a “black” or “red” tea, the leaves often have a golden color to them.
- Red Tea: Another name for Chinese black tea. Black teas from China are oxidized more slowly, which gives them complexity and a bit of a smokey flavor.
- Assam: The rainy, tropical climate in the northeast Indian state of Assam (the largest tea-growing region in the world) produces a tea with a full-bodied, earthy, tannic and malty flavor. It makes it perfect in breakfast tea blends. They are allowed to fully oxidize – goes well with milk and sugar.
- Darjeeling: a more delicate black tea has a lighter tan and green color with floral, fruity, and muscatel flavors and tannic spiciness. Grown in West Bengal, Darjeeling is often used as the tea base for Chai, and is technically only semi-oxidized due to a shorter fermentation window. Nicknamed the “Champagne of Tea, you can enjoy it without any milk or sugar.
- Masala Chai tea: Although chai tea is technically not black tea, it is commonly brewed with black tea leaves. Bold spiced tea from India usually made from a type of Assam that’s been cured into a dissolvable powder then mixed with a number of warming spices like cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, anise, fennel, nutmeg, and cloves, in addition to sweeteners and often served with milk.
- Ceylon: Much of Sri Lanka’s economy depends on its more than half a million acres of tea gardens that range in location from cool and mountainous to humid and tropical (Sri Lanka is also known for its cinnamon production.). Most of Sri Lanka’s tea export is Ceylon. Honey or reddish-brown tea with a light and floral or rich and citrus and brisk with a hint of spice – depending on growth altitude. Another staple in the breakfast tea blend world, making it the most common base for Earl Grey. Recognizable tea leaves by their long, wiry appearance.
- Kenyan: Despite being a latecomer for tea production (the early 1900s), Kenya learned fast and now leads Africa and the industry in the CTC style of tea production, producing and exporting mostly black tea. Kenyan tea is known for its assertive, full-body with a dark, slightly astringent profile.
- Earl Grey: A mix of Chinese-grown black tea and bergamot and/or citrus. Named after former British Prime Minister Charles Grey.
- Breakfast Tea: A robust and hearty blend of black teas, generally intended to be enjoyed in the morning along with breakfast (because they tend to be very high in caffeine). The different kinds of breakfast teas – English, Irish, Scottish – are all just various blends of strong teas from India and China. All of them are terrific with milk and sugar.
- English Breakfast: Traditionally made from a combination of Assam, Ceylon, and Kenyan-grown black teas and known for its bitterness, brown color, and robust yet rounded flavor. Great with milk and sugar.
- Irish Breakfast: Strong black tea blend generally dominated by Assam leaves and sharing a similar profile with English Breakfast. It has a reddish color and malty flavor. Flavored blends with fruity or floral profiles, such as lychee or rose. Great with milk and sugar.
The leaves of this plant contain naturally occurring caffeine that is actually higher in concentration than in coffee beans. Coffee is only stronger than tea because it is more concentrated when brewed. The actual caffeine content in a cup of true tea varies largely depending on the production method and how the beverage was brewed. The different levels of caffeine make tea a great choice for both energy and relaxation. It can also help you reduce your caffeine intake.
The highest caffeine content per cup
|8 oz. Beverage||Avg. Caffeine Content|
|Coffee||95 to 200 mg|
|Black tea||14 to 61 mg|
|Green tea (Matcha is the highest)||24 to 40 mg|
Benefits of Black Tea
- help heart health
Black tea contains another group of antioxidants called flavonoids. Consuming them on a regular basis may help reduce many risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, elevated triglyceride levels, and obesity.
- help your brain alert
Black tea contains caffeine and an amino acid called L-theanine that’ll help boost alertness and focus.
- helps regulation of blood sugar
Elevated blood sugar levels may increase your risk of health complications, such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, kidney failure, and depression. Black tea is a great non-sweetened beverage that can help improve the use of insulin and reduce blood sugar.
- help the immune system
The tannins in black tea might help fight viruses such as influenza (“the flu”), dysentery, and hepatitis. Black tea also contains alkylamine antigens, which help boost immune response.
- help digestion
The tannin in tea in general (black tea has particularly more of them than other tea types) offer digestive benefits. They soothe gastric and intestinal illnesses, generally aid in digestion, and decrease intestinal activity.
- help skin Health
Drinking black tea benefits the skin 1) it nourishes the skin with vitamins B2, C, and E, with minerals such as magnesium, potassium, and zinc, and essential polyphenols and tannins. 2) black tea helps to reduce the signs of premature aging. 3) its caffeine and some of its other chemical components can kill oral viruses, which helps prevent skin infections (and pimples).
- helps oral health
Black tea may reduce oral cancers. In addition, tea’s polyphenols and tannin’s kill and prevent the bacteria that cause tooth decay, and drastically reduce the oral bacteria that cause bad breath.
- help bone and hair health
Phytochemicals in tea might help bone stronger. The high levels of antioxidants and caffeine in black tea decrease a hormone that causes hair loss (known as DHT or dihydrotestosterone), while the antioxidants promote healthy hair growth.
- A good source of antioxidants
Consuming antioxidants can help decrease the risk of chronic disease. Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant found in black tea. Groups of polyphenols, including catechins, theaflavins and thearubigins, are the main sources of antioxidants in black tea and may promote overall health.
Black tea grading
Black tea is usually graded on one of 4 scales of quality. Whole-leaf teas are the highest quality, with the best whole-leaf teas graded as “orange pekoe.” After the whole-leaf teas, the scale degrades to broken leaves, fannings, then dusts.
Who drinks the tea most?
Though the Chinese grow the most tea, they are not the biggest consumers. At least not per capita. That would be the United Arab Emirates, whose citizens drink nearly 14 pounds of the stuff every year, putting them ahead of Morocco and Ireland residents. Brits come in seventh and the United States ranks a lowly 69th in the top 100.
We drink more than 3 billion cups a year, making tea the second most popular beverage around the world, behind water. 78 % of the tea consumed worldwide is black tea and over 90 % of all tea sold in the West is black tea. Tea is ranked 31th in the most valuable crop/livestock. The global tea market is over 40 billion markets.
The word “tea”
The word tea comes from the Chinese T’e, which was the word in the Amoy dialect for the plant from which tea leaves came. In Mandarin, the word was ch’a, which is where the words char and chai are derived from.
How long does it take for a tea tree to grow?
It takes about 3 years before a new plant is ready to harvest. It takes between 4 and 12 years for a tea plant to mature enough to produce seed.
English “afternoon tea”
“Afternoon Tea” is a tea-related ritual, introduced in Britain in the early 1840s. It evolved as a mini meal to stem the hunger and anticipation of an evening meal at 8pm.
Afternoon Tea was initially developed as a private social event for ladies who climbed the echelons of society. It was only when Queen Victoria engaged in the Afternoon Tea ritual that it became a formal occasion on a larger scale, known as ‘tea receptions’.
These receptions could have as many as two hundred guests with an open ‘at home’ invitation to visit between 4pm and 7pm, during which they could come and go as they pleased; any later, it becomes “high tea”, upon which more substantial food should be offered. “Cream tea” is served in Devon and Cornwall.
In Britain, afternoon tea is usually enjoyed as an occasional indulgence or to celebrate a special event like a birthday, pre-wedding, or baby shower.
Afternoon tea is a meal composed of sandwiches (usually cut delicately into ‘fingers’), scones with clotted cream and jam, sweet pastries, and cakes. Interestingly, scones were not a common feature of early afternoon tea and were only introduced in the 20 th century.
Afternoon tea has also been referred to as “Low tea”, often served in the drawing-room. “Afternoon tea”, “High tea” or “Low tea” refers to the height of the table it is served at and nothing to do with the time of day.
“Butter tea” is a common tea found in Tibet made with black tea, Yak butter, and salt. It gives energy, fat, and calories to withstand the very cold climate there. Butter tea is something Goulongzhu brings out only for guests and during special occasions in the summer – not all Tibetans drink butter tea on a daily basis.
Sugar and milk in tea
Sugar and milk were firstly added to black tea in the 1720s, though this practice was not done in China. A general rule of thumb: Black tea is the best if you want to add milk. Milk will ruin the flavors of other tea like green, white, and oolong. Don’t put lemon and milk together in the tea. Lemon will curdle the milk.
Alcohol can go well with tea – “Hot toddy”. Brandy, rum, bourbon can be added to create various liquored tea.
Most expensive tea
The most expensive tea in the world is grown in the mountains of Ya’An in the Sichuan province of China. Workers fertilize the tea bushes using the waste from local pandas whose bodies take in only a small amount of nutrients from the food they eat. The tea costs the equivalent of around $200 for a small cup.
The complexity of craft tea making
Tea is a compound- and enzyme-rich plant that is very biochemically complex and sensitive to its environment.
If you go to the fine Chinese tea store, the high-end ones would easily cost you $200 to even $1000+ per lbs. Try sniffing them – they’re unbelievably complex, elegant, and refined. You’d appreciate “tea” a lot more once you do – nothing like what you know from a teabag at your supermarket. “Made-in-China” is usually associated with “cheap” and “low” quality. Definitely not the case of “fine” tea. Chinese do bring “tea” to the next level.
The 1500-year old Chinese tea culture, from cultivation to processing to brewing, is about understanding and reaching the potential this complex plant offers.
Conclusion: Black tea is deep - so many different types we haven't even known, yet. Try different types and find what you like. Various health benefits might encourage you more to drink instead of booze.
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