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Guide to Black Tea Types

Black TeaIntroduction

Chinese Black Tea, known locally as Red Tea (Hong Cha), is fully-oxidised whole leaf tea. The best whole leaf Black Teas are made by hand, in contrast to the commercial CTC (crush, tear and curl) machine-made Black Teas of India, Sri Lanka and Africa that make up 95% of the world tea market. CTC tea undergoes a rapid and intense oxidation whereby the fresh leaves can be processed into finished Black Tea within an hour or so. Chinese Black Teas are oxidised slowly to create more complex and subtle flavours.

 

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History

Black Tea was first produced in China around the early 17th Century, most likely by farmers from Wuyi, Fujian, who were looking to transform lower quality green Teas into something that would win the coveted accolade of ‘Tribute Tea’. These early producers discovered that allowing the tea to oxidise completely, without fixing, created flavours of extraordinary richness and sweetness. Black Teas also deteriorated more slowly than Green and were easier to compress into bricks for transportation and trade.

For almost two centuries, China Black Teas such as Keemun and Lapsang Souchong were increasingly a staple of the British Tea drinker, sharing fashionable socialites' tea caddies with the dominant Green Teas. The development of the first Indian and Sri Lankan plantations in mid 19th Century and the introduction in the 1930s led to the dominance of cheap, harsh Black Teas in the UK market. This all but destroyed demand for traditional whole leaf Black Teas from China. It is only in the last 10 years or so that fine whole-leaf Black Teas have been available again in the UK, so tea lovers can discover and enjoy their inimitable qualities.

Growing and Production

  • Leaves are picked in early April and there may be several further harvests throughout the year. The earlier pickings are considered the most desirable.
  • The leaves are withered in warm air to soften them and release the enzymes required to oxidise the tea. Withering of Black Tea is a longer process than for Oolong and Green Teas, to create deeper, more concentrated flavours.
  • The Tea maker rolls the leaves gently to stimulate the flavonoids that determine the final characteristics of the tea. Most modern Black Tea makers now use mechanical rollers, but the finest Black Teas are still rolled by hand.
  • The leaves are then sorted using a large calibrated screen. The smaller leaves are left to oxidise at this point, while the rest is re-rolled.
  • Next the leaves are left to slowly oxidise in varying levels of temperature and humidity. This is what determines the flavour profile of the tea. Oxidation turns the leaves a dark brown/black colour, while any tips present turn a coppery golden colour. This difference in colour is due to the higher levels of chlorophyll in the leaves.
  • A final firing or drying stops oxidation and reduces the moisture level of the tea to around 3%. This stops the Tea from becoming mouldy. Lapsang Souchong is fired with wood smoke.
  • Once this process is complete 100kg of fresh leaves will have yielded about 20 - 25kgs kg of Black Tea.

Growing regions

Black Teas are made in most tea producing areas of China, but mainly in Anhui, Fujian and Yunnan. Jiangsu, Hunan and Sichuan provinces also produce Black Teas. Many famous Green Tea plantations use any lower grade leaves they have to produce Black Teas.

Chinese Black Tea Varieties

Lapsang Souchong

Renowned for its distincitve smoky flavour, Lapsang Souchong leaves are traditionally smoked over pine wood fires, using wood that comes from the surrounding valley, the smokiness slowly suffusing the leaves. The tea is dark, rich, fruity and of course - smoky. 

Keemun Hao Ya

Keemun Hao Ya is a high grade of the famous Keemun varietal grown in Qimen, Anhui Province. Only the delicate buds (Hao Ya) are used to make this tea which is twisted into fine gold-tipped strands. The flavours that characterise this tea are well-rounded and mellow, with hints of wine and spice.

Bai Lin Gong Fu

Bai Lin Gong Fu (great skill) is an outstanding soft Black Tea from Fudan, Fujian Province. It is made from the big White Tea (Da Bai) varietal, which accounts for the leaves' fine orange-yellow hairs. Bai Lin Gong Fu produces a bright, reddish liquor with rich flavours of caramel and cream.

Dian Hong (Yunnan Black)

One of the most popular and famous black teas in China, but little known outside of the country. Dian Hong has a caramel fragrance aroma and a rich, sweet, robust flavour with a hint of plum. It is a relatively new tea, only around 100 years old. 

Fu Shou Mei (Sugarcane Black)

This is a slightly unusual Chinese black tea, made by wilting and firing the leaves briefly in Yunnan red cane sugar (an unprocessed sugar similar to muscavado). This gives the tea a pleasant sweetness, delicate and perfectly balanced with the robust, smooth and and fruity black tea. 

Yunnan Gold Pearls

Gold-flecked, marble-sized black tea pearls which have been hand-rolled from high-grade Yunnan Gold leaf tea into perfectly compressed spheres. Produced in the Feng Qing Mountains, Lincang, China. Flavours of plum and caramel are produced when these easy-brewing pearls are infused.