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Black Tea

Black Tea Types, Origins, Recipes & More


An image of Ceylon black tea.

These Ceylon (Sri Lankan) tealeaves are 'wiry,' which means they are long, thin and slightly kinked, like wires.

Marko Goodwin
Black tea is the most popular type of tea in the West. Many believe that this is due to black teas' bold flavors and relatively long shelf lives of black teas. In the East, black tea consumption is less common, and in China, black tea is known as "hong cha" or red tea due to the reddish color of its liquor (or infusion).

Like green tea and other non-herbal teas, black tea is a true tea from the camellia Sinensis plant.

Unlike other tea types (such as white tea, green tea and oolong tea), black tea is a heavily oxidized tea type. For more information on how black tea is processed, see "Black Tea Processing" below.

Types of Black Tea

Most commercially available black teas are blends of black teas from several (or many) origins. Popular black tea blends include English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast and Afternoon Tea.

Many black tea blends are flavored with fruit, flowers and / or spices. Classic flavored black tea blends include Earl Grey (which is flavored with bergamot essential oil or citrus flavor), Masala Chai (which is blended with various spices) and fruit- or flower-scented black teas (such as Rose Black Tea and Lichee Black Tea, both of which originated in China). In recent years, many tea companies have started to offer more exotic and non-traditional black tea blends. These may include flavors like chocolate or vanilla (often placing them in the category of dessert teas), wood or smoke (as found in teas like Lapsang Souchong), tropical fruits, warming spices and dried herbs (such as mint or lavender).

In addition to blended teas, black teas are also sold by their origin. These teas may be blends of teas from a particular region (such as a Darjeeling tea blend or an Assam tea blend) or they may be single-origin teas (such as a Darjeeling first flush black tea or Darjeeling second flush black tea from a single estate or a Keemun black tea from a particular farm). For more information on single-estate / single-origin black teas, see "Black Tea Origins" below.

Black tea may be comprised of machine-processed CTC tea (which infuses quickly and is usually enjoyed with milk and sugar), hand-picked orthodox tea, loose-leaf tea or dust and fannings.

Black Tea Flavor Profiles

Black teas tend to be bold and brisk (or astringent).

The flavors of single-origin teas can be broadly described based on where they are from. Different tea origins produce different black tea flavor profiles due to their unique terroir. Classic single-origin flavor profiles include:
  • Assam black tea: bold, malty, brisk
  • Darjeeling black tea: delicate, fruity, floral, light
  • Nilgiri black tea: fragrant, floral
  • Ceylon black tea: varies by origin, but is generally bold, strong and rich, sometimes with notes of chocolate or spice
  • Keemun black tea: winey (wine-like), fruity, floral, piney, tobacco-like
  • Yunnan black tea: chocolaty, dark, malty, nuanced, sometimes with notes of spice
  • Kenyan black tea: bold, astringent, dark
Furthermore, the season in which the teas are harvested will impact their flavor. A prime example of this is the range of flavors in different tea flushes in Darjeeling. A spring-harvested Darjeeling black tea will have a much lighter, green flavor, whereas a tea harvested slightly later in the year will be sweet and fruity (usually with notes of muscat grape, peach and apricot).

Blended back teas exhibit a wide range of flavor profiles depending on their ingredients.

For more information, read Tea Flavor Profiles by Tea Type.

Milk, Sugar & Lemon for Black Teas

Some black teas are intended to be drunk with milk and / or sugar, while others are self drinkers (teas that are best without anything added). Teas that are traditionally drunk with milk and / or sugar include Masala Chai, English Breakfast and Assam black tea. Teas that are traditionally drunk with lemon and / or sugar include Earl Grey (which is not traditionally consumed with milk), iced Ceylon teas and Nilgiri black teas.

Iced Black Tea

In the United States, the vast majority of black tea is consumed as iced tea. Traditionally, iced tea has been more popular in the Southeastern U.S. than elsewhere in the U.S., but this is gradually changing with the widespread popularity of bottled and canned iced teas, which are available in most grocery stores and convenience stores across the country.

Iced black teas are usually served sweetened in the South and unsweetened in the North. Some people drink "half and half" iced tea, which refers to a 50-50 mixture of sweetened and unsweetened iced teas. ("Half and half iced tea" can also refer to Arnold Palmer iced tea.) Besides sugar, popular additives for iced tea include lemon, honey and fresh mint leaves.

Pairing Black Teas With Foods

Black teas' bold flavors make them ideal for pairing with Western foods. Most of the top ten teas for afternoon tea are black teas, as are most teas consumed with breakfast foods. Black teas may also pair well with some Indian foods, Thai foods and African foods.

How to Make Black Tea

Of all the types of tea, black tea is usually the easiest to steep. To make black tea, you simply use about one teaspoon of tealeaves per cup of hot water. The water can be at a rolling boil or nearly boiling. Steep the tealeaves for two to six minutes (depending on your tastes and the type of black tea; Darjeeling black teas usually taste better with a shorter steep) and then strain out the tealeaves. Add milk, sugar and / or lemon if desired.

Alternately, you can use cold water and cold steep ("cold infuse" or "cold brew") your black tea for four to eight hours in the fridge, then strain out the leaves.

To make iced black tea, you can double the amount of tealeaves, steep the tea as usual, and then pour the hot tea over ice.

For more information on how to make black teas and other tea types, read Tea Brewing Times and Tea Brewing Temperatures.

Black Tea Recipes

From a mint iced tea to a hot tea latte, there are lots of ways you can prepare black tea. Here are a few of the most popular black tea recipes from About.com Coffee / Tea:

Iced Black Tea Recipes Hot Black Tea Recipes Black Tea History

There are several stories that claim to explain the origin of the first black tea. One tells of Gong Fu Wuyi Oolong (or 'Congou black tea') being developed in the Wuyi mountain range of China in the 15th or 16th century. Another story says that the first black tea was Xiao Zhong (or 'Souchong black tea'), which was developed in Fujian, China, around 1730.

Black tea was the first type of tea to be introduced to Europe and the Middle East. Its commercial success in the West led to large scale production in China. Fueled by Scottish and English entrepreneurs and adventurers who stole tea plants and seeds from China, planted tea plantations in other countries and developed machinery for processing tea without the need for skilled tea makers, black tea production spread from China to other countries. Over time, black tea production spread to India, Sri Lanka and Kenya, and later still in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Rwanda, Brazil and elsewhere.

Black Tea Origins

Handmade black teas are mainly produced in parts of China.

High quality black teas are mostly made in China, India (particularly Darjeeling), Sri Lanka and (more recently) Nepal.

Commodity grade teas (teas made for commercial blending and generally sold in vast quantities at auctions) are produced in many parts of the world, including Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Vietnam, Thailand and Zimbabwe.

In recent years, several countries that are not known for making black tea have begun to produce limited quantities of it. These countries include England (where tea is grown in greenhouses) and Japan (a country known for its green tea). Japanese black tea is known as wakocha (literally, "Japanese black tea").

Black Tea Processing

The main steps of black tea production are as follows:
  1. Harvest (by hand or by machine)
  2. Heavy withering (a reduction of moisture content, usually done in large troughs with fans to circulate air and remove moisture as it evaporates)
  3. Rolling (done by machine or, sometimes, by hand to break the cell walls and release essential oils)
  4. Oxidation (exposure of the essential oils to air, resulting in a change in flavor, aroma and color, much like what happens when you slice an apple and leave it exposed to air for a few hours; this step is sometimes referred to as "fermentation," though oxidation is a slightly more accurate term for the chemical processes that occur during this step)
  5. Baking or firing (a high heat process which halts oxidation and dries the tea for storage)
  6. Sorting (a process in which any waste material, such as large stems, are removed and different sizes / grades of leaves are divided into separate batches; this step is usually done for machine made teas)
  7. Packing (tealeaves are stored in bags or boxes for shipping and the containers are labeled with a lot number, if applicable)
  8. Blending (an optional step used for commodity grade teas and many specialty teas, but not for single-batch teas)
Caffeine in Black Tea

Generally speaking, black tea contains 50 to 90 mg of caffeine per cup. However, there are many factors influencing caffeine levels in tea which may make a particular cup of black tea higher or lower. For example, a masala chai will likely have less caffeine than a pure Assam tea because it is blended with spices, which do not contain caffeine. For more information on caffeine levels, read Caffeine Levels in Coffee, Tea, Cola & Other Drinks.

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