What is black tea?
Black tea, white tea, green tea, in fact, all types of tea come from the same tea plant species known as Camellia sinensis. What differentiates the tea type is the method of production, which in turn determines the extent of oxidation of the tea leaves during processing. So what is oxidation? Just like when you cut an apple it will start to turn brown over time, this oxidation process also starts to take place when a green leaf from a tea plant is plucked. It’s a series of chemical reactions that turns the leaf a darker colour, alters and builds flavour. The longer the tea leaf oxidises, the darker it becomes and the most oxidised tea is known as black tea.
How is black tea produced?
When it comes to producing black tea there are two main processes of manufacturing: the classic “orthodox” method, used for whole leaf tea, and the “CTC” method (cut, tear, curl) often used for tea that goes in standard tea bags.
Boiling it down into straight-forward stages, for orthodox black tea there are four main stages of production: withering, rolling, oxidation, and drying. First the tea leaves are plucked from the tea plant tea and left to wither, to reduce their moisture content. Second they are rolled, which presses and ruptures the leaves and this breaking kicks off the oxidation process. Third, they are left out for 20 minutes or longer to oxidise, and fourth, they are dried at high temperatures of 115ºC or more, which halts the oxidation process and stops the leaves turning into compost! There you have your whole leaf black tea!
For CTC black tea, the stages are similar to the above, but instead of the rolling stage, the tea leaves are cut, torn and curled into tiny pieces with a machine, which kicks off the oxidation process. This more “industrial process” was developed when the teabag was rising in popularity post the first world war and is often used for tea that goes into the standard tea bag.
It’s all in the tea leaves!
Just like with a fine wine, there are many different techniques that can be used during each stage of the process to finesse your tea leaf. Combine these with different subspecies of tea plant, different tea growing regions and terroir (soil, topography, and climate), different times of tea harvest throughout the year (known as “flushes”) as well as blending different types of black tea together and you can see that the opportunities for black tea are endless! As more people have recognised the sheer variety possible with tea, the more there has been an increasing shift in interest to find out about and explore different types.
Flavour profile of black tea
Black tea is often described as strong, brisk and astringent, but as you can imagine from above, each tea will have a unique flavour depending on the nuances to the tea making process and there are many mellow black teas too.
Often tea flavours will also be characterised by where they came from, given the similarity in terroir. For example:
- Teas from the lowlands of Assam in India are often renowned for having full-bodied maltiness.
- Over in Darjeeling at the foothills of the Himalayas, often referred to as the “Champagne region of tea”, tea can be described as delicate, floral and aromatic, with the first flush (the first harvest) of the season often seen to be the greatest example of style — the intensity of flavour builds in the tea plants over winter and then is unleashed in spring. A good example of this is the Darjeeling First Flush from the Teesta Valley Tea Garden.
- Sri Lanka’s high altitude tea regions may be described as powerful and intense — for example, in the Uva region, a strong wind blows in late July and August, that causes the tea plants to “close-in” on themselves in self-protection, which concentrates the flavour to produce an intensely unique flavour unlike anywhere else in the world, like this High Grown Seasonal From the Aislaby Estate.
- In Kenya and Rwanda, tea may be described as bold, brisk and beautifully golden.
Often, stronger teas may be blended together to become “English Breakfast tea”, which works well with a splash of milk. For example the Teasup Breakfast Blend uses high quality second flush Assams to bring rich full-bodied maltiness, with high grown Rwandan and Kenyan tea, for an attractive golden colour and clear brisk taste. As a fun fact, the first English breakfast blend actually came from America! In 1843, Richard Davies, an English apothecary from Hull who had founded a small tea company in New York, made a new mix of tea that he called “English Breakfast”, and the people loved it!
Other black teas maybe blended with other flavours. For example, “Earl Grey” — named after Charles Grey, the British Prime Minister between 1830 and 1834 — is black tea blended with the natural essence of the bergamot orange which gives its distinct citric notes.
Caffeine content of black tea versus coffee
Black teas often have less than half the caffeine of a cup of coffee, (40–50mg caffeine per cup of tea, compared to 90–100mg for coffee*) though this can vary and generally a longer brewing time and higher brewing temperature will increase the caffeine content.
In addition, the caffeine “impact” is different. When the tea leaves infuse, the caffeine bonds with the tannins in the tea, which makes the release into the human circulatory system more gradual, compared to coffee where you can feel a quicker impact. The “hit” in tea is also tempered by the complementary effects of L-theanine, an amino acid present almost exclusively in tea, and known to induce a calmer yet more alert state of mind!
How to brew a cup of black tea
You can use this as a general rule of thumb and then experiment to find what best works for you! Per cup (8 fl oz/ 237ml):
- Add 1–2 teaspoons of loose leaf black tea or 1 tea bag into a teapot.
- Bring water to the boil (ideally filtered water if you can), and after boiling, pour 237ml water into your teapot. No need to stir.
- Brew for 3 mins if drinking without milk, 5 mins if drinking with milk.
- If loose leaf, pour the tea through a tea strainer and into a cup. If using a tea bag, it’s time to remove it!
- Add milk if needed, make sure the tea is not too hot to drink, and enjoy!
Black tea finale
Phil and Hanna at Teasup
*Source, USDA website: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/
The New Tea Companion — A Guide To Teas Throughout the World, 3rd edition — Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson
The East India Company — Trade and Conquest from 1600 — Anthony Wild