Black tea. This can be a misleading term. During my recent visit to Tea Drunk in NYC I really enjoyed that they wrote this little gem on their menu:
RED TEA 紅茶: known as black tea by rest of the world for reasons we do not understand
When working at the teahouse, this was one of most frequent ways I found that people got confused. They would ask for a “red tea”, but not really have any idea what that was, or they would order a Chinese black tea and then ask for something else because it was too light a flavor.
Suffice to say that this topic needs a little clarification.
Let’s start with the basics. As you all probably know from reading these posts, the six categories of tea mainly differ by oxidation, but each category is so broad that it really does a disservice to group them all together. “Oolong”, for example. The kind of oolong you get in a Chinese restaurant is very different from a Yan Cha, which in turn is an extremely different experience from a High Mountain Dong Ding. It’s nearly impossible to pin down the general qualities of Hei Cha, and for people who like “green tea”, do you mean you like the bright salty energy of a Kabusecha or the sweet buttery notes of a Bi Lo Chun? Black tea is no different. And as Tea Drunk’s menu so clearly explains, this heavily oxidized category is actually called “Red Tea” (Hong Cha) in China.
The main difference you’ll find is between black tea made in China or Taiwan (let’s call this “Chinese” style), black tea made in Darjeeling or Nepal (I generally call this “Darjeeling”), and black tea made in Assam, Sri Lanka, Kenya, or basically anywhere else (let’s call this “Assam”).
Although all tea production began in China, their concept of black tea is quite a long way from what most westerners are used to. Skillfully made Hong Cha is rich and malty, sweet without any additives. Notes of caramel and chocolate can be found in the aromas of black tea made in Yunnan, Anhui, or the famous Sun Moon Lake region of Taiwan. The color of the liquor is usually a deep ruddy red with a bit of a golden hue and yet clear enough to see the bottom of your cup through the broth. That’s certainly nothing like what you get in a supermarket teabag. In fact, the leaves themselves are sometimes not black at all, but can be gold and silver. There’s many legends surrounding the separation within this category, but I tend to believe that distance and money were the major contributing factors to the development of “English-style tea”.
The English quickly became addicted to tea as it filtered in from their trade ships and mysterious Chinese ports. The terminology and categorization problems began right there since it was difficult for well-translated tea processing information to make its way to the tea merchants of London, not to mention the secrecy and tales of the Chinese tea producers. Many of these stories persist even today, like the legend of “monkey picked oolong” and the idea that Puer is some sort of foul health tonic.
By the time they managed to grow tea in the Indian colonies, the British were beginning to create their own tea culture: one based on the same leaves, but very different concepts around processing and steeping. Theirs was a culture that to prized the energizing quality of tea over nuance. Tea making involves a lot of manual labor and as time progressed Indian and British tea growers increased their production by sacrificing quality to make the highest quantity possible. This led to the popularization of BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe) and CTC (Crush Tear Curl) and, eventually, the humble tea bag. These teas were nothing like their forebears, infusing so quickly and with so little aroma that it was necessary to brew them quite strong and then add milk, sugar, or citrus to make them palatable. The comparison of a Hong Cha to these inky black infusions is not unlike the difference between artisan coffee and what you’ll find in a city diner.
Of course, not all black tea produced in Indian soil is low grade, just the huge quantities that made it to the English and Indian citizenry in the first hundred years of its production. Many gardens in Assam and Nilgiri (as well as later production in Sri Lanka) care deeply for their leaves and can make a delicious full-leaf SFTFGOP that is enjoyed by many world-wide. As labor prices have risen, the production of low-grade tea for bags has moved to Africa, but the product is nearly the same. In the lofty gardens of Darjeeling (and neighboring Nepal), however, a truly unique tea was being created.
Darjeeling tea has some of the characteristics of a red wine. In a well-made cup you can taste raisins and dates, plums and chocolate. If brewed well, there’s no hint of bitterness, and if freshly picked the energy is unparalleled. The first and second harvest (or “flush”) of Darjeelings command a high price indeed, from antiquity until modern day, and even today it’s common for companies to use the name just to make broken leaf tea bags sell better.
What all this should tell you is that when buying an unfamiliar “black tea”, be sure to do some research to know what you’re getting. And if you’re surprised by the taste, experiment with how you make it. Despite the size of the leaves or the pedigree, any tea can be a delicious experience if skillfully prepared, but it might not be what you’re expecting!