by Emeric Harney April 27, 2023 8 min read
If you were doing one of those tests where you have to say the first thing that comes to mind when given a word prompt, if someone said “type of tea,” chances are most people would say “black.” It’s the type of tea most of us were first exposed to if we live outside China or Japan. Before we dive into types of black teas, however, let’s talk about how they’re made.
How Black Teas Are Made
Even if you are a green tea fan, did you know that black and green teas – indeed, virtually all types of teas except herbal – come from the same plant? The Camellia sinensis plant is where all types of teas originate. It’s what happens after the plants are harvested that turns them into the types of tea they are.
So what makes a black tea a black tea, you ask. First, black teas range from mellow teas from China to full-bodied teas from Assam, India. In my dad’s book, The Harney & Sons Guide to Tea, he discusses two categories of black tea: Chinese Black Teas and British Legacy Teas, Mike Harney’s term for those black teas originating from Britain’s tea plantations in India and Sri Lanka. British Legacy Teas were originally developed with an assertive, unsubtle flavor and brisk, tannic body which is why milk and sugar were often added. Many of today’s black teas have evolved to become considerably more sophisticated.
Premium black teas are withered, rolled, oxidized and fired in an oven, creating a warm and toasty flavor. They are oxidized very, very slowly, creating chemical compounds that result in a mild, soft brew. After harvesting the tea leaves, black tea makers do not fix their teas to preserve the green chlorophyll as green tea makers do. Instead, they allow the leaves to darken. The same reaction causes avocados and bananas to brown when their flesh is cut open and exposed to air. During oxidation in tea, an enzyme in the leaves reacts with oxygen to create new brown-colored compounds called “flavonoids.”
The level of flavonoids not only determines the tea’s color, but they also influence its flavors and body. As oxidation begins, the first flavonoid to emerge is called “theaflavin,” which makes the tea golden but also quite brisk and puckery. If oxidation continues, milder flavonoids called “thearubigins” emerge and give the tea a rounded, gentler body and a darker brown color. The slower the oxidation, the more thearubigins, the mellower the tea. Chinese black teas consist mostly of thearubigins, since Chinese tea makers slow down oxidation as much as possible.
Types of Black Teas
The type of production method used is one way to categorize types of black teas. While the highest grade of black teas is processed using what is called the “orthodox” method of oxidizing the whole tea leaf, another method used is CTC, which stands for crush-tear-curl (or sometimes called cut-tear-curl). The CTC process is far less time-consuming than the orthodox method, which means the tea is less expensive (and generally not considered premium). CTC teas are very popular in India, primarily due to cost, and are widely used for chai tea. To learn more about this method of production, see our CTC blog.
Beyond production, black tea types are primarily determined by the location of their origins but also sometimes by flavor. We’ve categorized the black teas we carry as follows: Assam, Darjeeling and Ceylon (British Legacy Teas); Chinese black teas; black tea blends; flavored black teas; decaf black teas; and black teas from other regions. Let’s take a look at a few in each category.
Assam is India’s largest producer of tea, and the broad floodplains make home for some of the most fertile tea estates in the world. Assams are among the most assertive and brisk of the black teas, making them perfect for adding milk and sweeteners.
The northeastern region of Darjeeling on the border of Nepal and Bhutan is famous for three seasons of tea: the spring’s First Flush, the early summer’s Second Flush and the late summer and fall’s Autumnal teas. Though they grow more subdued the farther they get from spring, all three seasonal teas have a charming rounded quality, a depth and a gentleness to rival Chinese black teas.
Ceylon teas are grown in Sri Lanka. Its unique topography and climate allow for three types of tea, determined not by season but by altitude: low-grown, medium-grown and high-grown, each with its own unusual flavor profile. Ceylon was a British colony until it won independence in 1948, so while the country is now called Sri Lanka, the tea makers there have kept the name Ceylon for their teas. Ceylon teas can brew up light and bright like Lover’s Leap or substantial like Kenilworth Garden. They make perfect afternoon teas and can handle milk and sugar.
Tea started in China, thus China has a large variety of black teas. Chinese black teas have all the mellow, sweetened effects of milk and sugar without requiring either. From the honey twinge of Golden Monkey and the Panyang teas to the chocolate of Keemuns and the smokiness of Lapsang Souchong, these teas have a range and character all their own.
We have been master tea blenders for 40 years. It’s our pleasure to bring you some of the world’s finest teas in original, delicious blends. Here is just a sampling of our black tea blends.
Our flavored teas are some of the most popular teas we carry, loved for the way our smooth flavors meld with the background taste of tea.
We all need a caffeine break from time to time, some of us more than others. So we took some of our most popular black teas, stripped out the caffeine but left in all the flavor.
Yes, there are black teas from other parts of the world than where Chinese black teas and British Legacy Teas come from. We’ve sourced some wonderful teas from Africa, Indonesia, Southern India and Vietnam.
We hope you’ve enjoyed your tour of the many types of black teas and are inspired to try something new! Can’t get enough black tea knowledge? No worries – head on over to our Black Tea 101 page for even more info!
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