What is Black Tea?

5-minute guide into the world of Black tea.

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Black tea is one of those tea types that tends to be left on the side of the road as people embark on their true tea journey.

This is because there is so much poor-quality Black tea made to satisfy the commodity market that, for many, it becomes associated with low-quality tea.

This could not be further from the truth! Sure there are boat-loads of basic Black tea out there, but the really high-quality stuff occupies a rarefied atmosphere of some of the finest teas on Earth.

PRODUCING BLACK TEA

The process to make Black tea will vary from place to place, but the defining feature of Black tea production is to roll the leaf before fixing. Here is the outline process:

Picking -> Withering -> Rolling -> Oxidising -> Drying

Black tea pickings can vary but are usually delicate plucks of buds and young leaves.

The pickings are withered to develop aromatics and reduce water content in the leaves. Once they are soft and limp, the leaves are rolled heavily. This is usually achieved using small-batch rolling machines, which twist the leaves by rotating them over a ridged surface. Some very-expensive Black teas are rolled by hand and are very labour-intensive.

The goal with rolling is to break the outer membrane of the leaf and bring all of the leaf juices to the surface for fuller oxidation. It is important to avoid tearing the leaves if the desire is to make whole loose-leaf tea.

The rolled leaves are then piled up and left in a warm and humid environment to oxidise.

Black tea is often called ‘fully-oxidised’ tea but this is not the case. The oxidation can be stopped at any time by the producers and even a tea which is left for a day to oxidise will never reach 100% oxidation. Indeed, there are some Oolongs which may be more oxidised than lighter Blacks – the key defining attribute of a Black tea is that the leaves were rolled before any fixing process.

After oxidising, the tea transformation is ‘fixed’ by drying in ovens or over charcoal. Sometimes the tea is smoked or roasted to change the character of the brew.

Black teas will continue to change over the years; the amount of transformation depends on whether the leaves were heated at a high temperature (not much change) or dried over low heat (more change).

All of this is a world away from commodity Black tea, which is mulched up using a CTC (crush, tear, curl) machine to produce tea destined for blending and tea bags. These teas should be avoided unless you are planning on adding lemon, milk or sweeteners to calm that bitter astringency.

RECOMMENDATIONS

I recommend our BLACK TEA HEADLINERS selection to taste some classic pinnacle Blacks.

For Chinese Blacks, it is worth tasting the differences between the classic origins of Yunnan, Fujian and Anhui. Feel free to treat yourself to a Jin Jun Mei (one of the most expensive luxury Black teas) but beware that there are a lot of uninspiring JJM’s out there, so only buy from trusted sellers.

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