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What is Black Tea?

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When people talk generally of tea in Western culture, they’re often referring to black tea. Sun tea, sweet tea, iced tea, afternoon tea…these well-known categories of tea are typically made using black tea. Even the popular English Breakfast and Earl Grey blends are made from black tea leaves. This is in contrast to Eastern culture—in countries like China and Japan—where tea typically refers to green tea. So what’s the difference between black and green tea? And how did black tea become so popular in the West?

Black tea origins

Tea is considered to have originated in China. But it’s the delicate, fresh-tasting green tea that became popular in Eastern society and is still the base of tea culture there today. As tea culture spread and tea was processed for export to trade beyond regions, neighboring countries and eventually across oceans, it was discovered that the more oxidized black tea would retain its freshness and flavor better over long journeys than its minimally oxidized green tea cousin. In the earliest days of border trade between China, Tibet and other neighboring countries, tea was fermented, dried and pressed into bricks to be used as currency. To this day, most of the black tea produced in China is exported out of the country.

The Dutch first brought tea to Europe in 1610, it arrived in England in 1658, and then it rose in popularity in England’s American colonies throughout the 1700s. Demand for tea experienced huge leaps in the 1700s as England expanded sugar imports from its Caribbean colonies. By 1800, the English were annually consuming 2½ pounds of tea and 17 pounds of sugar per capita. Some claim it was the increasing trend of adding sugar to tea that spiked the demand for strong black tea over the more delicate green tea imports.

The next leap in black tea production came in the 1800s when the Camellia sinensis assamica tea plant variety was discovered in 1823 in the Assam region of India. This native variety was much better suited to the production of the hearty, bold black teas that were in high demand. Not long after, in 1835, the English started planting tea gardens in India’s Darjeeling region, near Nepal. Since India was a British colony, these different varieties of black teas quickly became popular exports to England.

Black tea processing

To understand what makes black tea black and green tea green, it’s important to know that all tea originates from the same exact plant—Camellia sinensis. It’s the variety of tea plant and how the plant’s leaves are processed that define if a tea becomes black or green.

BLACK TEA VARIETIES

Camellia sinensis assamica is a larger-leafed varietal of the tea plant that is typically used to produce black tea. Originating in the Assam district of India, it grows in warm, moist climates and is prolific in sub-tropical forests.

Camellia sinensis sinensis is a smaller-leafed variety native to China that is typically used to make green and white teas. It evolved as a shrub growing in sunny regions with drier, cooler climates. It thrives in mountainous regions because it has a high tolerance for cold.

Hundreds of cultivars and hybrid plants have evolved from these Camellia sinensis plant varieties over time. But technically any type of tea—white, green, yellow, oolong, black or pu-erh—can be made from the leaves of any Camellia sinensis plant.

OXIDATION

What makes black tea different from green tea is that during the production process, the tea leaves are allowed to fully oxidize before they are heat-processed and dried. During oxidation, oxygen interacts with the tea plant’s cell walls to turn the leaves the rich dark brown to black color that black tea leaves are famous for. Oxidation alters the flavor profile of a black tea as well, helping add malty, fruity or even smoky notes, depending on the tea.

By contrast, when green tea leaves are processed, they are minimally oxidized. After being harvested, they are quickly heated and dried to prevent too much oxidation from occurring that would turn the green leaves brown and alter their fresh-picked flavor. Less oxidation means a green tea is typically lighter in color and flavor than black tea, with more vegetal, grassy or seaweed notes, depending on the tea.

PROCESSING

Black teas are typically produced using one of two methods:

  • Orthodox: In this more time-consuming method of production, tea leaves remain whole or only partially broken during processing. Tea leaves are plucked from the garden, withered to reduce moisture, rolled in a variety of ways to bruise the leaves and start oxidation, oxidized to create color and flavor, fired to apply the heat that stops oxidation, and then graded for quality.
  • Non-Orthodox or CTC (Crush-Tear-Curl): In this sped-up version of the production process, the tea leaves are cut into fine pieces instead of rolled. The smaller pieces of leaves are more quickly oxidized, producing a one-dimensional, consistent, strong and bold black tea. The cut pieces also easily fit into commercial tea bags, which are more popular with end consumers than loose leaf tea.

Black Tea Processing (Orthodox):   Withering 1st Rolling Oxidizing/Fermenting Drying (110°C/65°C)
Black Tea Processing (Non-Orthodox/CTC):   Withering Cutting/Tearing/Curling Oxidizing/Fermenting Drying (130°C/90°C)

Our black tea is rolled immediately after withering to help get the oxidation processes started quickly. The leaves are then fully oxidized before they are dried, which is how they get their dark color and rich flavor.

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