ALL ABOUT BLACK TEA
If there is one type of tea that nearly everyone in the U.S. recognizes, it’s black tea. Whether served up as sweet tea in the south, hot with milk, flavored or plain, black tea is the most popular and most frequently brewed tea in this country.
Most of the Pan Pacific Rim enjoys teas green and fresh or slightly oxidized as oolongs. So, how did black tea come to be so popular throughout the world? The answer is as old as world trade: black teas were more “shelf stable” on the long journeys by ships from Canton to London and ports in between. Previously, fresh green teas were shipped but ended up a moldy, congealed mess because of the moisture from the air via the ocean, inappropriate packaging, and time. It took weeks, sometimes months to travel via ship in previous centuries, no matter how sleek and powerful the clipper. Sailors, then and now, had to contend with the drama of ocean with all its ramifications from stormy weather to pirates. (Yes, we have pirates today!)
In Japan there is a small demand for black tea, mostly as a novelty, and, despite the fact that China produces stellar blacks like Yunnan Black and Keemun (Qimun,) they’re not as popular in China as greens and oolongs. Sri Lanka and Africa remain dynamic black tea producers, and the world’s largest producer, and consumer, of black tea is India.
HOW BLACK TEAS ARE PROCESSED:
Black tea is fully oxidized with the natural moisture of the tea leaves eliminated, turning the fresh supple green leaves into dried brown-black ones.
After the harvest, the tea leaves are withered to prepare them for shaping. This may be done outdoors or in a withering room, and the process takes from 12 to 32 hours. The leaves are then rolled to break down the cell structure and encourage enzyme reaction to oxidization. This may be done by hand or by machine and the more it is done, the more pronounced the flavor will become when the leaves are brewed. One to several hours of additional oxidation then removes more of the natural moisture in the leaves. The next step is roasting in a drying machine or stone wok which stops the oxidation and fixes the leaves’ flavor content.
Each step requires careful management of time, humidity, air, and movement of the leaves to evenly oxidize them. The final step is to separate the leaves into whole or broken ones. Whole leaves are set aside for high-end loose leaf sales. Those leaves with buds intact, referred to as golden tips or silver tips depending on their hue, are the most highly-prized. Both whole and broken leaves are used in tea bags, with whole leaf teabags bringing the most money, and broken leaves and dust or fannings being the most common for tea bags and less expensive. Dust and fannings are the powdery remains from all processing steps.
What follows are just a few of the hundreds of black teas available:
Zimbabwe, Mauritius, and Rwanda all produce teas, but Kenya and Cameroon are outstanding
Kenya is now the fourth largest producer of teas in the world and produces a low-astringent black tea that is excellent for afternoon with its full-bodied mouth feel, lively fragrance, and sweet edge. Best drunk plain.
Cameroon produces a black tea that has a soft, round, chocolate edge, an excellent stand-alone tea although it works well with milk. An idea dessert tea, it is also an excellent blending tea that adds considerable body to a blend.
Called “red” in China because that is the color of the brewed tea in the cup. Chinese black teas are processed primarily in the provinces of Fujian, Anhui, Jianxi, Yunnan, and Sichuan. Each has a slightly different natural character. Chinese blacks are often scented with rosebuds or osmanthus, or in the case of Lapsang Souchong,with smoke. Its pungent character makes it best served plain, or use in a marinade for barbecued chicken or pork loin, or grilled zucchini or other summer squash.
Yunnan teas, grown at high altitude, have a mouth-pleasing fullness on the palate, soft edge finish, and satisfying after-taste. Golden tips are quite common. Excellent plain, it is also wonderful paired with spicy foods.
Keemun (Qimun) is grown in the Anhui province. A gorgeous ruby red in the cup, it has a deep flavor, sweetly-astringent fragrance, and is perfect for afternoon or after dinner.
This mammoth country, the world’s largest tea producer, has three distinct black tea-growing areas:
Darjeeling is located in the Himalayas, and produces a tea known for its sparkling pale orange color in the cup, clean taste, and elegant peachy fragrance. Best sipped plain. Fun to flavor milk-based sauces or to use as a poaching liquid for stone fruit.
Assam teas are the foundational tea for most breakfast blends, hearty, smooth-tasting, perfect for tea lovers who like milk or sweetener. Makes an excellent masala chai as it stands up to the strong spices (pepper, clove, cardamom, cinnamon and/or allspice.)
Nilgiri teas have evolved in the last 20 years, with many fine choices for solo drinking yet still provides excellent body to blends. Wonderful with flavorings or milk. A good all-day tea.
This island boasts several stellar tea-growing areas, yet all the teas have the signature crisp, clean taste in the cup with some more full bodied than others. Delicious with food, holds up when iced, and works well with fruity flavorings, especially lemon or orange.
Dimbula is perhaps the most well known, these teas are full bodied, astringent, with a darker liquor that can be light to full bodied. Good range of choices from stellar estates.
Uva is produced in medium altitude areas and is known as a mellow highly aromatic tea with a rounded edge but less body than other Ceylons and is a prized tea for blends. A good all-day tea.
Kandy is produced in low altitude areas, and is a surprisingly full-bodied tea with an astringent edge. Excellent afternoon tea, goes well with foods.
Nuwara Eliya is made in the highest altitude areas on the island, which produce an exceptional spring harvest; beautiful bronze color of the leaves produces a clear, amber liquor in the cup. Flowery fragrance and taste. Excellent plain or with lemon or orange.
HOW TO STORE:
Like all fine teas, place in a jar or tin with a tight-fitting lid, and store in a cool cupboard away from sunlight and the heat of the stove, or the moisture from the kitchen sink. Light, heat, and moisture can ruin tea. Buy in small quantities and use promptly.
HOW TO BREW:
Measure your cup or mug. Most brewing suggestions are for a 6 to 8-ounce cup; some mugs hold much more, up to 10 to 12 ounces, so adjust the tea quantity to match the capacity of your cup. Your palate will bless you.
Use spring water, if available, and heat to almost boiling, 212 degrees F. One heaping teaspoon should do it for most black teas you’re in charge; adjust quantities to taste. Brew as your vendor suggests or begin with 3 minutes, taste, then brew longer to your liking. It’s always better to brew in increments of less time than you think will produce good flavor. That way, you can always continue steeping and avoid the bitterness of an over-brewed cup.
Experiment! That’s the fun of tea drinking.
*Sri Lanka has been known as Lanka, Sri Lanka, and Ceylon, and now again as Sri Lanka. The tea is always called Ceylon. Kandy was the ancient capital.