The Art of Black Tea
What You Need to Know About the Global Superstar
At a Glance
Smoky, earthy, spiced, fruity, malty, sweet, nutty, caramel, citrus, or honey.
Main Health Benefits
24 mg to 40 mg / cup
3 to 5 minutes
Black tea is the most popular drink in the world, apart from water. It is estimated that around 80 percent of the tea drunk around the world is of the black tea variety. People on virtually every continent around the globe enjoy this beverage on a daily basis.
At the same time, most people are unaware of the origins, composition, and even the production process of their favorite drink. To get a better grasp of just what black tea is, here is what you need to know.
What is Black Tea?
The first thing to understand is just what black tea is. Well, it is sourced from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. As such, it is considered to be a “true tea”. The tea gets its distinct color from the level of processing that the leaves undergo.
Understand, all true teas – black, white, green, and oolong – are sourced from the same kind of plant. However, black tea is different as it undergoes more oxidation than other leaves. As a result, the black tea leaves are darker and often have a bolder flavor as well.
The History of Black Tea
China is the birthplace of black tea and it is actually referred to as hong cha (red tea), due to the color produced when the leaves are brewed. Tea has been a part of Chinese culture for around 3000 years, but black tea was invented much later. Until the Ming dynasty, much of the population drank green tea.
It was in around 1590 that the first black tea was introduced. The tea was named Lapsang Souchong, after the region and the bush that it came from. It continues to be one of the more popular types of black tea in the country.
While it may often seem that tea has always been a part of British culture, this isn’t actually the case. The beverage was only introduced to England in the 17th century. Even then, it was only enjoyed by royalty and the nobility. As the prices began to drop, the beverage became available to the masses.
England wasn’t the only country that bought massive amounts of black tea, though. The Netherlands also imported a considerable amount – two thirds as much as Britain, in fact. This led to a rivalry between the two nations, with each competing over limited supply.
How Did Black Tea Become So Popular?
What is just as interesting is how black tea became so popular throughout the world. In England, it was first seen as a fashionable beverage until cheaper prices made it affordable to all. Then, Duchess Anna Telford began hosting afternoon tea, which led to the drink being consumed several times a day.
Turkey boasts one of the highest black tea consumption rates in the world. It was first introduced to the country through the Silk Road trade. However, it would only become a mainstay in the culture around four centuries later. What helped to solidify black tea’s place in Turkey was its social aspect. To this day, you are bound to find numerous tea houses in the country wherever you go.
Americans are big tea drinkers as well, although they have a slightly different take on the beverage. Their tea is most commonly drunk in the South as iced or sweet tea. It is often consumed as a cooling beverage to beat the high temperatures of the region.
How is Black Tea Processed?
Black tea undergoes four different stages until it is suitable for consumption. These are withering, rolling, oxidizing, and drying. Of course, the exact process can vary with manufacturers and even regions.
First, the leaves are laid out so they can wilt. This helps the leaves get rid of excess moisture and allows them to soften up. When the leaves are sufficiently soft, they become a great deal easier to roll. Proper withering is important to ensure efficient oxidation and the best possible aroma and color.
These leaves are then rolled so that they release various chemicals that contribute to the color and taste of the tea. When rolled, their cell walls are damaged, exposing the components to oxygen. This is when the oxidation process takes place. The oxidation will continue until the leaves turn black. This process is halted when heat is applied to the leaves.
The above is known as the orthodox method. The non-orthodox or CTC (crush-tear-curl) method is a faster version of this. Instead of being rolled, the leaves are cut and thus, are allowed to oxidize faster. Here, the leaves are often dried at a higher temperature as well. The resulting tea leaves are often used for tea bags.
The Flavor Profile of Black Tea
So, how would you describe the taste of black tea? Well, since it is oxidized for longer, black tea is often considered to be bolder and stronger. At the same time, the flavor profile can vary quite a bit depending on how the tea was grown and processed.
Therefore, it is not unusual to come across black teas that can be described as smoky, earthy, spiced, fruity, malty, sweet, and nutty. In some cases, the brew may even boast notes of caramel, citrus, and honey.
The Types of Black Tea
There are two varieties of black tea – Camellia sinensis assamica and Camellia sinensis sinensis. The former is native to India and typically grows in warm, moist climates. It is often found in subtropical forests. These plants have larger leaves.
Camellia sinensis sinensis originates from China. This plant grows in drier, cooler climates and thrives in mountainous conditions. While its leaves are usually used for white and green teas, they can also produce black tea.
Black Tea by Region
As mentioned, black tea can be grown in a number of regions across the globe. Nonetheless, it is most commonly cultivated in India, China, Sri Lanka, and Africa. As such, these are the most popular types of black tea on the market:
- Assam Black Tea: this black tea hails from Assam, India, believed to be the largest tea-growing region in the world. The tea grown here has a distinct and strong malty flavor. As such, it holds up well to the addition of milk.
- Darjeeling Black Tea: grown in the mountainous region of Darjeeling, India, this tea is more delicate and has a herbaceous taste. This tea acts as the base for chai.
- Nilgiri Black Tea: this is grown on Nilgiri, the mountain range that spreads across Southern India. It is known for its dark, intense flavor and aroma.
- Ceylon Black Tea: tea gardens in Sri Lanka can be found in cool, mountainous areas as well as in humid and tropical regions. As such, tea produced here has many variations in flavour. For the most part, though, they are bold, strong, and have hints of spice.
- Keemun Black Tea: hailing from the Anhui province of China, this tea stands out for its wine-like taste that has floral hints.
- Yunnan Black Tea: grown in the Yunnan province, the plant has distinct gold buds in its leaves. While it can be described as rich and earthy, there are often sweet notes present as well.
- Kenyan Black Tea: although Kenya did not begin growing tea until the 1900s, this form of cultivation spread fast throughout the country. The tea produced here tends to be full-bodied, dark, and bold.
The Health Benefits of Black Tea
Green tea is usually seen as the ultimate health drink. However, what most people don’t realize is that there are quite a few black tea health benefits to enjoy. Let’s take a look at these:
Has Antioxidant Properties
One of the top advantages of black tea is that it contains a significant amount of antioxidants. The
black tea antioxidants are polyphenols. It also contains catechins, theaflavins, and thearubigins.
The main purpose of antioxidants is to reduce the risk of free radical damage to the body. In doing so, these particles prevent cell damage, inflammation, and more. This, in turn, can cut down on the chances of you developing a chronic disease.
Just as important is the fact that these antioxidants may actually be able to fight off cancer cells. This is because the polyphenols in this beverage work to inhibit the growth and production of cancerous cells. As such, it can help to prevent the spread of tumors.
May Improve Heart Health
There is some evidence to suggest that black tea can actually boost your heart health and ward off various cardiovascular diseases. This is largely to do with the flavonoids and antioxidants present in the drink. It was discovered that individuals who drank several cups of tea a day were less likely to develop heart disease.
It should also be noted that black tea can reduce the levels of LDL cholesterol in the body. This is what is known as bad cholesterol and a build-up of this substance can lead to an increased risk of heart failure. Thus, black tea protects your heart in more ways than one.
May Reduce Risk Of Stroke
A higher concentration of LDL cholesterol in the body can also lead to strokes, which black tea could prevent. However, the benefits of drinking black tea go beyond this.
A study conducted showed that people who drank black tea regularly were around 32 percent less likely to suffer from a stroke. It is estimated that this protective feature was enhanced when the subjects drank around four cups of black tea a day.
Can Boost Gut Health
The human digestive system is a curious thing. To function properly, “good” bacteria must be allowed to flourish and grow. At the same time, “bad” bacteria in the gut can result in a number of diseases.
Fortunately, one of the benefits of black tea is that it promotes the growth and production of good bacteria in the stomach. Simultaneously, it prevents the growth of harmful bacteria such as Salmonella. In doing so, black tea helps to maintain the perfect equilibrium in the stomach.
Can Help With Blood Sugar Levels
Elevated blood sugar levels can increase the risk of you developing type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, cardiovascular problems, and more. This is because when these levels get too high, your body is forced to convert the excess sugar to fat.
To counteract the presence of sugar in the blood, insulin is secreted into your system. This carries the sugar to the muscles so that they can be converted to energy and used up. Black tea is found to enhance the action of insulin. This makes it easier for your body to metabolize the sugar more effectively
Can Boost Concentration
While black tea does contain caffeine, it is typically a much lower dose than coffee. In addition to this, it also has L-theanine. When combined, these ingredients help to boost focus, concentration, and could even improve accuracy.
In a few studies conducted, it was discovered that participants who drank black tea reported being more alert. They could also focus better on their work, boosting productivity.
What You Should Know About Drinking Black Tea
In most instances, black tea is quite safe to drink. It is only when people drink more than the recommended amount that they begin to experience side effects. This is largely due to the caffeine present in the drink.
These adverse reactions can include but aren’t limited to:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Increased heart rate
- Faster breathing
- Nausea and vomiting
To avoid experiencing these side effects, it is best to stick to around three to four cups of black tea a day. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you may want to limit your consumption even further. When in doubt, always get the advice of a doctor.
It should be noted that black tea, black tea extracts, and black tea supplements can interact negatively with certain supplements and medications. This is why you should always disclose your black tea consumption before you are prescribed any medication.
How to Select Black Tea
At the end of the day, your black tea selection will depend on your personal tastes. However, you need to make sure that you purchase the best black tea on the market. This can greatly enhance your overall tea drinking experience. Here is what you need to consider:
Loose Tea Vs. Tea Bags
Most tea experts would advise you to use loose tea leaves rather than tea bags to brew your drink. This is because loose tea tends to boast a higher quality of leaves. Not to mention, the leaves are often allowed to release the full extent of their taste and aroma when they are not tightly packed together.
Of course, tea bags can make it a lot easier to brew tea. So, if you prefer this method, consider buying high-quality or premium bags. You should then have a better-tasting brew on your hands.
Now, it should be noted that not all loose teas are good quality. To distinguish the good from the bad, it is best to take a careful look at the leaves’ appearance. The leaves should be smooth, long, and whole. Thus, you should avoid any blends that are crumbly or have stalks and stems in them.
If possible, try to hold some of the tea leaves in the palm of your hand. This can give you some idea of how fresh the leaves are. High-quality leaves should have a little heft to them. If they feel too light, it could mean that the leaves are either old or were over-dried in the processing stage.
Last but not least, take a whiff of the tea leaves before you buy them. The aroma should be strong and easily detectable. If the scent is subtle or non-existent, the tea may have lost its freshness or could be from a poor-quality leaf.
Tips for Storing Black Tea
Black tea is often hardier than other true teas. Therefore, if you store it properly, you can use it for up to a year or two. On the other hand, if you don’t secure it well, then the tea will go stale and lose its taste and aroma.
It is a good idea to store black tea in a tightly sealed container, preferably glass. This way, you don’t run the risk of the tea absorbing any odors from outside. For this reason, it is a good idea to keep the leaves away from any strong or heavily scented spices.
Black tea leaves should be kept in a cool, dry spot away from direct sunlight. Whenever you do open the container, make sure to close it again quickly. This will minimize the contact the leaves have with direct oxygen.
How to Brew Black Tea
There are a couple of tricks to follow when brewing black tea to achieve the best possible taste:
Use The Right Water
Tap water usually has a taste of its own. This is due to a high concentration of minerals and chlorine. Thus, it is a good idea to use fresh, spring water when possible. At the very least, you should filter the water before boiling it. Also only boil cold water.
Monitor The Temperature
Black tea can be brewed at a slightly higher temperature than most other teas. So, you can let your water get to a rolling boil before taking it off the stove. Typically, this tea brews best at between 200°F and 212°F.
Measure The Right Quantities
When using black tea leaves for the first time, don’t measure with teaspoons – use a kitchen scale. This is because you should use 2 grams of tea leaves for every 6 to 8 ounces (177 ml - 236 ml) of water. This will create tea of the right strength.
Steep For The Right Time
It is important to steep black tea for just the right amount of time. Leave it in for too long and you will end up with an astringent brew. So, make sure to let the leaves steep for around 3 to 5 minutes. If you are using tea bags, follow the instructions included.
How to Drink Black Tea
There is some contention when it comes to how to drink black tea. Additions to this tea can differ from person to person and culturally as well.
When deciding what to put in black tea, consider where the tea is sourced from. Most experts would agree that Darjeeling and other long leafed teas should be enjoyed straight. As such, it is best not to include anything at all.
If the tea is more robust, however, such as Assam and certain Ceylon teas, then milk and sugar may be added to sweeten the tea. Just make sure that you don’t overpower the natural flavor of the tea when you do so. There are some who prefer to drink their tea with just a slice of lemon added.
Interesting Facts About Black Tea
Now, let’s take a look at some interesting facts about black tea:
- It is estimated that the average person in Turkey uses around 7lbs of tea a year. Ireland is a close second with most people using up around 5lbs of tea each year.
- Tea was so valuable that in the 1800s, blocks of it were used as currency in certain parts of the world.
- Black tea played a role in the American revolution. To protest British rule, American colonists dumped 342 chests of tea into the harbor. Today, this tea would have been worth close to $1 million.
- Tea was first introduced to Europe by the Dutch and it only arrived in England four decades later.
Black tea has a rich and interesting history. Even today, it remains a significant part of many cultures around the world. Thus, there is a lot more to the brew in your cup than meets the eye.
Dr. Dheena Sadik
Consultant Nutritionist and Dietician
Dr. Dheena Sadik is a consultant Nutritionist and Dietician. She has over a decade of experience in the health and fitness industry. However, her love for tea began long before she understood the health benefits of tea. Growing up in Sri Lanka, Dheena had the privilege of being surrounded by the world-famous Ceylon tea. This is what got her started on her exploration of the various types of tea. She has now extensively tasted and examined teas from all over the world.
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An Important Disclaimer
The information on this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.