Black Tea in its numerous forms and fashions has long been the tea of choice of the Western tradition of drinking tea. Black tea shares a common origin with all Camellia Sinensis derivatives. 4000 years ago the leaf of the Camellia Sinensis plant was first used as a flavoring agent when steeped in hot water. Though this first infusion of the tea plant wasn't a black tea, it was the beginning of a rich tradition of Chinese experimentation with the Camellia plant that ultimately culminated in the creation of the numerous forms of tea that we enjoy today, including black tea.
Black tea differs from other forms of true tea in that it has been more thoroughly fermented. The fermentation or oxidization process used to create black tea produces a beverage much stronger in flavor than is common in green and white teas which are dried and or steamed/fried to arrest fermentation before the leaves become what we know as black tea. It is believed that black tea was first produced on accident when a batch of tea leaves were left unattended and became oxidized. The resulting tea was darker in hue, more potent in flavor and additionally higher in caffeine content. In addition to the variances in appearance, flavor, and caffeine yield, the beverage was more long lived in terms of shelf life and portability.
Due to the increased portability of this new camellia product, it was easier to be used in trade. Many of the first peoples to taste the beverage outside of China were foreigners who sampled the beverage brewed from the brick form of black tea. Brick tea was black tea that had been processed and pressed into a compact hardened brick of tea that one shaves off a portion of for each cup. These bricks of tea were often used in trade as a form of currency due to their high value. Though this form of tea was often the lowest quality, it was still insanely popular for foreign trade with China. Brick tea was so highly valued that often it was used as currency.
Famous Chinese Black Teas
As the pioneers of tea production the Chinese lay claim to some of the most popular forms of black tea. Some of the more common and popular examples include Pu-Erh style black tea, and Keemun Tea. These are both listed in the Chinese 10 Great Teas list.
Pu-Erh teas are produced following a centuries old tradition of cultivating a microbial fermentation process that takes place after tea leaves are rolled and dried. The tea is than aged in one of a number of regional processing styles until it has reached a desired level of fermentation, aroma and appearance. As with many examples of tea varieties there are countless examples of regional variances in the processing and creation of each batch of tea. What is consistent amongst Pu-Erh varieties is a that they are each so different in flavors and characteristics. Some are velvety and slightly sweet, others are pungent and earthy. Much of this variance is a byproduct of the differences in humidity where the teas are aged, the duration of the teas fermentation (some varieties are decades old!) and where the tea itself was sourced.
Another staple Chinese black tea export is Keemun tea. Keemun or Qimen Hong Cha tea is regarded as a slightly sweet black tea that has undertones of plum, and a sweet floral aftertaste. Keemun tea on its own is a stellar representation of a consistent and quality black tea offering, each harvest of the leaves producing a desirable flavor profile each and every time. It is this flavor consistency and unique sweetness that drew tea blenders to the Keemun tea. Keemun teas are now one of the most common used in blending English Breakfast tea. Keemun is named for the Qimen county where the tea is grown.
Black Teas In The Western World
As with much of the world outside of China, the first teas to reach Europe and Western Civilization were often bricks of black tea or black teas prepared in a fashion that would promote longevity in the flavor. Caravans to Russia often brought teas that were smoked, and this has lead to a tradition of tea drinkers in Russia who appreciate a smokiness to their hot tea. Interestingly enough, the first versions of Earl Grey tea in England had a small amount of Lapsang Souchong tea, a smoked Chinese variety of black tea in the blend.
European tea drinkers started their tradition when teas were brought from China back to the old world by Dutch and Portuguese traders. Initially introduced in coffeehouses and touted as a tonic to induce vigorous health and promote "an active and lusty body". Tea quickly became a fashionable beverage for the wealthy. Initially tea and coffee were almost prohibitively expensive for all but the most affluent Europeans. Gradually the British introduced Opium to the Chinese market and were able to leverage trade options for the two products and open up the market enough for the more common to be able to afford the beverage.
Though trade was better, the expense of tea was still very great, so the British super company the East India Trading Company hired adventurer and botanist Robert Fortune to infiltrate the Chinese tea market and steal the secrets of tea cultivation. Though Fortunes exploits are outrageous and highly entertaining we will stick to the abridged version of the events that lead to British tea trading domination.
Fortune infiltrated 2 separate tea plantations under full threat of public execution if caught and was able to smuggle back enough tea plants and expert Chinese workers to set up a tea plantation in the Assam region of India. After a decade or more of experimentation the British had secured their tea empire in India, and Indian tea soon dominated the European market.
Indian Black TeaFollowing the theft of the coveted tea plant and its subsequent planting and industrialization in India we have an explosion in tea production and experimentation in India. The most famous regions of India that were established as tea producing powerhouses were the Assam region, and the mountainous Darjeeling region. Both of these locations and many others in India were not only provided the raw materials and equipment to create numerous plantations, there were additionally influxes of workers brought in from the surrounding poorer areas to insure that production was at its highest.
Tea in the Assam region is the well respected as having bold flavor characteristics, as such these teas are often used in blends with other bold teas to create English Breakfast tea and Irish Breakfast tea. Assam is one of the most prolific tea producing regions in the world.
The Darjeeling region of India produces some of the most highly prized tea in the world. Tea thrives in this region due to the high altitude and rainy often stormy weather. The tea that is grown in Darjeeling is held in high regard for its lighter flavor, slight spiciness, and delicate pale golden liquor. Darjeeling teas are so popular they are often counterfeited, leading the Tea Board of India to create a custom seal that is displayed on all authentic Darjeeling tea packaging.
In addition to producing some of the best tea in the world in terms of pure tea with no adulterants or additives India has gifted the world with Chai, or spiced tea served with milk and sugar. Chai typically consists of a strong black tea mixed with cinnamon, fennel, star anise, cardamom, clove and ginger. The resulting brew is mixed with milk and sugar then served hot. Those who have experienced true loose leaf tea mixed with the finest spices know the difference between actual chai and the syrupy mixtures that are often sold under the chai name in the United States.
Sri Lankan and Kenyan Black TeaThough India and China are the most well known tea producing nations, in terms of tea production there are two tea powerhouses that often receive less attention: Sri Lanka and Kenya.
Kenya produces roughly 350,000 tonnes of tea for export annually. The product produced in Kenya is typically a strong black tea prepared using the Crush Tear Curl (CTC) method of production where the tea leaves undergo a process that renders them into a smaller pieces. This smaller quick brewing style of tea leaf is perfect for robust breakfast brews, and more often than not is packed into tea bags and blended with Assam tea to create English Breakfast tea.
Sri Lankan tea as a tradition was begun in 1867 and flourished well into the modern era with Sri Lanka exporting the most tea annually of any nation until 1996 when Kenya overtook the market in tonnes exported yearly.
Sri Lankan tea also known as Ceylon tea is prized for its clarity of flavor and crisp aftertaste reminiscent of citrus. Ceylon tea is often used in iced tea blends as the leaves have a tendency to brew a very clear pale golden infusion with minimal cloudiness. Sri Lankan teas are also very popular mixed with flavorings and add-ins as the tea accepts flavors very well.