Reading the leaves: a guide to black tea

Reading the leaves: a guide to black tea

by Great British Chefs 15 February 2019

The most popular style of tea in the West, black tea is the first thing many of us drink every day. But what actually is it, how is it produced and what sorts of flavours are out there? Get to know more about this immensely popular tea and how there’s much more to it than your standard supermarket teabag.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews as well as access to some of Britain’s greatest chefs. Our posts cover everything we are excited about from the latest openings and hottest food trends to brilliant new producers and exclusive chef interviews.

An incredible eighty-four percent of the UK’s population consumes tea on a daily basis and the hot drink has become fully engrained into our identity, culture and society. You’d be hard put to come across a household that doesn’t have teabags in the cupboard, and we drink around 165 million cups of the stuff every single day. The vast majority of this tea (over ninety percent) is known as black tea, and it is one of several different styles of tea produced in the world – although they all come from the same plant (Camellia Sinensis).

While black tea is by far the most popular style of tea in the UK, much of what we drink doesn’t really do the drink justice. Your average teabag contains the absolute lowest grade of black tea possible; little more than the trimmings and stale leaves leftover after harvesting. Over the years, however, many of us have grown accustomed to the bitter, dry, tannic taste of this style of tea, which needs a good amount of milk (and for some of us a few spoonfuls of sugar) to become palatable.

Once you look beyond the standard supermarket teabags, however, you soon realise just how varied, diverse and interesting black tea can be. Flavours can range from rich and malty to floral and sweet, with the leaves a perfect expression of wherever they’ve been grown and harvested. A few can be served with milk but many are so refreshing and flavourful that they need nothing more than boiling water. While bog-standard teabags prioritise that strong, bitter flavour above all else, real black teas are all about flavour and little nuances in taste; more like wine than something we knock back to kick-start our day. Read on for a little insight into this fascinating style of tea, find out how it’s produced and discover some of the different varieties out there.

image
All tea comes from one plant called [i]Camellia Sinensis[/i] – the final product depends on how it's grown, picked and processed
image
After the leaves are picked they're left to wilt, before being rolled, oxidised, shaped and dried in various ways to create different styles of tea ready for brewing

What is black tea?

All tea begins life in the same way – as leaves on the Camellia Sinensis tea plant. Black tea is the name given to these leaves once they have been picked and left to oxidise fully, which is what turns them black and gives them their deep, intense flavour. There are lots of factors which can have an impact on the final product; the climate and soil in which the leaves are grown, what time of year they’re picked and how they’re processed will dictate flavour and mouthfeel.

While a lot of mass-produced black tea is grown and processed in Africa, high-quality black teas tend to come from China, India, Sri Lanka and Taiwan. India is home to familiar varieties such as Darjeeling and Assam, while Sri Lanka is renowned for its Ceylon and Earl Grey. Taiwanese black teas are very special, offering incredible flavours you’d never associate with the variety, whilst China grows and produces the biggest range of black teas in a huge variety of styles.

How is black tea produced?

To fully oxidise a tea leaf and turn it into black tea, there are several processes that must be completed. The exact methods will vary from producer to producer and will differ depending on the style of black tea they are hoping to create.

Withering

Once a tea producer decides it’s time to pick the leaves, they will harvest them and begin the withering process. Once tea leaves are picked they will begin to wilt naturally, but producers control this by monitoring temperature, humidity and airflow. This removes moisture from the leaves and intensifies their flavour. This generally takes less than twenty-four hours.

Rolling

Once the leaves have withered to the point a tea producer is aiming for, it’s time to roll them. This can be done by hand or by machine, but the aim is to twist and break each leaf so the remaining moisture is released. This kickstarts the oxidisation process and gives the leaves their twisted, curled appearance. Some tea producers crush or cut leaves rather than roll them to change the leaves’ characteristics. Releasing the moisture in this way turns the leaves a darker green, and they begin to clump together and take on a thin, spindly appearance.

Oxidising

Rolled, crushed or cut leaves will begin to break down in their own natural juices, a process known as oxidisation. This is arguably the method which has the biggest effect on a tea leaf, and black teas are left to oxidise longer than any other style. The rolled leaves are spread out onto large trays and kept at a warm temperature and specific humidity. As the broken down leaves react with the oxygen in the air, they begin to darken in colour – much like when you bite into an apple and it starts to turn brown over time. Oxidisation also changes the flavour and aroma of the tea leaves; as a general rule, the longer the leaves are left to oxidise, the more tannic, brisk and ‘strong’ they will taste.

Drying

When the tea producer believes the tea has oxidised fully, it’s time to dry the leaves ready to be packed, stored and sold. Some specialist black teas are shaped before being dried, but most are left in their natural state. The drying process does two things; it stops oxidisation by removing the excess moisture and dries the tea out enough so that it can be stored and kept for longer. When it comes to black tea, this final blast of heat turns the already brown oxidised leaves even darker into the black strands we pour boiling water over.

image
As tea leaves oxidise, they turn from green to brown and eventually black, if they're allowed to oxidise completely
image
Black tea is the most popular style of tea in the West, but there are hundreds of different varieties of black tea grown across Asia that boast a whole range of flavours

What are the different varieties of black tea?

While there is one general method for creating black tea, lots of different factors in the growing, harvesting and processing will result in wildly different flavours, colours and mouthfeel in the final cup. Here are some of the most popular and interesting black teas out there.

  • Assam: Assam is a region in India famous for its tea, which tend to be rich, malty and boast flavours ranging from honey to red fruits. Assam teas are ideal for drinking in the morning, as they have a strong flavour and work well with a splash of milk.

  • Darjeeling: The small area of Darjeeling in the north of India lies in the foothills of the Himalayas and is home to some of the most floral and refreshing black teas in the world. Darjeeling teas are incredibly fragrant and are great for sipping on throughout the day.

  • Nilgiri: Nilgiri lies in southern India in the state of Tamil Nadu and is one of the lesser-known Indian black teas. However, it is incredibly light and full of tropical fruit flavours, making it stand out from the crowd.

  • Ceylon: Ceylon is the name given to tea grown and produced in Sri Lanka, and the vast majority of it becomes black tea. It is bold, full of flavour and boasts hints of citrus fruit, chocolate and spice. It is incredibly smooth and almost nutty, and works well with a splash of milk.

  • Yunnan Gold: From southern China, this modern tea (first produced in the 1930s) is tropical and sweet with a slightly spicy finish that lingers long after drinking. Incredibly smooth and perfect for drinking at any time of day, it’s a fantastic example of China’s incredible tea-producing culture.

  • Lapsang Souchong: This is a truly unique black tea from Fujian in China. Once oxidisation has occurred, the leaves are dried with pinewood smoke, which gives them a deep, smoky, almost savoury flavour once brewed. It’s said that it was created when a passing army delayed tea production in the Qing era, which meant the tea farmers needed to quickly dry the leaves. They used fires to speed up the process and discovered the smoke infused the tea with its flavour.

  • Earl Grey: Earl Grey gets its distinctive floral flavour from the addition of bergamot, a strong-scented citrus fruit from Italy. It was originally a way to make regular black tea taste like the more expensive varieties from China, but has now become a style in its own right.

  • Taiwan Red Jade: From Nantou in Taiwan, this is a specialist black tea that’s bursting with sweetness. Full-bodied and with a eucalyptus-like aroma, it’s an amazing example of how terroir can play such an important role in a tea’s flavour.