From Britain’s favourite English Breakfast blend with a splash of milk to the world-renowned Chinese red teas, black tea is diverse and always delicious. But there’s more to this famous drink than just how to drink it! Everything you need to know about black tea includes where it’s grown, how it’s produced, how it tastes and some unexpected health benefits.
To be specific, black tea can only be made from the Camellia Sinensis plant. The 2 major varieties of this plant are Sinensis (Chinese black teas are derived from this variety) and Assamica (which produces the deliciously malty Indian Assam tea). To make the tea for your favourite black tea blend, the leaves are picked, withered, rolled and oxidised. This oxidising process turns the green leaves black and gives you that rich, bold black tea flavour. We then quickly fire the leaves to stop them oxidising further, then dry, roll and package the leaves for you to buy.
The Origins of Black Tea
Although we all know that tea plants grow all over the world, China is the definitive home of black tea! The Chinese were the first to turn their tea leaves dark, so we have them to thank for our humble cuppa today.
In China, black tea is referred to as red tea due to the warm reddy brown colour of the tea liquor once brewed. Black tea refers to fermented tea (like pu-erh) in China – check out our Guide to the Different Types of Tea to discover more about the difference between our “black” tea and pu-erh.
Unlike green tea, which can be traced back many thousands of years, black tea is relatively new. Well, new in the grand scale of things! First recordings of black tea that’s oxidised for a richer flavour start appearing around the 17th century (the 1600s), where we find the first Lapsang Souchongs being brewed in the Fujian province.
A few centuries after that and the Assamica variety was discovered in India. Up until the British arriving in India, this tea was used for medicinal purposes. Nowadays, black tea production in India is widespread predominately with Darjeeling and Assam blends known worldwide.
How Black Tea is Made
The difference between black tea and other types of tea like green tea is all in the production process.
- The leaves are picked by hand or by machine. The size and age of the leaves determine the grade. The top leaves and buds produce the best tea for green and black tea. The lower, larger leaves are usually used to make oolong.
- The leaves are withered in the sun. By reducing the moisture levels through withering, the cell structure within the leaves starts to break down. The tea leaf juices and nutrients (we’ll explain these a bit further down as they have some great health benefits) are easier to infuse into your cup and will oxidise quicker.
- We roll or crush the leaves to oxidise them. Slightly breaking and bending the leaves activates the enzymes within. When these enzymes meet the oxygen in the air, they oxidise. Basically, this turns the leaves darker and changes the flavour profile too.
- After that, we quickly fix the leaves using heat. This deactivates the enzymes and allows the tea producers to keep the leaves at the perfect level of oxidation.
- Finally, we dry the leaves and shape them usually into curled or long and thin shapes.
Types of Black Tea
With hundreds of varieties, cultivars, altitudes, soil types, and unique processing methods, there’s potentially an unlimited number of different black teas to be grown and consumed. Here’s what all black teas, regardless of type, have in common:
- Produces a darker liquor, usually brown or red in colour.
- Has a bold, roasted aroma.
- Is stronger, sweeter and fuller in flavour and body than green tea.
- Contains higher levels of tannins than other tea types, which can cause a slight bitterness.
- Is often consumed with milk and sugar to complement the rich sweetness of the natural tea flavours.
Different cultures drink black tea for different reasons and in different ways, from using it as medicine to drinking it as a social norm to using it to celebrate.
Chinese Black Tea
Chinese black teas are typically lighter than Indian and other countries’ black teas, primarily because of the variety Sinensis, which is lighter than Assamica. Here, black teas are categorised by the area in which they are grown. They are also processed using a slower, more traditional method that creates complex flavours. Many of the countries listed below will use a ‘crush, tear, curl’ method that’s quicker but results in a lower quality tea that’s simple and less flavourful.
Types of Chinses Teas
Dianhong is a Yunnan red tea from, obviously, the Yunnan province. Its characteristics are sweet, gentle and light in colour. There are several varieties of this tea, if you’re looking for the best quality you should try Yunnan Pure Gold which consists of the golden tips of the tea and produces a bright, delicate cup. Lower quality varieties, Broken Yunnan for example, are often used in tea blends.
Jinhoucha translates as Golden Monkey tea. This is one of the most highly prized black teas. It’s light, sweet and has notes of honey and peaches – the highest grades have no astringency whatsoever.
Jinjunmei is a Lapsang Souchong black tea (see more about that a bit below) and is typically sweet, fruity and floral. It’s made from plucked in the early spring, giving the tea a more delicate, refreshing flavour. This is one of the most prestigious teas available.
Keemun is a gentle, slightly malty black tea with stone fruit notes. The highest grades will also have a floral flavour and aroma. This tea is grown in the Anhui province and is used in many classic, popular blends.
Lapsang Souchong black teas are smoked as part of the drying process, leaving a smoky pinewood aroma and flavour in your cup. It’s grown in the Wuyi region and is increasingly popular and sought after.
Indian Black Tea
There are 3 main types of tea grown in India, but you’ll probably be thinking of milky spiced chai when you imagine Indian black tea. This masala chai (meaning spiced tea) is popular around the world and can be made with any type of black tea – but to be traditional, choose one of the black teas below.
Assam is typically bold, rich and very malty. It can sometimes have fruity notes too. Although it’s strong and bold, it is quite refreshing too. Most people drink Assam tea with milk and sugar to dilute the strength. The creaminess goes well with the maltiness of the tea. Assam tea is only grown in the Assam region of India.
Nilgiri is a Southern tea from India. It’s dark and aromatic with a variety of brisk flavours. The area where Nilgiri is grown has varied altitudes, resulting in many different flavour notes depending on the exact estate where it’s grown and harvested.
Darjeeling is light, floral and delicate – sometimes referred to as the Champagne of teas. Darjeeling is mostly made into thin-bodied, light black teas but there are some green, white and oolong specialty Darjeelings available. As it’s so delicate and light, it’s usually drunk without milk.
Many other countries with the right climate and altitude grow tea for making black tea. Even the UK has one small tea estate, although it only produces a very small amount of tea that’s blended with other country’s teas before being sold.
Kenyan Black Tea is the most produced type of tea in this country. It’s grown predominately to be blended with other tea types to create breakfast black tea blends. Many varieties and cultivars are grown here across Kenya. Kenyan black tea characteristics are brisk and full-bodied. They are typically very strong and don’t need to brew for long.
Turkish Black Tea is grown in the Rize area of Turkey, bordering the black sea. The tea grown here is made into Rize tea, a very popular black tea that’s drank across Turkey at all times of day with sugar cubes. It’s fresh, full-flavoured and needs to be diluted down before consumed as the long, slow brewing process makes it very strong.
Sri Lankan Black Tea, also known as Ceylon Black Tea, is popular around the world both as single origin black teas and breakfast blends. These whole leaf black teas are shaped into long, wiry leaves that brew a light, mellow, full-flavoured cup with crisp citrus notes. It’s a popular black tea base for the iconic Earl Grey tea.
Taiwanese Black Tea is not as well-known as the oolongs grown in Taiwan. The altitudes, climates, and soils make Taiwanese black teas very similar in characteristics to Chinese black tea, but with more honeyed sweet notes. Some varieties also have unique tasting notes of mint and cinnamon. You might find Taiwanese black teas labelled as Formosan.
Caffeine in Black Tea
A standard cup (8oz) of black tea contains on average 50mg of caffeine. That’s more than green tea, which has around 30mg per cup, and less than a drip coffee, which has around 95mg per cup.
As we discovered in our article about Caffeine in Green Tea, the exact amount of caffeine varies drastically from one tea type to another and from one tea brand to another. The 50mg is just an average.
How you prepare your black tea also affects the levels of caffeine in your cup. The longer you brew the tea, the more caffeine (and healthy nutrients) will infuse into your cup.
Should I Worry About Caffeine in Black Tea?
No, there’s really no reason to worry unless you are especially sensitive to caffeine. The recommended limit amount of caffeine per day is 400mg. So, you can have 8 cups of black tea and only just meet the limit.
Caffeine blocks the receptors in your brain, preventing you from feeling drowsy and tired. As a result, you’ll feel more awake and alert. Black tea also contains L-theanine, which keeps you calm, relaxed and focused. Within 24 hours the effects of the caffeine will have worn off.
Benefits of Black Tea
Black tea is ever popular as a healthy drink to try, especially amongst dieters. But black tea has its health benefits too. In fact, it has some health benefits unique over green tea. Here are the top 4 health benefits of black tea.
- Heart health. Drinking black tea can reduce the risks of heart disease, and in turn combat obesity and lower blood pressure. It also reduces levels of LDL cholesterol, thus further reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke.
- Mental health. In the short term, the l-theanine in black tea soothes anxiety and blocks the receptors in your brain that cause you to feel stressed and worried. In the long term, it may slow the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Gut health. The antimicrobial properties of black tea can inhibit bad bacteria lingering in your gut while promoting healthy bacteria.
- Skincare. Black tea, and green tea, contain antioxidants that bind to free radicals. Besides causing cancer, these free radicals also speed up the effects of aging. Black tea antioxidants prevent these free radicals and keep your skin firm and youthful for longer, plus they reduce inflammation (blemishes).
We did a lot of research on the health benefits of one of our favourite tea types. Read Black Tea Health Benefits to find out more.
How to Choose the Best Black Tea
Buying black tea online offers you a far wider array of teas to choose from. If you’re looking for a good quality black tea that tastes far better than your supermarket options, look for whole loose leaf and a recent harvest date. Sellers that are forthcoming with information about their black teas are more trustworthy!
When it comes to black tea, you can also look for different tea grades. Starting with the lowest grade of black tea:
P – This simply means that 2 leaves and 1 bud are picked from the tea plant and made into your tea. Although it’s the lowest grade, it’s still far better than crushed tea in tea bags and lower, larger leaves plucked from the tea plant.
OP – Leaf-only tea, made with just the top leaves and without the buds. Still a good quality tea and easily available to buy.
Flowery Orange Pekoe
FOP – Longer leaves than just Orange Pekoe, but less tightly rolled and containing some buds – this alters the flavour of the tea as the buds are younger and fresher.
Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
GFOP – This means it’s the same as Flowery Orange Pekoe, but with a slightly higher ratio of golden tips. These tips contain more concentrated and complex flavours than the leaves.
Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
TGFOP – Flowery Orange Pekoe with many golden tips, enough to be called “tippy”!
Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
FTGFOP – This simply means it’s a finer tea of the previous grade, picked with more care, containing a high number of golden tips, completely unbroken, etc. This is the highest grade and if you can find this tea, definitely buy it!
Other Tea Grades
Sometimes you can come across additional grades:
Adding S or 1 to the FTGFOP grades just signifies that it’s the best of the best and will be better than the FTGFOP grade from that tea estate.
BOP – broken orange pekoe. The leaves are broken, reducing the quality and grade significantly.
FBOP – flowery broken orange pekoe. Although the leaves and buds are a higher grade, they’re still broken.
How to Brew Black Tea
Brewing black tea is very simple and quickly becomes a ritual. This is our guide for using loose leaf to make 1 mug of tea.
You will need:
- 1 mug
- Whole loose black tea leaves
- Boiling water
- Strainer or tea infuser
- Milk, sugar, honey and/or sweetener of your choosing
Start by boiling the fresh water. While it heats up, add 1 teaspoon of black tea leaves (approximately 2g) to your cup. You might want to use an infuser, where you place the leaves inside a perforated container and submerge it in the water – this makes it easier to remove them afterward. Alternatively, you could prepare your tea in a teapot then simply strain the tea leaves out as you pour into your mug.
Once the water is boiled, pour it over the tea leaves. Let the leaves infuse for approximately 3 minutes, or as directed by the supplier.
Next, add milk, sugar, honey or any other additives you like to taste. We recommend trying it black first! Many high-quality black teas taste better without any additives.
You can use black tea bags to make the process easier, in which case you might need to reduce the brew time. Fair warning: tea bags are inferior quality to whole loose leaf and won’t taste as good!
Drink Black Tea
Black tea is a rich, history-steeped drink that’s surprisingly diverse. You’re bound to find a black tea variety you’ll love drinking! The verdant health benefits, medium-low caffeine levels, and availability make it a great drink to have regularly. We prefer our black tea without milk or sugar, but really it’s up to you! Just make sure you buy high-quality black tea, preferably whole and loose leaf for a premium flavour.