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What is Black Tea?

What is black tea – the tea that we drink most of the time?

In the 17 century in England, tea was imported from China by sea. As the leaves were stored below the water line, the atmosphere was humid, black and warm. After several months of travel, the tea leaves had fermented and became black. That’s how black tea was born! It appeared that British people would prefer black teas than green. Now it’s the most popular tea in all Europe in contrast to China where green tea is the national beverage.

Black tea is a tea that undergoes a complete oxidation. It is commonly called red tea in China as over there black teas refer to semi-fermented ones (not to be confused with the red rooibos of South Africa). Outside China black teas are made according to one of two manufacturing processes: orthodox or CTC (Crush, Tear and Curl). Could you tell the difference between them?

The steps for making black orthodox teas

First of all the tea leaves are withered for up to one day in order to remove the humidity contained in them. Then producers roll them so as to break the leaf cells and release all the enzymes to ease the fermentation process. Fermentation consists of storing the tea leaves in a humid and warm room for approximately 3 hours. To stop the fermentation, the leaves are dried at up to 90° C, this is the firing process. Lastly, the leaves are then sorted with sieves into different grades and packed.


After withering, the tea leaves are torn and rolled in a rotating cylinder. In most of these cases, those teas are blended with others to obtain a regular flavour and they are then used for tea bags as they have a small leaf. This method was introduced by British producers in the 1950s. It is aimed at maximising output and reducing labour.  These teas are mostly mass-market teas sold in supermarkets.

It’s important to note that orthodox methods differ between the tea producing areas. That’s why it’s easier to differentiate teas between two tea growing areas or even gardens (estates) as they will have local characteristics. There may also be subtle differences in the manner in which gardens make their teas.

Which black tea do I choose? Here is an overview of the various types.

China Black teas are found mainly in the south of China in the provinces of Yunnan, Anhui and Fujian. Green teas are mostly produced in China. Having said that, China black teas are stylish, fragrant and the quality is second to none.

The province of Anhui produces the Keemun teas in the growing areas of Huang Shan Mountains. The Keemun leaves are generally small, thin and slightly twisted giving a naturally sweet and refreshing character. The two highest grades of Keemun are Hao Ya A and Hao Ya B. Keemun Mao Feng has larger leaves and it is a special picking of two leaves and a bud that yields a rich flavour.

The province of Fujian produces the smoky black teas known as Lapsang Souchong. Its strong and substantial flavour goes well with hot and spicy food. However the Fujian Lapsang Souchong teas are softer than Taiwanese ones.

Yunnan province, grows much of the Camelia Assamica variety orinnating from nearby Assam in India. It produces lush, full bodied and refreshing black teas. The highest tea in terms of quality is the Yunnan Golden Needles composed of longs tips which create a creamy, malty but sweet- liquoring tea.

India is the world’s largest producer of tea and offers a superb diversity of tea-growing areas. The main ones are Brahmaputra and Barak valleys in Assam and Darjeeling in the north. The Nilgiri mountains provide the major tea-producing region in the South.

At the foothills of the eastern Himalaya, the Camelia Sinensis var. Assamica grows in the lush and dense jungles of Assam. This region produces both orthodox tea and CTC as it’s the biggest producing region in India. Assam has a humid, lowland climate with heavy rainfalls which produce a full-bodied malty teas.

Nilgiri teas grow in the lush forest and jungles of the Blue Mountains in southern India. Nilgiri benefits from a tropical climate similar to that of neighbouring Sri Lanka (Ceylon teas). As Nilgiri teas are plucked all year-round, most of them are produced through the CTC process. But some orthodox teas from Nilgiri have superb quality. Nilgiri teas are known as “the fragrant ones”. Our Nilgiri Thiashola is a good example of a high quality orthodox and organic Nilgiri tea. As a customer remarked:  “This Nilgiri tea is one of the best teas I have ever tasted. Quite strong, and a very good alternative to Assam or English breakfast”.

Darjeeling black teas are known as the Champagne of teas. Contrary to Assam, Darjeeling teas grow at high altitude, from 2,000 to 7,000 feet. Thus, there is a great variation of climate and forest which give to Darjeeling its distinctive muscatel character. It has a worldwide reputation of an exclusive tea. In cup it is golden amber in colour, with a delicate flowery flavour and sweetness reminiscent of peaches and apricots.

Nepalese teas account among the best quality teas in the world. Mainly produced close to the Himalayan foothills they offer an incomparable aromatic richness. Nepal is a young tea producing country as tea production has been developed only since 1980. Today there are five tea districts with 85 tea plantations. Located close to Darjeeling, Nepalese teas has a similar muscatel character. However they are smoother with woody, floral and fruity characteristics.

Ceylon Teas

Sri Lanka was called Ceylon before 1972. Nowadays the term Ceylon is used to describe a tea from Sri Lanka. Ceylon is known to be the island of teas, famous for their floral character. The island used to produce coffee before the introduction of tea by the British in 1870. Coffee plantations were affected by a parasite in 1869 and then were replaced by tea plantations. Sri Lanka is now the world’s third major producer of tea and offer exquisite orthodox loose leaf teas, especially having enhanced the quality of their teas in recent decades. There are three distinctive types of Ceylon tea production: high, medium and low grown. Here are examples of each.

The Nuwara Eliya district produces teas at an altitude of over 6,000 feet close to the highest mountain in Sri Lanka: the Pidurutalagala. High grown are thought to be the best quality teas of Sri Lanka. These teas are recognisable by their bronze colour. In cup it gives a bright and amber infusion. The taste is reminiscent of jasmine. Some say that Ceylon High Grown are the most exquisite teas comparable with Darjeelings.

Teas in the Uva district grow at medium altitude (2,800 to 6,000 feet) characterised by a season of dry winds from June to September. Thus these teas are rounded, sweet as well as aromatic. In cup they give a coppery red colour.

The Dimbula region is located to the west of the central mountains. It is noted for the depth and full-bodied nature of its teas. They have a powerful aroma. Kenilworth is one garden that is renown for its creamy quality.

Kandy is a region of low altitude which produces good quality teas; more full bodied and astringent than other Ceylon teas. Kandy teas have large and dark tea leaves with exceptional fragrance and complex flavours.

Kenyan Teas

Kenya benefits from an ideal climate for producing teas: tropical, volcanic red soils and well distributed rainfall with long sunny days. The main tea growing areas in Kenya are situated in and around the highland areas on both sides of the Great Rift Valley. Here are two superb teas from Kenya:

Marinyn is a well-known orthodox tea from Kenya. It grows at the foot of the Kilimanjaro and gives a full bodied, tangy, subtle nutmeg flavour akin to Assam tea.

Royal Tajiri is a rare and wonderful orthodox tea: it was planted over fifty years ago on naturally fertile soils at an altitude of 6700 ft in Gatundu District, amongst the foothills of Mount Kenya, alongside the Rundu and Mukengeria rivers. This gorgeous, orthodox, large leaf tea is neatly twisted and has a lovely appley and caramel aroma. In the cup it is deep bronze. It is full bodied, rich and smooth.

And you, which black tea would you recommend?

Go to the Black Teas section of our Tea Store.