Over 90% of all the tea sold in the West is black tea, even with the increase in green tea’s popularity. What gives this heady, dark tea its popularity? That’s what we’re going to talk about this week in our tea blog.
All tea comes from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. There are two main varieties of this plant that are used for tea production. In general, the smaller-leaved Chinese variety is used for green teas while the larger-leaved Assam variety is used for black ones. What makes it so special is the way that it is processed after it is picked.
What makes black tea black is the color of the leaves after the oxidation process. This is sometimes called fermentation, which isn’t an accurate term to use for this process. Nearly all teas are oxidized to some extent, including green teas. This is part of the preservation process. Black tea is processed as follows:
Withering – The tea leaves are dried in the sun or with hot air to drive the water out. A tea leaf can lose up to a quarter of its weight in this process.
Maceration – The leaves are broken up, either by hand or by machine, to increase surface area and to release the remaining liquid from the tea leaf. Most black teas are processed by a machine, resulting in several different grades of tea depending on the size of the particles left afterward.
Oxidation – The most important step in black tea production is oxidation. The broken leaves are left in a temperature and humidity controlled space. Over time, the leaves darken, chlorophyll is broken down, and tannins are increased. Black teas are oxidized the most out of all tea types.
Shaping – The oxidized tea leaves are then rolled together to form strips or other shapes for final processing.
Drying – Finally, the remaining liquid has to be driven out of the leaves to preserve the flavor for shipping. This must be done carefully to prevent over-cooking
The result is the rich, full flavor that most people associate with the taste of tea all throughout the West. One of the reasons why this tea is so popular here is because the flavors last for several years, while the flavors of other teas can last for much less. This aided in the shipping of tea from Asia back to Europe.
The base of many teas
Black tea is also the base for many famous tea blends:
Earl Grey tea – Black tea mixed with bergamot oil.
Masala Chai – The famous spiced tea sold throughout India.
English and Irish breakfast teas – Very strong blends of tea that were meant to be mixed with sugar and milk
How to brew it
This type of tea should be prepared with 6 oz. of water per teaspoon of tea for most varieties. It should be steeped with freshly boiled hot water. The amount of time steeped should be 3-4 minutes for most varieties, though 4-5 minutes is better for whole-leaf teas or for those who prefer a much stronger drink. Here is a little more information about how to brew tea.