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Black Tea - Hong Cha - Part 1

Black Tea Blog - Two cups of black tea

Introduction - The Icon

Black tea (or red tea as it is called in China) is a legend in the West, and therefore may need no introduction. However, for clarity's sake, teas that fall under the category of black tea are those that are fully oxidized. This complete oxidation allows black teas the ability to take on flavors, aromas, and colors not seen in any other tea type.

While the most popular black teas today hail from India and Sri Lanka, some of the most extraordinary black teas still come from China. The word "still" is important here, for what few people know is that the processing method used to make the ever popular South Asian black teas such as English Breakfast, Darjeeling, and Ceylon, originated in Fujian, China. Moreover, the reason why these renowned teas came into existence was due to tea makers in South Asia trying to mimic the black teas of China. Now, you may be asking yourself why these copies became more popular in the West than the originals. Or, perhaps you are wondering just where these extraordinary Chinese black teas have been all of your life.

The short answer to both of these questions lies in quantity. And the long answer? The long answer is one of the most exceptional, intricate, and fascinating tea tales there is.

History - A Legend is Born

It is fitting to begin this unique tale with a unique fact about black tea: black tea may be the youngest tea type there is. This may be shocking to many as the tea is utterly commonplace today. However, black tea did not actually become a mainstream commodity until the 1900s. Before that, black tea was primarily a novelty tea type for the European elite.

Black Tea Blog - Gong Fu Tea Ceremony

1600s: An Accidental Beginning

During the 1600s, there were reports of "black tea" appearing in local Chinese marketplaces shortly after the cessation of compressed tea cake making. Some of the best compressed tea cakes were being made in Fujian’s Wuyi mountain range and when tea farmers and makers were no longer allowed to make such cakes, they turned to creating loose leaf tea. Luckily, by the time that compressed tea making was disallowed, loose leaf tea's popularity was increasing. This recognition was crucial for the innovations that all teas saw, but, in particular, it was crucial for black tea. The former tea cake makers of Fujian had to start somewhere when it came to making loose-leaf tea, and for their start, they looked to the not too distant province of Anhui. Anhui green tea makers were known for making superior loose-leaf tea, and it was their method that the Fujian tea makers copied to create their own loose-leaf green tea. It is generally believed that the first "black teas" were not made purposefully, but in a failed attempt to create loose-leaf green tea. The term "black tea" is in quotations here because the first "black teas" that were made were not the ones we know and love today. They were, in fact, Wuyi style oolongs. Confused? Don't worry; our tale will become clearer soon.

1600s - 1700s: Gaining Notoriety

As previously noted, some sources claim that "black tea" was first made in the 1600s and in some ways, this is correct. There were teas called "black teas" that came into existence during that time. Additionally, there is evidence to support the introduction of "black teas" to the European market in the late 1600s, which is an important point to remember when discussing black tea's history. When "black tea" was first introduced to the British, they fell in love. They considered the tea to be far better than the Chinese green teas that they were used to. Not only could the tea ship for much longer distances than green tea, but also, in some cases, the tea improved during its long journey to England.

"Bohea" was the original name for these "black teas," a transliteration from a Fujian dialect meaning "Wuyi." So quick was Bohea tea’s popularity amongst the British aristocracy that the tea became a status symbol. It was a beverage for those with wealth, and as such, it was sought after and priced accordingly – highly. With this new British interest, Chinese tea makers, smartly, continued to meet the demand with their supply.

True black tea originated sometime before 1732 as what might be the earliest primary source of black tea indicates the existence of a tea with black leaves and red liquor in 1732. By that time, Bohea was so popular in England that this new tea, which toted similarly colored leaves as their beloved Bohea, was simply thought to be Bohea as well.

1700s - 1800s: England Takes Over

By the late 1700s, black tea, both true and not-so-true, became one of China's biggest exports. Overtime, however, the popularity of making true black tea instead of oolong increased because of simplicity. Creating true black tea didn’t require a specific leaf age (young and old were used) and the processing did not require as much attention to detail because the tea was to be fully oxidized, not partially oxidized as oolong needed to be. The less demanding process allowed tea makers to produce more batches of black tea throughout the year than the number of batches they could produce of oolong.

For over a century, Chinese black tea makers experienced this boom in interest from Europeans. However, by the late 1800s, British colonists decided to set up tea plantations in India with the goal of copying the incredibly successful Chinese black teas that they enjoyed so much. Having to use the native Indian tea plant, Camellia sinensis var. assamica, rather than the Chinese native tea plant Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, the British had difficulty producing tea similar to their Chinese favorites. Interestingly, some classic teas such as Darjeeling and Earl Grey came into existence as a result of attempted reproductions of popular Chinese teas. Var. sinensis plants were even smuggled into India in an attempt to make better copies; however, it was a fruitless endeavor. Copying the taste and smell of popular Chinese black teas proved improbable – though one discovery made during those attempts was a game changer.

The tea makers in India not only discovered that the var. assamica teas could be grown and produced faster, they also discovered that the teas provided more energy to the tea drinker. So lucrative was the use of var. assamica in black tea production for British consumption that the tea type started to become commonplace. Not only was black tea a luxury for aristocracy - it was also a treat for the common man. In shorter words: all of England was hooked and Chinese black tea makers were seeing the end of their popularity.

By 1874, as a result of the Industrial Revolution, the first leaf rolling machine was invented. This was followed, two years later, by the first tea cutting machine; a machine that could speedily pick leaves from stems and cut them into pieces. Broken leaf teas were much easier to ship and more cost-effective than the handmade full leaf black teas of China. This engineering for and investment in low-cost, high-yield, lower quality tea helped Britain to become the powerhouse of tea that it is today. And from India, Britain branched out to other countries and created tea plantations in the likes of Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Indonesia, to name a few. By the tail end of the 1880s, Britain’s need for Chinese black tea all but ceased.

1900s - Today: Seeing What Was Always There

Today, most black tea that is consumed comes from India or Sri Lanka and is made from the var. assamica plant. With that said, that is not where the tale of Chinese black tea ends. It is safe to say that most tea drinkers in the West have had Chinese black tea at least once in their lifetime without knowing it. Some of the most popular black tea blends contain Chinese tea leaves. Unfortunately, this means that many tea drinkers have only experienced the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Chinese black teas. These popular blends, such as Prince of Wales, typically contain low quality tea leaves collected solely for the mass market. These tea leaves are usually old, mildly flavorful, and mildly aromatic, while the high quality, young sprouts from the same plants are reserved for small, special markets.

As the Western desire for Chinese black tea waned, the local and esoteric interest of creating high quality and masterfully made black tea remained. In the tea world, Darjeeling is considered to be the figurative champagne of tea. And if Darjeeling is the champagne of tea, these limited, exceptional black teas from China should be considered the tea world's Ambrosia. Some of these teas have histories longer than 200 years, as their creators prided themselves in making these intricate delicacies and passed along techniques to subsequent generations. And although mass market produced black tea is still the type of black tea that is exported the most from China, Western interest in these high quality black teas has grown noticeably within the past decade. Tea drinkers are seeing that the full leaf Chinese black teas provide more complexity, flavor, and quality than the cut Indian teas that are more popular.

Black Tea Blog - Jin Jun Mei

How Black Tea is Made - Simplicity Breeds Popularity

Black tea and certain types of pu-erh tea are the only two tea types that are fully oxidized. This method of tea processing, through the rarest of oxidization methods, produces the world’s most popular teas in part because of how simple the production process is. So, just how are these iconic teas made?

For the high quality black teas, such as many qimen (or keemun) teas, the tea leaves that are used are young and usually small. Qimen, however, is a relatively scarcely consumed black tea in the West. The most popular black teas are made using principally older, less flavorful, and lower quality tea leaves. For these teas, a sprout and anywhere from two to five leaves are taken from each twig. The reason for the use of older tea leaves is that fully oxidizing tea leaves covers up most of the natural flavor of the tea. For tea makers producing for large markets, it makes little sense to use the prime young tea leaves and sprouts when their wonderful natural flavors would be masked.

While there are many ways to produce a black tea, we thought that imparting to you the current way in which Wuyi region black teas are made would be best:

  • Pluck leaves (one bud and several older leaves).
  • Wither leaves so that they lose some moisture and become soft for curling or twisting.
  • Twist or curl leaves, causing the cell structure inside to break, thus triggering oxidation by allowing enzymes to come into contact with other compounds.
  • Allow time for full oxidation (oxidation can be measured by reddening and darkening of the tea leaves).
  • Dry tea leaves and stop the oxidation via baking

It is the process of allowing the leaves to oxidize fully that has leant to not only its name in the West, but also to its name in China. In the West, black tea gets its name from the color of the early black tea leaves that made their way to Europe. These teas primarily toted hues of dark brown or black. In China, black tea is called red tea because of the hue of the liquor that is produced when the tea is brewed. For most gongfu brewed black teas, the liquor produced is a brilliant red, or at the very least has red tinges. Teas that are called black tea in China are those that are post-fermented, like pu-erh and liu an, as both their leaf and brew colors are near black.

Summation and Continuation – But wait, there’s more!

Thus far, we have touched on black tea’s history and processing method. If you are eager to know more, be sure to tune in next time for Part II, same tea-time, same tea-channel! In the second half of our blog on black tea we will be talking about black tea types, health properties, and how best to brew this iconic tea. See you there, tea scholars!

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