Black Tea - Hong Cha - Part 2
Recap - Last Time on Tea Lives of the Rich and Famous
Part one of our blog on black tea told the history of the famous tea type and how it is made. This week, we’ll start from where we left off by delving into some examples of black teas. So, welcome back tea-friends. Buckle up, and let’s continue!
Black Tea Types - Profiling Celebrities
As mentioned in part one, this blog's purpose is to focus on and discuss exclusively Chinese-grown black teas. Generally speaking, the main types of Chinese black teas are: gongfu cha, xiaozhong cha, and hong sui cha. As most high quality black teas are considered to be gongfu cha, we shall talk about those teas first.
Keemun (Qimen Gongfu)
Arguably the most famous tea in China, qimen originated in 1875 in Qimen county by a tea maker who traveled to Fujian to learn more about his profession. Upon returning home, he began to produce his own tea, one that would go on to become one of the most sought after black teas in China. Qimen is known for its sweet and rich flavor, and boasts aromatics of rose, fruit, orchids, and chocolate. Visually, the tea is distinguishable by its incredibly small leaves that taper sharply at the tip, and its almost jet black color with streaks of grey. Although qimen is considered to be one of China’s highest quality black teas, there are incredible variations in qimen quality. High quality qimen is typically made from perfect sprouts and young leaves and is solely sold straight. While, the lower quality qimen is made from less than perfect and sometimes broken young leaves and is exported to make English Breakfast.
Yunnan Red (Dianhong Gongfu)
Dianhong gongfu are black teas that hail from Yunnan province. They were originally created in response to the popularity of Indian teas in the international market. Dianhong gongfu is usually created from the leaves of feral trees (similar to the trees used for pu-erh) in the southern and western parts of the province. It is dianhong’s unique leaves that make the tea so memorable for they are known for being remarkably large and toting brilliant gold, thick pekoe. Observing the pekoe is a great way to help determine the quality of the tea. Typically, the darker the pekoe, the later in the year that the tea was picked. And with that said, spring picked dianhong is always the most delectable - boasting an assertive flavor and notes of chocolate, lychee, banana, and brown sugar.
Fujian Red (Minhong Gongfu)
Minhong gongfu teas are known for their unique sweetness and mellow, malty, and floral taste. There are three main types of minhong gongfu: Tanyang, Bailin, and Zhenge, all named after locations in Fujian where the tea is grown. Since Yezi Tea specializes in a minhong that lies outside of the main three, we thought to speak about that one in some detail - minhong teas created from the Jin Mu Dan cultivar.
Jin Mu Dan Cultivar Black Teas
The Jin Mu Dan cultivar is over 600 years old, and hailed originally from the Tanyang village where tanyang gongfu tea is from. Now grown in the Nanhu mountain range approximately twenty miles south of Fuzhou city, this cultivar produces some of the most incredible black teas in the world.
The mountain range has been known for its teas for over 200 years, however, that knowledge is primarily held by those in Fujian. And it was not until Huang Jian, a local Fujian tea farmer, that Jin Mu Dan was used in the Nanhu mountains. In the early 2000s, Huang Jian planted the Jin Mu Dan cultivar in the soils of the mountain range and began to create a series of black teas that are complex, malty, sweet, and robust with notes of chocolate, pastries, and florals. The teas from this cultivar are some of the most popular teas at Yezi, and, until recently, were only available to those living in China.
Lapsang Souchong (Zhengshan Xiaozhong)
Though produced in the Wuyi mountains, the origin of zhengshan xiaozhong is unclear. When tea from Wuyi was first exported to the West, the teas that were smoked became extremely popular. That popularity is the reason for the tea’s ongoing production, as in China, zhengshan xiaozhong is not widely consumed. Made from relatively mature leaves, zhengshan xiaozhong is produced in special buildings that allow smoke to circulate. Inside, tea leaves are withered by pinewood fires. And after the teas are dried, they are again smoked over a low pinewood fire to finish and add more flavor. It goes without saying that zhengshan xiaozhong contains notes of smoke, however, the tea's notes also consist of cinnamon, chestnut, fruit, and tar.
Jin Jun Mei
Jin jun mei is a relatively new tea in the black tea world as its origin traces back only a few years. Grown originally in the Wuyi mountains, jin jun mei is a type of zhengshan xiaozhong that has become popular due to its exquisite complexity. Made solely from buds, jin jun mei boasts faint notes of smoke and malt as well as a creamy and smooth mouthfeel. Overall, the tea has a more subtle taste than regular zhengshan xiaozhong.
Hong Sui Cha
Our final black tea type consists of broken tea leaves that are primarily for foreign market consumption. Mass produced with machines and sorted by an internationally renown tea leaf grading system, hong sui cha is less complex than the other black tea types. However, because of its broken leaves hong sui cha brews up a strong, bold tea at a fast rate, which is preferred by many tea drinkers.
Chemical Compounds of Black Tea - Caffeine’s Ready for its Closeup
We've mentioned in previous articles how the popularity of certain teas in the West grew because of their purported health benefits. Although black tea’s popularity in the West rose primarily due to its taste and its period of being a symbol of elevated social status, it was in fact black tea’s chemical properties that played a key role in both of those factors.
The first and most important compound in black tea is caffeine. The common belief is that out of all of the tea types, black tea contains the most caffeine. This is untrue, as it is the tea types with the youngest and least processed tea leaves that contain the most caffeine. With that said, due to the complete or almost complete oxidation that black tea undergoes, the tea's caffeine is partially separated from its tannins which allows for the uptake of caffeine during consumption to be faster than that of other teas. Most likely, it is this fact that has been the reason for the misconception that black teas contain the most caffeine out of all of the tea types. Additionally, when considering how much caffeine one is consuming when drinking black tea, it is important to note the difference between drinking black tea made from Camelia sinensis var. sinensis and that made from var. assamica. The var. assamica plant naturally has more caffeine than its var. sinensis counterpart.
Now that we have gotten the pesky caffeine conundrum out of the way, it is important to talk about what makes black tea special - the fact that it is fully oxidized. This complete oxidization not only gives the tea a unique chemical composition, it is also what creates the chemical compounds that give the tea its dark color and robust flavor. While black tea does not contain as many cathechins as green or white tea, black tea does contain two other compounds that may be just as influential as cathechins - thearubigins and theaflavins.
In previous articles, we have mentioned polyphenols, however it is solely black tea that contains the polyphenols: thearubigins and theaflavins. The reason why thearubigins and theaflavins can only be found in black tea is because they form when certain enzymes within the leaf completely oxidize. Some say that these polyphenols are as effective an antioxidant as epigallocatechin gallete (EGCG) and can help with heart disease prevention.
Aside from that, studies have shown that consuming black tea promotes dental health, reduces fatigue, stimulates the nervous system, promotes strong bones, enhances blood vessel vitality, reduces risk of stroke, and can lower bad cholesterol. However, as always, we must mention that any health claim that you hear or read about when it comes to tea should be considered with a bit of skepticism. Black tea is a young tea type and any studies that have been done on black tea are much younger.
Preparing Black Teas - Ready, Tea Set, Action!
In many cultures there are strict guidelines on how to prepare black tea. Milk, cream, butter, sugar, spice, and citrus are all additions that some deem necessary in the brewing of a good cup of black tea. In the West, it is common to add milk and sugar to black tea, as many say that it enhances the fragrance and flavor of certain quality black teas. And while all taste is subjective, we here at Yezi think that the best black teas can speak for themselves, and only shine when consumed straight - without any additions.
To properly prepare black tea, water temperature is crucial. Black tea should always be prepared with boiling or near boiling water to bring out the tea’s flavors. With lower temperature water some of the chemicals (such as thearubigins) that play a crucial part in the tea's flavor and aroma will not be released, and as such the tea will not live up to its potential.
To best experience the many nuances that high quality black teas have, we believe that gongfu brewing is the most appropriate brewing method. Gongfu brewing of black tea is best done with a gaiwan or small teapot (less than 6 ounces). When brewing, 4 -5 grams of tea should be used for every 3 ounces of water. The first infusion of black tea should be steeped for 15 to 20 seconds. For each following infusion, 15 to 20 seconds should be added to the steep time. Meaning that the second infusion should be around 30 to 40 seconds, the third should be around 45 to 60 seconds, and so on. Most high quality black teas can be infused upwards of three times, with the maximum amount of infusions being around six. Infusion quantity, of course, depends on the exact type of tea.
Final Words - Sometimes Less Notoriety is Better
For many in the West, exposure to black tea may be the only exposure to tea as a whole. For some, black tea may just be an assertive, tannic replacement for coffee, due to its chemical properties and bold flavor. Whether consumed in tea bags or in loose leaf blends from India and Sri Lanka, black tea has become so commonplace that not many may care to know more than their daily favorite. However, we hope that tea lovers and tea novices alike will consider going beyond the blends that they may be used to. For example, tasting teas from the birthplace of black tea (the Wuyi mountains), or sampling the straight, individual teas that are used in some of their favorite black tea blends are two great ways to do just that. Though there may not be a wide variety of black tea types in comparision to the likes of oolong and green tea, the spellbinding differences between high quality black teas are worth the foray into their world. These velvety, smooth, bold, sweet, and dessert-like teas might just become your new morning pick me up, or perhaps your new evening cool down.