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Black Tea: A Handy Reference

Updated on September 6, 2013
Black tea will fix the blackest mood!
Black tea will fix the blackest mood! | Source

Black Tea, White Tea, Green Tea -- Oh My!

Black tea, like green tea and white tea, is harvested from the Camellia sinensis plant -- commonly known as the Tea Tree. They're shrubby trees that can grow as tall as 50 foot in the wild, but when cultivated are quite small due to frequent pruning that is necessary for proper harvest. A member of the Camellia family, the botanical name "Sinensis" refers to China, where tea was cultivated until the mid-19th century.

True tea, as opposed to the beverages properly referred to as "tisanes," is only harvested from the Camellia sinensis. Herb teas (including the now-trendy Rooibos) are technically tisanes. It is the leaves of the Tea Tree that are used to produce tea, and how they are processed determines whether or not they will be black, green, or white. The term "herb tea" is in such common use, though, that even purists such as myself will use the phrase.

Don't confuse the Tea Tree described here with the Tea Tree that produces Tea Tree oil, however -- the latter is of the Melaleuca family of Australian origin, and is unrelated to the Camellia sinensis.

Tea by the Colors

Black tea is the product of drying and fermenting (oxidizing) the tea leaves. Green tea is produced by merely drying the harvested leaves, rather than allow them to ferment. White tea is picked from the unopened buds of the bush. Because the buds have not unfurled yet into leaves, the chlorophyll has not developed enough to produce much color. White tea is as delicate in taste as its subtle hues. I find it bitter if over-brewed; don't leave the teabag in your cup in expectation of drawing much color, or you'll ruin the flavor entirely.

Most tea-drinkers have heard of Oolong tea, which is tea that has oxidized to a degree somewhere past green tea but not as much as black tea. It is often the tea of choice at Chinese restaurants. However, few people are familiar with yellow tea, which is (not surprisingly) yellow in color. Yellow tea is processed similarly to green tea, being merely dried without much oxidization, but it is dried more slowly and kept damp for a longer period.

The word "fermenting" conjures up images of musty-smelling dank cellars, but actually refers to simple oxidization through exposure to air. When black tea is fermented, the leaves are first placed on covered trays for 20 to 30 hours until wilted. They're then mechanically crushed before being aired, a curing process that allows chemical processes to occur which will enhance the color and flavor of the tea.

After fermenting to the desired point, the leaves are put through the rolling machines again. Heat is then applied to halt the fermentation by closing the pores of the leaves. As the lighter varieties of tea are processed, heat is introduced fairly quickly after harvesting to prevent much fermentation. This "firing" process determines the moisture content of the leaves and the level of fragrance and flavor. Some teas, such as green teas, may be fired twice.

Once the tea leaves are fired, they are cut into the appropriate lengths for the type of tea being produced -- a critical component of the process -- and then sorted in preparation for packaging.

A Certain Sort of Tea

"Sorting" is the process of grading tea based on the size and characteristics of the leaves. You may be familiar with "orange and black pekoe" tea, as written on the boxes of mass-market teas such as Lipton's. There's no mystery to the terms; orange refers to the coppery color of some dried tea buds, and the curious word "pekoe" is merely a Chinese term for leaf.

You may also have seen the term "brisk" applied to tea. Brisk teas are stronger, and come from smaller "broken" leaves. Larger leaf teas are milder. When sorted, larger tea leaves are graded as Orange Pekoe or simply Pekoe, and the smaller leaves bear the term "Broken" in front of the type of Pekoe.

Why is small tea brisk? As the leaves are processed through the rolling machine prior to fermentation, smaller teas darken faster because the surfaces receive more air and oxidization. This makes them stronger in flavor. Think of it as meatballs being browned: your small meatballs will brown more rapidly, while big fat meatballs will be less cooked in the center.

In general, English tea drinkers prefer a brisk tea. This is why it's more common to add cream to tea in the U.K. I recall a trip many years ago to London in which I ordered a large cup of coffee at a streetside cafe. The German proprietor turned to his employee and said in German, "Amerikaner! Schwartz und gross!" The "black and big" description could just as easily be applied to the typical American taste for tea: we generally prefer ours in mugs, no cream, rather than in delicate porcelain cups with milk added.

A Tea Blender is a Human, Not a Cuisinart!

"Blending" is the process of mixing different types of tea to achieve a specific flavor -- and consistency of that flavor. Where the tea is grown contributes to its flavor just as the curing and cutting process does; heat, humidity, and soil types are among the factors that influence those flavors. Tea-growing areas must have a certain minimum level of heat, humidity and precipitation to flourish.

Each region has a distinctive characteristic associated with its tea. As an example, tea from Ceylon is famed and favored for its appealing flavor, while Indian tea is known to be strong and stout. Master blenders must know the regions, the conditions, and the best combinations of tea for the flavor they wish to obtain. They must also know which types of tea blend well together; some, just like colors, will clash.

In addition to the unadulterated, pure teas, flavored teas are produced in which essences and flavors of fruits, flowers, and spices are added. Tea blenders are able to express their creativity with combinations that almost approach fruit salad status. My own special favorite, Harney & Sons' Paris blend, is a fruit and oil of Bergamot blend that is irresistible. As delicate and sensuous as that tea is, it might surprise you that another of my favorites is the earthy Lapsang Souchong tea that smells like drawing salve -- an overpowering aroma, for sure, but beneath that scent is an amazing concoction of complex smokey tones. The vast richness of variety in black tea is one of its many delights. It's rare that I don't have a good dozen or so types of tea on my tea counter -- and there are many more in the pantry. For every mood and occasion, there must be an appropriate tea at hand.

Let 'em Loose!

Tea's readily available in those oh-so-convenient tea bags; sachets (or pyramids, depending on what brand you choose); or loose. You might have observed that some of the really fine blends of tea are only available loose, and perhaps you wonder why. Trust me: it's not just that the evil teaocracy wants to force you to take the time necessary to deal with wild, loose tea, or that the Pirates of Tea are trying to sell you extra tea-making implements. The fact is that loose tea is fuller, mellower, and more complex than its more confined counterparts. The leaves are larger and not as broken because they aren't crammed into tiny little sacks. Those proud blenders of fine teas don't want to humiliate and abuse their best teas that way.

The pretentious-looking little tea pyramids, or sachets, are a way to straddle the divide between loose and bagged. The tea leaves aren't victimized quite as much as bagged tea, but are still more convenient to serve for we tea heathens who don't want to deal with tea strainers. You might find it interesting, as I do, to buy the same blend of tea in all three varieties, and do your own taste test -- or you might be muttering under your breath , "Geez, get a life!"

Some Suggestions for the Perfect Cuppa.

As an incurable tea zealot, I've indulged myself with copious amounts of tea. As such, I've formed a few opinions on what makes the best brew. Keeping in mind that regions, nations, and cultures have different expectations for their tea, and that individual preferences govern the flavors and types we choose, there are still some standard guidelines to ensure a better cup.

  1. It's easier to ruin a good cup of tea than it is to ruin a good cup of coffee. For this reason, it's harder to get a good cup of tea in a restaurant or coffee shop than it is to get a decent cuppa joe. Tea is, shall we say, less forgiving than coffee. For the best tea, brew at home or give clear, specific direction to your food server.
  2. Never, ever dunk a teabag into the cup of hot water! Gently (and lovingly) pour the hot water onto the teabag or leaves.
  3. There is something of a science to how hot the water should be for various types of tea. Without getting into the finer distinctions of degree and type, a good general rule is to pour your water just prior to a full boil -- right on the edge of the boil, that is.
  4. Don't reboil your water. Each cup or pot deserves a fresh pot of water. Boiling lets the air out of your water and will change the flavor of your tea, leaving it somewhat flat.
  5. Don't even think of reusing that teabag, you tea heathen, you.
  6. Tea is perishable, and although I'll admit to pushing the limit on shelf lives, it's best to use tea within a few months of purchase.
  7. Iced tea is for sissies. There -- I've said it.
  8. Tea's flavor is influenced by the cup you drink it from. Hot tea tastes terrible in a styrofoam cup; I don't even want to know the chemical process that causes that undesirable effect. Tea from ceramic cups is not much better, and has a flattish taste. The clear glass cups? They add nothing to the flavor and they get cold almost immediately. I am too clumsy and ham-fisted to drink from delicate bone china cups (which have the finest flavor), so I choose stoneware. Those old reliable Brown Betty teapots, still made in England, produce a wonderful pot of tea -- and are durable for indelicate Americans such as myself.
  9. Resist the temptation to vigorously dunk your bag as you're trying to speed up the brewing process -- and please, don't abuse your tea by squashing the bag against a teaspoon. You'll bruise the leaves. Why buy good tea if you're going to treat it that way? And if you're buying cheap tea, it needs all the help it can get! Just don't.
  10. Explore the various types and flavors of tea, and experiment with them at various times of day. A brisker cup of tea is appreciated in the morning, before your taste buds have fully awakened; that's why English Breakfast and Irish Breakfast are strong, wake-you-up cups. In the afternoon, go for an Earl Grey or a fruit-flavored tea -- apricot, peach, mango, passion-fruit are all good choices. Darjeeling teas are famously nuanced; save them for late-day tea breaks. Here's a wonderful, refined unflavored black tea you might enjoy -- Twining's Prince of Wales. It's smooth, not bitter, and appropriate any time of day.

Just Brew It!

There's so much more to know about the wonderful nectar of the gods known as black tea. Do I smell more articles in the making? Or is that just my cup of mango-passion fruit tea?

If you've never treated yourself to a truly good cup of tea, now's the time. Let that afternoon tea break be your mindful moment of the day. Take time to brew it thoughtfully, being gentle with those tender big leaves. Choose a flavored tea and skip the additives; let your tastebuds truly get intimate with the subtle flavor of your chosen leaves. Get wild, and try some Lapsang Souchong -- don't let the pine-tar aroma deter you. Just the scent now gets me giddy.

Now -- just brew it!

Copyright (c) 2013 by MJ Miller

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