Tea

Brief Guide to Black Tea

Background

This production style most likely began in the Wuyi Mountains of Fujian by mistake. It became popular in England in the 1700s under the names Bohea, Congou, and Souchong which refer to Wuyi, Gongfu, and Xiao Zhong teas. By the 1830s, the British began setting up their own tea plantations in Assam, a region within the colony of India, to decrease dependence on Chinese tea. They enlisted Robert Fortune, a prominent botanist, to smuggle plants and trade secrets to Darjeeling in order to produce a higher quality product that could rival the best Chinese teas.

Prominent Growing Regions

Yunnan Black tea from Yunnan is known as Dian Hong. Various types are produced including some of the highest quality black teas in China. Most of the tea uses the Camelia sinensis assamica subspecies, also known as Da Ye or Big Leaf.

Anhui – This region produces some of the highest quality teas in China, specifically in the area surrounding the Yellow Mountains or Huang Shan. Keemun is probably the most well known black tea from this region.

Fujian – Fujian is mostly known for its oolong, but it also produces one of the most sought after black teas in China: Jin Jun Mei. Lapsang Souchong and Golden Monkey teas also come from this region.

Assam – The Assam region of India produces tea that is bold and brisk. The two main processing styles are orthodox or traditional and crush, tear, curl (CTC.) CTC Assam is the base of many blends, including chai. For more information about Assam see our full blog HERE.

West Bengal – Within this province is the Darjeeling Region. Darjeeling tea uses Camelia sinensis sinensis cultivars. This is more similar to the tea used across China outside of Yunnan. The cultivars and processing techniques were originally smuggled out of China by a prominent botanist of the time, Robert Fortune. Today Darjeeling teas are the some of the highest quality in the world.

Sri Lanka – Tea from Sri Lanka is still known by its former name, Ceylon. The tea is more mild than Assam and is a workhorse for blends.

Processing

Plucking

Plucking or picking will generally occur in the spring. The first flush or budding is typically the most delicate. These fresh young buds and 1-2 leaves produce high quality teas, but many black teas will use older and larger leaves.

Plucking tea in Anhui, China

Withering

Withering is the partial drying of the leaves to 50-60% moisture. The loss of moisture softens the leaves which allows them to be rolled and shaped without breaking. The rate of withering will impact the final flavor and can be manipulated by doing so in the sun or moving the tea indoors into cool environments.

Macerating

Macerating or bruising the tea is important in breaking down the cells and releasing enzymes to accelerate oxidation. Maceration of black teas is primarily done by compressing and rolling the leaves in machines, but sometimes by hand.

Drums in the back macerate the leaves by tumbling before the tea is piled to oxidize

Oxidation

Black teas are the most heavily oxidized teas. In China, they are piled and covered in damp cloths for several hours as the enzymes released during maceration break down the leaves. This requires more time, but produces tea with less astringency. Oxidation occurs more quickly in India. The tea is placed on trays in humid, climate controlled oxidation chambers.

Drying

This step haults the oxidation of the leaves. It typically involves hot air dryers on conveyor belts and may be finished by firing in a pan.

Sorting & Grading

Orthodox tea will be sorted by size after drying. Broken leaves will be shaken through screens where the biggest leaves will remain on top while fannings and dust falls to the bottom.

Sorting equipment in Qimen, Anhui

Orthodox teas are graded based on shaping quality, leaf size, and proportion of buds. The highest quality teas are full, unbroken leaves that are tightly rolled, with a high portion of buds.

Vocabulary
Finest – Highest portion of buds
Tippy – Higher portion buds
Golden – High portion of buds
Flowery – Has some buds

Grades – Descending in Quality
FTGFOP – Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
TGFOP – Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
GFOP – Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
FOP – Flowery Orange Pekoe
OP – Orange Pekoe
BOP – Broken Orange Pekoe

Brewing

Brewing Black tea is more forgiving than green teas or delicate oolongs. Using standard western brewing methods like tea infusers, bags, and pots, it should be brewed at a higher temperature (205°F) for longer periods of time (4-6 minutes) to achieve optimal extraction. This will vary based on oxidation level and leaf size. Lower oxidation levels and broken leaf grades of tea will perform better at the shorter end of the brewing range.

Brewing black tea Gongfu style can reveal complex and nuanced flavors that may be less clear brewing western style. This style uses a stronger brew ratio and several shorter steeps to reveal what flavors are extracted at varying parts of the brew.

What you will need:
Gaiwan
Filtration device, optional
Small pitcher (Gong Dao Bei)
Tea tray (chachuan), optional
Scale
Kettle
Tea cups
1g/fl oz loose leaf tea

Step 1: Add tea to gaiwan
Step 2:
Rinse tea with hot water and immediately
discard, this removes dust and preheats vessel
Step 3: Add water to gaiwan until full, and steep for 30 seconds
Step 4: Carefully shift the lid away from the gaiwan lip, creating a small space for water to pass. Pour the infusion through the filtration device into pitcher
Step 5: Decant first steep evenly into separate cups until pitcher is empty
Step 6: Repeat this process for 3-5 steeps, remarking on the change of flavor with each successive steep

Patrick McKeown

Patrick began his coffee journey on Long Island at a small coffee bar and roasting at home. Since then he has been a barista, manager, and craft roaster in NYC.