What Is Chinese Black Tea?
Chinese black tea – or “Hong Cha” (Red Tea), as it’s called in Asia – is a whole leaf tea that has been fully oxidized until the leaves turn reddish-brown.
Mellow, sweet, and yet rich and earthy in its flavor, Chinese black tea makes an excellent afternoon beverage. It also has the looks to match its taste, thanks to careful handcrafting that gives a beautiful shape to the dry leaves.
Handcrafting also ensures the best flavor in your whole leaf black tea. 95% of commercially available teas are processed using the mechanized crush, tear and curl (CTC) method. This method can oxidize and convert fresh leaves into black tea in under an hour. In terms of flavor, though, machine-processed teas don’t come close to authentic Chinese black teas. The complex and subtle notes of these handmade teas are directly related to their slow and meticulous processing.
A Brief History Of Chinese Black Tea
Legend has it that black tea was born in the Wuyi Mountains of China’s northern Fujian region. Though a large percentage of tea drinkers around the world today prefer Chinese black tea, it’s actually a pretty recent addition to the list of most popular teas.
For centuries, the only teas consumed in China were the green teas and Chinese oolong varieties. During the times of the Late Ming and Early Qing Dynasties (17th century), there was barely any mention of black tea. Fully oxidized black teas were seen as inferior varieties and produced just for export purposes at first. It’s only now that they have acquired a global following.
For the authentic Chinese black tea experience, it’s best to take your tea without any add-ons. Unblended Chinese black tea has a lovely aroma of its own. It’s naturally sweet, makes for a full-bodied sip, and offers hints of fruit, chocolate, malt and smoke. The strength, fragrance and taste will differ from batch to batch, depending on the tea plant varietal, region, harvest time, and farming and processing methods used.
This brings us to the question:
How Is Chinese Black Tea Made?
The main difference between black tea and other types of tea lies in how the tea leaves are processed. With green tea, the idea is to retain the color of the fresh leaves. Black tea, on the other hand, goes through oxidation until the green leaves have turned coppery red.
The following steps are involved in the processing of Chinese black tea:
- Picking – Tea leaves that are picked early in the year are considered to be the best. Picking usually happens in the beginning of April, with a few other harvests later in the year.
- Wilting – The picked leaves are exposed to warm air to allow them to wither, soften, and release the enzymes that will later oxidize them. Black tea is withered for a longer period of time than green or oolong tea, so as to deepen and strengthen its flavor.
- Rolling – The wilted leaves are gently rolled to release the flavonoids responsible for its final flavor. Though rolling of black tea leaves has largely become a mechanized process now, the finest Chinese black teas continue to be rolled by hand.
- Fermentation – The rolled leaves are exposed to specific temperatures and humidity levels, and allowed to oxidize slowly. During this process, the leaves darken to a brown or black shade, while tips take on a coppery golden sheen. The color difference is because of different chlorophyll levels in the leaves. Fermentation decides the flavor profile of the finished black tea.
- Baking – The fermented leaves go through a final round of drying or firing to stop them from oxidizing further. Drying the leaves until their moisture content is just 3% also prevents them from becoming moldy. Certain Chinese black teas are known for their unique baking processes. Lapsang Souchong, for instance, is fired using wood smoke.
By drying out the tea leaves, processing also reduces their weight. Typically, one can expect 20-25kg of finished black tea from 100kg of fresh tea leaves.
The Most Famous Chinese Black Tea Types
Chinese black tea is a world in itself, offering countless delightful flavors for you to enjoy. Here are the most famous types of Chinese black tea that you absolutely shouldn’t miss!
Lapsang Souchong is steeped in history, being the world’s first black tea. Its birthplace – near Tong Mu Guan in the Wuyi Mountains, Fujian province – is a protected area today. Foreigners can’t enter this region at all, and even Chinese citizens require special permits to visit. The legendary Zhen Shan Xiao Zhong tea continues to be produced here. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of ‘fake’ Lapsang Souchong on the market today that doesn’t actually come from this region.
Authentic Lapsang Souchong tea is unique in many ways. For one, it’s harvested quite late in the year. Chinese tea harvests start towards the end of February, but Lapsang Souchong may be picked even in late May. This is because of the climatic conditions in its high-altitude growing region in northern China. This black tea also has unique processing traditions. The leaves are dried with smoke from pine branches in a specific type of smokehouse.
Dian Hong black tea is one of the most popular Chinese teas out there. It comes from Yunnan, the province that also produces pu-erh tea. This tea was first developed in the late 1930s, and has since then won hearts with its rich and robust flavor and lovely floral aftertaste.
If you’re about to step into the enchanting world of Hong Cha, Keemun black tea is what we’d recommend trying first. This tea has a fragrance that places it in a league of its own. A whiff of Keemun black tea will bowl you over with its intense floral notes laced with sweet hints of fruit. This is the only black tea that has earned a spot on China’s Ten Famous Teas list.
Golden Monkey tea is a product of Fujian mountain region. Made from fresh Fuding Pekoe leaves and buds, it offers a delightful and distinctive fruity flavor. Golden Monkey gets its unique name from the frizzy golden tips of the tea leaves, and the fact that the dry leaves resemble monkey paws. The beautiful black and gold tea leaves produce a strong, brisk brew with a unique flavor and lingering sweetness.
How To Brew Black Tea
Black tea rewards you in terms of both taste and health benefits. You do need to brew it correctly, though, or you could end up with an overly strong or bitter cuppa. Here’s what you need to do to make yourself a perfect batch of black tea:
- Boil water in a clean kettle. Let it cool down just a little, until the temperature is between 200 and 212°F. You can make use of a temperature control tea kettle to get this right.
- Measure the right amount of whole leaf black tea and place it in a clean teapot or cup. Usually, 1 teaspoon is good for 8oz of water.
- Pour hot water into the teapot or cup. If you’re using a teapot, don’t fill it more than 80%.
- Let the tea leaves steep for 2-3 minutes.
- The distinctive color and fragrance of your black tea will now emerge. Let the infusion cool down a bit to be able to relish your tea.