What Is Black Tea?
Known as hong cha or "red tea" in Chinese, black teas are 'fully' oxidized. This means that the leaves are browned more than 80%. Crafting the leaves in this way creates the bold, rich flavors that the category is known for.
The heavy oxidation also helps to give black teas a long shelf life. This made them prime teas for export to distant lands. Ships and camel caravans took months to bring black tea to international markets.
Black tea is now one of the most consumed styles of tea across the globe. Modern production has spread across almost every continent. But mass production sacrifices quality and flavor. These shortcomings are often masked with milk and sugar. To meet our sourcing standards, black teas must taste great even without additives.
How Is Black Tea Made?
Black teas may be picked at any time of year. In contrast to green teas, the robust qualities of late harvest leaves are often preferred. Due to the high rate of oxidation, the bitterness of mature leaves mellow into full bodied flavor.
After harvesting, crafters speed up the natural process of oxidation. The leaves are rolled, twisted, or even chopped the to break down the cell walls in the leaf. Then they are covered, and left to oxidize. Once the leaves appear completely browned, they are roasted. This finishing step removes any remaining moisture and preserves flavor during storage.
Today, the worldwide market for black tea is huge. Most common black teas are processed at least in part by machine, to keep up with demand. Large plantations use machines to shear the top layer of leaves from the bushes, chopping the leaves as they're picked. With full oxidation as the goal, careful monitoring of the leaves is not so important. These methods of processing don't 'ruin' the tea. But aggressive handling tends to produce a more robust and tannic brew. A more gentle bruising done by hand will create rich yet delicate flavor profiles.
Signs Of Quality
We recognize that many of our black teas defy expectations. Keep in mind that we use the same principles of quality as we apply to other styles of Chinese teas. Different measures are common in judging black teas from other countries. In particular, black teas from India use a grading system with letter codes that denote harvest date and crafting styles. Chinese teas have no such standardization. Instead, we look for black teas that are naturally sweet and complex in flavor. We recommend tasting them without milk or sugar to appreciate their quality.
Thus, our favorite black teas are always picked and crafted by hand. As with other tea types, young buds of the plant produce a rich mouthfeel. Black teas consisting of only buds tend to have a malted texture. Slow growth at high elevations can also produce flavors that are sweet and smooth. Late harvests from high elevation farms tend to be crisper and fruitier in the cup.