August 05 2022 – Diana L
While black tea is one of the most consumed teas, it has an aura about it that scares some people from giving it a try. Why? Because they aren't really sure what black tea tastes like.
The flavor of black tea can range from smoky, spicy, or earthy to nutty, caramel, or fruity. Black tea has a much bolder flavor than green tea or herbal tea. Because of the bold flavor and high caffeine, if you are transitioning from coffee, a cup of black tea may be a good place to start.
But first, what is black tea?
Black tea is a true tea, meaning it comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. Green and white teas also come from the same plant, but the oxidation is controlled or limited producing a lighter colored and flavored tea. Black tea, known for its bolder flavor, is allowed to fully oxidize. Because black tea is fully oxidized, it has a longer shelf life and retains flavor for several years.
Black tea originated in China in the mid-17th century. Prior to that time, only green and oolong teas were consumed. The story is that an army chose to camp near a tea factory in the Fujian Province. Their presence disrupted the tea production in the factory, and the tea was allowed to dry in the sun longer than normal.
The leaves became fully oxidized, turning them dark. In an attempt to save the tea, the farmer finished drying them over an open pinewood fire. He discovered this added a smoky flavor to the tea. This is believed to be the original Lapsang Souchong that launched the popularity of black tea in China and later the Western world.
Black teas are named for the region the plant is grown: Assam comes from India, Ceylon from Sri Lanka, and Darjeeling from India.
What DOES black tea taste like?
Black tea is the darkest of teas because it is the most oxidized tea. Oxidation is the process of exposing the tea leaves to air during the drying stage. Oxidation is responsible for the appearance of the tea as well as what the tea tastes like. Black tea is allowed to fully oxidize which turns the leaves dark and creates the flavor, strength, and aroma of the tea.
Black tea steeps out a dark reddish brew that has a strong, malty flavor. The aroma is deeper than other teas and the flavor is bolder. For this reason, it is an easy tea for someone to transition to coming from coffee. Black tea can be too bold for some which is why milk and sugar are often added.
Black teas contain more tannins than other teas because the leaves are fully oxidized. Tannins are released during the steep and are responsible for the flavor as well as the level of caffeine in the tea. Too few tannins and the tea can be described as weak, or dull. But too many tannins can contribute to a bitter taste, so it is very important to steep black tea properly.
Different types of black tea have different flavors
There is more than one variety of black tea. As mentioned earlier, black teas are named for the country or region in which the tea plants were grown. For the best flavor experience, always start with loose leaf tea instead of tea bags to experience the flavors to the fullest.
Grown in Assam, a region in northeastern India, this tea has a strong, malty flavor profile. The Assam region is one of the largest tea-producing regions in the world making Assam black tea is a very common tea worldwide. Because of its higher caffeine content, it is typically what is used in breakfast blends.
Darjeeling black tea
From West Bengal, India comes Darjeeling, the champagne of teas. Darjeeling is a lighter, amber color and releases a delicate musky spiciness flavor and ripe fruit aroma.
There are two varieties of Darjeeling: First flush and Second flush. The first flush means they are the first leaves of the year. These leaves are often more flowery and lighter. A couple of months later comes the second flush producing leaves that are darker with a fruitier aroma.
Leaves harvested later in the year (after the second flush) are of lower quality and therefore have limited distribution outside of India.
Ceylon black tea
Ceylon tea is grown in Sri Lanka in one of three districts: Up-country, Mid-country, or Low-country. The altitude influences the grade as well as the taste of the tea. The high elevation region of Sri Lanka provides the perfect climate for growing tea with warm days combined with ample rainfall.
Upcountry teas are lighter - lighter color as well as flavor. Mid-country Ceylon is more full-bodied with a strong, rich aroma. Low-country tea is still strong and rich, but typically the leaves are of lower quality.
Most breakfast teas are blends typically made from Assam, Ceylon, or Darjeeling. Breakfast teas have a stronger flavor with higher caffeine content, and are the perfect choice to start your day.
Breakfast teas are made from black tea to produce a robust cup that goes well with a hearty morning meal. Because they are bolder blends, they often go well with a drop of milk.
English Breakfast tea is a classic breakfast tea. This full-bodied black loose leaf tea blend is made with Keemun black tea prized for its rich flavor with a slightly smoky palate. The astringency of this English tea is well-balanced with a honeyed aroma.
Keemun is a black tea from China. The smooth flavor and delicately fruity and smoky notes are contrasted by the deep orange color. Keemun is more mellow with a floral and fruity sweetness, but with less caffeine and maltiness than Assam tea.
Lapsang Souchong is a darker, amber brew. It is known for its smoky flavor that comes from the process of drying the leaves over a pinewood fire. The nutty, smoky flavor is delicious on its own, and does not need the addition of milk.
One of the higher-end black teas is Yunnan black tea. It has a spicy, floral aroma with a reddish black brew. There are varying grades of Yunnan tea – the higher the quality, the less astringency. While the high-end Yunnan can be delicately sweet, the lower-end Yunnan will be a dark brown brew and have a bitter taste.
Yunnan tea has more of an earthy, honey-like sweetness than other black teas. Yunnan is also described as having notes of tobacco, malt, or chocolate.
Blended black teas
Blended black teas are very popular, particularly in the western world. Typically built from a base of Assam or Ceylon, ingredients are added to create uniquely delicious blends.
Black tea is most often the base found in chai tea. Spices such as cinnamon bark, ginger root, cardamom, orange peels, cloves, and apple blend with black tea to make a delicious, robust Apple Chai Spice tea. Masala Chai blends a strong, rich, Ceylon black tea because it is robust enough to balance with the flavorful chai spices such as clove, cardamom, ginger, and cinnamon.
Black tea also blends well with fruit such as in Ginger Peach tea with ginger root, peach, apricot flavor, and marigold flowers. A basic Earl Grey can be livened up with the addition of the warm flavors of vanilla and creme to soften the edge of the bergamot citrus notes creating a smooth, easy-to-drink vanilla earl grey black tea. Or blending the sweet, floral fragrance of lavender creates a soothing, relaxing cup of Lavender Earl Grey tea.
Blended black teas are a good place to start if you are new to black tea. As you develop your palate you will appreciate the subtle nuances of each type of black tea.
If you like a sweeter cup, sugar can add extra depth to your cup. But be sure to use Belgian Rock sugar (or sugar rocks). Made from natural sugar beets, sugar rocks sweeten tea without affecting the flavor of the tea.
Black tea also handles a squeeze of citrus well - lemon or orange. It won't make your brew overly citrusy, it will just enhance the flavors of the tea, especially during warmer summer months.
How to brew black tea for the best taste
Because black tea has gone through more processing (or oxidation) than other tea, it can handle being steeped at a higher temperature. We recommend 200 degrees, just shy of boiling. While green tea is more sensitive, using boiling water on black tea leaves can burn the leaf, and cause a bitter flavor.
Over steeping the leaves can also cause bitterness, so be mindful of the time. Allow the leaves to steep for 2-3 minutes to release the color and aroma into your cup. The color of black tea will range from an amber orange to very dark red tea. You can steep black tea for another cup, but the flavor will weaken with each steep, so use a longer steep time for each subsequent cup.