Overview of black teas

Tea types produced depend upon their manufacturing process. They are generally classified on the degree of fermentation the tea leaves are allowed to undergo. The term fermentation is a misnomer in the tea manufacturing process. It actually denotes how much a tea is allowed to undergo enzymatic oxidation process by allowing the freshly picked tea leaves to dry. This process may be controlled either by pan frying or steaming the leaves until they are completely dried out.

All varieties of tea come from the Camellia Sinesis plant, but it is the processing that makes a world of difference. Depending on the degree of fermentation, teas are classified as: Non-fermented, Semi-fermented and Fully-fermented or black tea. Which has been fully oxidized or fermented and yields a hearty-flavored, amber brew.

Black teas are harvested, dried and well fermented to give them their distinctive flavors. As said before, the different classes of tea – Black, Green, Pouchong, Oolong etc. – are the result of differences in the tea manufacturing process and not derived from different types of tea plants.

However, certain varieties, locations, and seasons tend to produce Camellia Sinesis plants which produce better qualities of certain classes of tea.

There are two types of black teas: Orthodox teas and CTC teas. Most teas in the west are Orthodox teas which have the appearance of a leaf either whole or broken and are distinctly different from CTC (cut, tear, and curl) teas which tend to be in the form of round globules. Like the other teas, the process of producing orthodox black tea begins with picking of the top three leaves and a bud. The tea manufacturing process is quite an involved one.

The tea has to be plucked by hand and once the leaf basket is full, it is brought to the factory floor after weighing. Here the tea undergoes a withering process to remove as much moisture as possible and to prepare it for oxidation and drying. The tea leaves are spread out on a large tray of wire mesh, and hot air blowers are used to heat the leaf and drive the moisture out which makes the leaf limp and turns into a darker shade of green. The next process is rolling wherein the leaf is put into roller machines that twist and turn the leaf and break it, giving it the wiry shape characteristic of Darjeeling orthodox leaf.

The process of rolling releases the enzymes from the leaf as the leaf breaks, exposing the juices to natural process of oxidation. In the next step or the oxidation stage (for black tea), the leaf is allowed to oxidize by exposing it to air in large trays. As the leaf oxidizes, it generates heat, and slowly changes in color from green to red to brown to eventually black. Proper oxidation of the leaf is critical in the final flavor and color produced in the leaf.

Finally, the tea is ready for drying. Again, the leaf is exposed to hot air from air blowers, which drive the remaining moisture out of the leaf. Once the leaf is dry, the tea is marked and tasted by an expert taster who describes the tea and issues the certificate of release. Often a blender blends various batches of tea to produce a characteristic flavor. But blending work is not done at the tea garden level but at the blender and packers warehouse.

Well known black teas are either Chinese or Indian.

The Chinese varieties that are well known are:

‘Keemum’ is considered by most to be finest of all Chinese black teas. It is smooth and very aromatic and can be found in many quality tea blends. It is great by itself, or with a bit of milk and sugar.

‘Lapsang Souchong’ is another black tea from China which has a strong smoky flavor that many find delicious, but not everyone.

‘Yunnan’ a black tea with rich and slightly peppery taste liked by many for its flavor which has a bit of bite.

Though ‘Pu-erh’ is very famous, it fits into more than one tea type, which poses some problems for classification as a black tea.

Among the Indian black teas the following are worth mentioning:

‘Darjeeling’ is named after the Darjeeling district in the State of West Bengal in India. This region also produces excellent green and oolong teas. The black Darjeeling teas have a delicate flavor but are still full-bodied.

‘Assam’ as the name suggests, is from the state of Assam and is a very full-bodied tea. But lacks the hint of spice found in Keemun. The flavor is strong and rich, and great with anything.

‘Nilgiri’ is a lighter and more delicate black tea, from South India. This tea is excellent for the novice brewer. It is said that this tea is forgiving to the brewer even if not steeped quite right.