Black Tea

What Is Black Tea?

In a Western culture when people talk about tea, they’re generally referring to drinking black tea. There are a number of well-known categories of black tea, including sweet tea, sun tea, afternoon tea, iced tea, and many more. Even the famous and popular Earl Grey and English Breakfast blends are made from black tea leaves.

In Eastern culture including in countries such as Japan and China, drinking tea generally refers to green teas. How did black tea become popular in the West and what are the differences between black and green tea?

brown dried leaves in red and white ceramic mug
Photo by petr sidorov on Unsplash

The Origins of Black Tea

It is generally accepted that tea originated in China. This is however the fresh-tasting, delicate green tea that is popular in Eastern society and still forms the foundation of tea culture to this day. As the culture of tea spread across the globe and tea started being processed for export to far flung regions, other countries and ultimately even across oceans, it was found that oxidized black tea retains its flavour and freshness better over long periods than its green tea cousin that has minimal oxidization. In the early days of border trade between Tibet, China and other adjoining countries, tea was even used as currency by fermenting, drying and pressing it into bricks. Most of the black tea that China produces is still exported to this day.

In 1610, the Dutch were the first to bring black and green tea to Europe and it was not until 1658 that it finally arrived in England. Throughout the 1700s, its popularity rose in England’s American colonies. Demand for tea grew exponentially in the 1700s as England increased the importation of sugar from its Caribbean colonies. The British were consuming 2.5 pounds of tea and 17 pounds of sugar annually per capita by 1800. Some believe the trend of adding sugar to tea fuelled the demand for strong black tea rather than the more delicate green tea.

The next significant advance in black tea production happened in the 1800s with the discovery of the Camellia sinensis assamica tea plant variety in India’s Assam region in 1823. This native variety turned out to be very well suited to producing the hearty black tea that was in high demand. The British started planting tea gardens near Nepal in India’s Darjeeling region in 1835. As India was a British colony at the time, the different varieties of black tea became popular exports to England very quickly and tea consumption increased.

Processing Black Tea

It is interesting to note that both black and green tea originates from the Camellia Sinensis plant. Whether tea becomes black or green is determined by how the plant’s leaves are processed and the variety of tea plants.

Varieties of Black Tea

Camellia Sinensis Sinensis

Camellia Sinensis Sinensis is native to China. This smaller-leafed variety is normally used to make green and white teas. It initially developed as a shrub that grew in sunny areas with dry, cool climates. As it has a high tolerance for cold, it thrives in mountainous areas.

Camellia Sinensis assamica

Camellia Sinensis assamica is typically used to produce black tea. This larger-leafed variety of the tea plant originates in India’s Assam district and it grows in moist, warm climates. It is also prolific in sub-tropical forests.

Over time, hundreds of hybrid plants and cultivars have been developed from these Camellia sinensis plant varieties. Technically however, any type of tea can be produced from the leaves of any type of Camellia Sinensis plant, including green, white, oolong, yellow, pu-erh, or black.


Green and black tea is different because the tea leaves for black tea are first fully oxidized before they are dried and heat-processed during production. With oxidation, oxygen is allowed to interact with the cell walls of the tea plant and this turns the leaves to the rich dark black to brown colour that black tea leaves are known for. Oxidation also changes the black tea’s flavour profile, and helps to add smoky, fruity, or even malty notes, depending on the type of tea being produced.

When green tea leaves are however processed, the oxidation done is minimal. They are dried and heated quickly after being harvested to prevent too much oxidation, causing the green leaves to turn brown and changing their fresh-picked flavour. Less oxidation also results in green tea typically being lighter in flavour and colour than black tea, with more seaweed, grassy or vegetal notes, depending on the type of tea.


Black tea is normally produced using one of two methods:

CTC (Crush-Tear-Curl) or Non-Orthodox: In this accelerated version of the production process, tea leaves are not rolled but cut into fine pieces. The smaller pieces of leaves are oxidized more quickly, and this produces a consistent, one-dimensional, bold and strong black tea. The smaller pieces also fit into commercial tea bags easily, which consumers prefer rather than loose leaf tea.

Orthodox: This production method is more time-consuming, and tea leaves are only partially broken or stay whole during processing. Tea leaves are picked from the plants, the moisture reduced by withering, rolled in various ways to bruise the leaves and begin oxidation, oxidized to create flavour and colour, applying the heat to stop oxidation via fired, and then quality graded.

Black Tea Processing (CTC / Non-Orthodox):  Withering => Curling / Tearing / Cutting => Fermenting / Oxidizing => Drying (90°C to 130°C)

Black Tea Processing (Orthodox):  Withering =>1st Rolling => Fermenting / Oxidizing =>Drying (65°C to 110°C)

Black tea is typically rolled immediately after the withering process to start the oxidation processes quickly. Before they are dried, the leaves are oxidized fully, which is how they obtain their rich flavour and dark colour.

Black Tea Types

Black tea is cultivated and processed across the globe in varying climates and geographies. Today three of the biggest producers of black tea are Africa, Sri Lanka and India. Nearly 50% of tea production in the world originates in India.

Some of the more popular types of black tea that come out of these countries include:


Darjeeling is grown in the minor mountainous tea-producing region in India and is a more herbaceous, softer black tea. Its flavour tends to change from season to season depending on the climate. Darjeeling is often used as the base for Chai, the popular spiced beverage from India.


The Assam region in India is the biggest tea-growing area in the world. The tropical, rainy climate produces teas well known for their malty, bold characteristics that are ideally combined with sugar and milk.


Kenya only started tea production in the early 1900s, making it a latecomer to the scene. The country however learned fast and is now the leader in the industry and Africa in the CTC tea production style. It produces and exports mainly black tea. Kenyan tea is known for its full-bodied and assertive style.


Although not a top-producing tea region in the world, Northern Bangladesh’s Tetulia region is home to Teatulia’s own organic tea garden which is USDA-certified. Covering an area of close to 2,000 acres, the tea garden is one of the biggest of its kind globally. The Camellia sinensis assamica tea plant variety is cultivated using natural farming methods that don’t cause any harm to the environment. The conventional approach is used to process black tea, leaving the fully oxidized leaf whole. This brews into a sweet, fresh liquor with notes of honey and apricot.


Sri Lanka’s economy depends heavily on the more than 500,000 acres of tea gardens in the country ranging from mountainous and cool to tropical and humid.

Sri Lanka mostly exports black tea, known as Ceylon. Ceylon teas do vary depending on where they are grown, but they are normally brisk and strong with a hint of spice. Sri Lanka also produces cinnamon.

Black Tea Taste

Western palates have over the years become accustomed to strong black tea that goes well with cream and sweetener, or generous helpings of ice. This meant that the variety and quality of loose leaf tea weren’t regarded highly for a long time in the West. To meet the demand for tea drinking, mass production was far more important. As consumers however became more educated about the world of tea, demand for artisan, premium, loose leaf teas increased steadily, and flavour, freshness, and variety have become critical differentiating factors in determining which black tea to drink.

When drinking tea, it should be remembered that different types of black teas taste different. There are nearly unlimited variables that impart their own particular flavour profiles to individual black teas, including if it grew close to other crops that may affect its flavour (e.g. coffee plants or rose bushes), where it was grown, the type of climate it grew in, how it was fertilized – with chemicals or naturally, how long the leaves were oxidized, the type of heat treatment applied to stop oxidization, and whether the leaves were cut into small pieces (non-orthodox) or left whole (orthodox) before packaging.

Black tea is generally more decadent, bolder, and more robust than what green tea is. A cup of brewed black tea ranges in colour from dark brown to red to amber. The flavour profile varies from sweet to savoury, depending on the oxidation process and what heat process was used. Black tea is typically more astringent and bitter than green tea. It should however be smooth and flavourful if brewed correctly.

Some common terms used to describe black tea’s overall flavour profile include brisk, earthy, malty, smoky, caramel, leather, metallic, citrus, spiced, nutty, honey, sweet and fruity.

Black Tea’s Caffeine Content

Coffee normally has the most caffeine content per cup, followed by black tea, and then green tea. There are however many factors that can determine the caffeine level in black tea like any other beverage made from a caffeinated plant, including how the tea was processed and how it was brewed.

A general guideline for average caffeine content per 8 oz. Beverage is:

  • Brewed Coffee: between 95 and 200 mg
  • Black Tea: between 14 and 61 mg
  • Green Tea: between 24 and 40 mg

Storing and Buying Black Tea

Black tea should only ever be bought from reputable companies that know how and when the tea was packaged and processed. This will ensure you’ll get the freshest black tea possible Although tea doesn’t really go “bad”, it can become stale if it’s been sitting around for too long. Delicate green tea has a shorter shelf life than its oxidized black tea cousin. Many black teas will easily last for up to one or even two years if it is stored properly in a dark, cool place and in an airtight opaque container away from moisture and light and other pantry items such as spices and coffee whose flavour can leach into the tea leaves.

Black Tea Consumption

To get your cup of black tea brewed perfectly, it is ideal to get brewing instructions specific to the type of tea you have bought. Many types of black teas have different steeping times and brewing temperatures.

The following general black tea brewing tips will come in handy:

  • Never overstep your black tea! The longer tea is steeped, the more it will release astringency or bitterness. Taste your tea after the required steeping time, and then decide if you want it to steep some more.
  • Use cold, pure, and fresh filtered water. Springwater works best.
  • If the black tea was supplied with specific brewing recommendations, use those. A safe way is using around 2 grams of loose leaf black tea per 8 oz. of water.
  • Good quality loose leaf black tea can normally be infused a few times.
  • If an electric kettle with temperature control is not available, remember that water at sea level simmers at 190°F and boils at 212° F. The boiling temperature decreases by around one degree for each altitude increase of 100 feet.
  • Green and black tea is normally steeped in water that has just boiled at a temperature around 200° F to 212° F for 3 to 5 minutes.
  • While it’s infusing, cover the black tea to keep as much heat as possible in the steeping container.
  • Although plain black tea is delightful on its own, it is often enjoyed with a little sweetener and milk or cream.