Black Tea: Exploring the basics (Part 1/4)
When people in Western culture talk about tea, they usually refer to black tea. Most hot cuppas and iced tea are typically made using black tea and many of the most popular blends, like English Breakfast and Earl Grey, are made from black tea leaves.
In contrast, in Eastern culture, particularly in countries like China and Japan, tea primarily refers to green tea. So, what makes the difference between black and green tea? And how did black tea become so popular in the West?
Origins of Black Tea
There are many stories about the origin of tea in China. However, the delicate and fresh taste of green tea gained popularity in Eastern society and remains the foundation of tea culture there to this day. As tea culture spread and tea was traded beyond regions, black tea, being more oxidised, retained its freshness and flavour better during long journeys compared to its minimally oxidised counterpart, green tea. Tea was used as currency in the early days of border trade between China, Tibet, and nearby countries. They would ferment the tea, then dry it and press it into bricks. Even today, most of the black tea produced in China is exported.
Tea made its way to Europe when the Dutch first introduced it in 1610 and arrived in England in 1658. It gained popularity in England's American colonies throughout the 1700s. We've heard different accounts at this point on the milk and sugar debate - some say that milk and sugar were added to hide any staleness to the tea from its long journey; others say that these were added as England increased sugar imports from the Caribbean and combined, each drove the popularity of the other.
The subsequent significant development in black tea production occurred in the 1800s when they began to grow tea in Assam and Darjeeling in India. With India being a British colony then, these different varieties of black tea quickly became famous exports to England.
We've read many reports that tea was "discovered" in the area; others say differently.*
When we ask our friends in the Darjeeling region what happened, there are varying reports, and many told us that the British were trading opium with China for tea, and when China shut off exports to stop the opium crisis, tea was smuggled out of China by Robert Fortune to begin growing in Darjeeling, India - while there was native tea plant discovered in Assam by Robert Bruce in 1823, it took more than a decade before this plant was recognized as being the a similar plant as the Camellia sinensis growing in China. The lingering evidence is that some tea plantations there still have poppy gardens from when they were making opium for the British to trade for tea.
Many years on now, the tea in each region has taken on characteristics of its own, with Indian varieties typically based on cloning techniques for consistency of harvest and flavour and Chinese teas being seed-based for the complexity of flavour and aroma, each with different manufacturing techniques to bring out the best from their respective varieties.
News up part 2/4 - How Black Tea is made