Think back to your first memories of tea. What types of images are elicited? For me, I picture a tea bag, being gingerly plunged up and down in a steaming cup of dark red or black liquid. This will have assuredly been a black tea - English breakfast, Lipton, Earl Gray - the ubiquitous facets of Western tea consumption.
Black or Red?
But if you’re like most Westerners, the connotation of “black tea” doesn’t really allow for the luxurious, complex experience that fine teas can elicit. More often, we’re conditioned to see black tea as common and unvarying - perhaps simply due to the title. Black is black, after all; monodimensional, uninteresting. In China, however, this variety of fully oxidized leaf (called hong cha or "red tea") contains a diverse array of qualities.
So named because of the color of the tea’s liquor, the visual variance in the color red bring about an alluring, enigmatic quality that evokes passion, depth and complexity. These descriptors reveal the true nature of a black (red) tea, and the energy felt from these teas I would consider grounding, earnest and powerful.
There's something about the dark, smooth, pure and strong character of these teas that is simply divine, convincing, and transcendent. Though some characteristics are shared across the board, for example, in teas from China and India, many of the factors that affect the flavor of these teas simply cannot be replicated outside of certain regions, whether it be based on soil, climate, genetics or processing. Today, I'll focus on Chinese black teas.
Black, or red tea - A fully oxidized tea that generally has dark brown or black leaves. “Black” is a very general way to describe a tea, and in the same way that there are many shades of every color, these teas are just as varied.
Though not always the case with black teas, they can have an inherent astringency, or bitterness, that can be reduced with the addition of milk and/or sugar (to the chagrin of its producers). Not all black teas will take to milk and sugar successfully, though this is the most popular way to serve black tea in the West, whereas in Asia, if drinking black tea, plain is the most common fashion.
Black teas are better suited for long term storage than green or oolong teas, and as such were more popular in the West during the early history of European/Asian tea trade.
Chinese Black Tea
The archetypal nature of black tea in the West belies the fact that the style's history doesn't seem to be present until being developed in plantations during the Ming dynasty (which ended in 1644). Surprising to me as a lover of black tea, this is not a popularly consumed style among even those who produce it - in China, black tea makes up only about 1/20th of the nation's total tea production - green tea, by far, makes up most of this harvest.
Black teas can't be said, generally speaking, to contain more caffeine than, say, greens; while caffeine is largely sequestered in young leaves, with black teas there's not a polarizing distinction across the category that would suggest a more highly-caffeinated brew. It's not uncommon to find buds among the leaves, often providing beautiful golden contrast to the dark black or red leaves. The leaves of the sinensis varietal are usually small, with minor variations in shape, especially compared to the black teas of India’s Assam region (although related). Special varietals exist even within this Latin sinensis distinction, as is the case with the well-known Keemun.
Processing the Leaves
A side-note on Pu-erh tea: Generally speaking, calling a Pu-erh a "black tea" may be semi-accurate but is not generally discussed as part of this category. Now often intentionally aged or simulated-aged, I like to look at Pu-erh tea as leaves that are on a (potentially) very long road to becoming a black tea, or fully oxidized.
To read more about Pu-erh tea, check out the blog post here.
Withering is the first step the leaves undergo after being carefully plucked. This process softens the leaves so that they are more malleable and the next step, rolling, is made easier as a result. This action stimulates the oxidizing enzymes that turn the green, withered leaves into a fully oxidized tea with leaves of black, brown, gold, orange and red.
Next, oxidation is stimulated by covering the leaves with a damp cloth for up to half a day. Compared to oxidation of Indian black tea, this process creates a more mild and less astringent tea. There isn't really a set-in-stone methodology, as all variables are taken into account by the tea handler to produce a fine tea that is the result of much skill and experience. It is the prerogative of the tea artist to elicit fine flavor that showcases the terroir as well as his own skill in shaping the final product.
Finally, the leaves are dried which slows oxidation. There are various methods used to dry the leaves, but warmth and heat are paramount at this stage to reduce the presence of residual moisture, improving stability.
Chinese Black Tea Varieties
The major black teas of China can be divided into a few major types. A short list includes Keemun, Yunnan and Lapsang Souchong. Each has its own characteristic growing region, processing methods and of course, flavor.
Considered the birthplace of the tea species, Yunnan province in China has a surprisingly short history in making black tea. Since that start in 1939, however, it has become the main black tea producing region in China. Yunnan black tea has soft, lightly-twisted leaves that are broad and can be infused many times and yields a woody, dried apricot, leather and earthy flavor that has a strong finish. Gold-orange buds (the youngest part of a tea plant) are a major part of this tea's leaves and the appearance and flavor of tobacco and pepper is unmistakeable; tiny hairs impart a lingering tenacity on the palate. Teas from the Yunnan region are some of my absolute favorites.
Keemun tea is made from the small-leafed tea plant that results in a tea that is lightly sweet, with notes of cocoa and a clean and focused maltiness with a strong fruity characteristic - surprisingly fruity. The inherent sweetness of this tea is a quality I adore in teas, tending to weaken my knees, elicit wistful daydreams and strike up wordless conversations with the leaves. It is the only of the red teas that is on China's top-10 list of favorite teas.
The unique Lapsang Souchong is a special black tea that is processed with a step that contributes pine smoke to the tea - the final drying of the tea is done above smoldering pine embers. It should be noted that the smoky characteristic is not subtle. It can often be sharp in smokiness but is clean and always convincing. While this tea will make excellent kombucha, I find the smokiness to be a little overbearing so will usually "cut" it with another, unsmoked, tea. I've had great success with Lapsang-chamomile kombucha, as well.
'Buching with Black Teas
Not to be overlooked is the quality of kombucha that can be achieved through use of the many varieties of black tea. Flavors that can be expected vary widely - malted barley, toffee, caramel, biscuits, coconut, to name a few - and are unique to each tea, but really across the board the stand-out flavor I find that is elicited in black teas is that of apples.
SCOBYs are absolutely voracious for black tea, and it shows in explosive growth and a reliably quick ferment. Chinese hongcha is just the start of our exploration of brewing with black tea kombucha. Another of the world's major black tea production regions is India, whose abundance of variety is the topic of a future entry.
Above all, 'buch brewers, remember that variety is the spice of 'buch, and you need not look to post-fermentation flavoring to make spectacular kombucha! Don't feel pinned down to any specific dogma regarding teas, especially the sleeping giant of black teas - varied and complex - which may have previously been hiding behind the Liptons and English Breakfasts of the world. Look around, sip often, and brew constantly - and don't forget to have fun!