Black tea belongs to the category of fully fermented tea and its bright reddish infusion has a rich aromatic flavour. Black tea manufactured in China usually comprises integral tea leaves or buds.
China’s main black tea producing regions; the province of Yunnan, Anhui, and the legendary Lapsang farm in Tong Mu Village of the Wu Yi Mountains are finally being acknowledged in China as genuinely top quality teas in their own right. They are hand-picked and laboriously hand processed, achieving the exact amount of oxidation (exposure to air at the critical stage in processing, which is also known as fermentation) to produce the unique rich, robust black tea flavor and beautiful amber to red color.
The question of when black tea was invented remains much debated amongst tea scholars. All we can surely say is that by the 16th century black tea was appearing in Chinese tea markets.
Styles of Black Tea
There are three distinct styles of producing black tea in China.
1. Zhen Shan Xiao Zhong Hong Cha 正山小种 – The original style of black tea from the Wu Yi mountains. Higher grades are comprised of broad open leaves and are roasted and dried by the heat an earthen oven wood burning fire. This oven is thought to have evolved, or at least is similar to the oven used to dry tobacco. This style of processing tea may intentionally expose the drying leaves to the smoke of horse tail pine trees during drying to impart a prominent tarry character that its teas are known for. This was not the intention in the beginning.
2. Gong Fu Hong Cha 功夫红茶 – Sometimes called to as “Congou” black tea by western sources. “Congou” or “Gong Fu” is a reference to patience and skill required by its manufacturing process. This is the most widespread style of black tea produced in China. Both Keemun and Dian Hong black teas are made by the Gong Fu method. Traditionally, this method requires hand picking of whole buds and leaves. After a fair amount of delicate hand processing higher quality examples of Gong Fu Hong Cha are dried over charcoal while electric dryers may be used to finish lesser grades. Good Gong Fu style black tea will retain recognizable leaf shape, although it is not uncommon for lower grades to be chopped like Hong Sui Cha.
3. Hong Sui Cha 红碎茶- Broken Black Tea made specifically for foreign consumption. This type of tea is mass produced with modern machinery and is sorted in accordance with the grading system used by the international market.
When looking for black teas, you should look for the freshest, most recently plucked black teas, as black teas will degrade in color, aroma and flavor over time, and most expire within 1-2 years, even when stored properly. The color should be bright and black, not dull or grey, and there should be a pleasant aroma about the tea. If the tea has gone bad it will begin to smell rancid or lose its fragrance all together. All varieties of black tea should look, smell and taste pleasant and smooth with little astringency
Storing Chinese Black Tea
Black Tea can be stored for long periods and improves with age. Also, caffeine levels tend to diminish naturally over time. We recommend a porcelain or glass container placed on a shelf, preferably not in the kitchen. The more airtight the container the better, as tea easily absorbs odours.