Black Tea

Assam black tea leaves

All tea comes from the plant species Camellia sinensis. However, the plant can be further classified into two variants: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. assamica. These plants are also known by their common names, Chinese tea and Assam tea (or Indian tea), respectively.

Tea is the most consumed beverage besides water (Khan, 2018), and black tea (Camellia sinensis var. assamica) is the most widely consumed type of tea. Black tea is more oxidized than oolong, green, and white teas, and has a more robust flavour. In taste, black tea is most similar to pu'er tea.

Overview.

The first section outlines the flavour, preparation and health benefits of black tea. The second section covers my thoughts and recommendations for black tea. The third section provides in-depth coverage of black tea, including the different grades of black tea, where it is grown, some standard blends, and the health benefits of black tea. The fourth and final section is a summary of the key points discussed.

Given the scope of the topic, black tea's origin, dissemination, and the rise in popularity are covered separately in The History of Black Tea In England, Indian Black Tea, and Kenyan Black Tea.

Flavour, Preparation and Health Benefits of Black Tea.

Flavour Profile of Black Tea.

The flavour of green tea varies based on the specific type of green tea prepared, and whether the water used is the correct temperature. Overall, green tea has a fresh, grassy, and light taste.

How To Prepare Black Tea.

Green tea should be made with boiled water that is cooled to 76 °C (170°F), and should be steeped for one to three minutes. Loose-leaf green tea should be consumed straight, either hot or cold.

Health Benefits of Black Tea.

Black tea has several health benefits. It's a source of antioxidants and may benefit your bones and brain. Black tea may also help prevent stroke, cancer, and aid weight loss. 

Tea Recommendations and Personal Thoughts.

Mackenzie Bailey

Founder of The Tea Tribe

Black tea is a staple in most everyone's tea cupboard, no matter where they are at in their tea drinking journey. There are many types of black tea, so I have broken my recommendations into two categories: pure black tea and black tea blends.

My favourite pure black teas are:
1. First Flush Darjeeling by Twinings
2. Kumari Gold by Tea Rebellion
3. Jin Jun Mei by Capital Tea

My top three favourite black tea blends are:
1. Seasonal Blend by Fortnum and Mason
2. Smoky Russian by Bird & Blend
3. Lady Grey by Twinings

A Comprehensive Discussion of Black Tea. 

Geographic Origins of Black Tea.

Several countries produce black tea, the most noteworthy being China, India, Kenya and Sri Lanka. Unblended black teas are conventionally named after the region where it was grown and produced. Much like wine, different areas have a reputation for making teas with varying characteristics of flavour. 

Black Tea Grades. 

Black tea is graded based on the quality and condition of the tea leaves. The highest grades for Western and South Asian teas are referred to as "flowering orange pekoe," and the lowest grades as "fannings" or "dust."
Top-quality pekoe grades, consisting of only the leaf buds, are the highest quality black tea.

When it comes to evaluating the quality of loose leaf tea, here's a general rule of thumb. Whole-leaf teas are considered the most valuable, especially if they contain leaf tips. Broken leaves commonly sell as medium-grade loose teas, and tea leaves broken into smaller pieces are used in loose leaf tea sachets. Fannings are tiny pieces of tea left over after higher grades of teas are made, and that is what conventional tea bags are filled with.

The image below summarizes how the location and development of the tea leaves drive tea grade classification. 

Many tea companies do not openly disclose the origin of the black tea included in their blends. This lack of information adds a layer of complexity and uncertainty for tea drinkers trying to infer product quality. However, one blessing (or curse) in navigating the world of black tea blends is the abundance of favours, sweeteners and ingredients which are often added to blends. 

How Black Tea Is Produced.

Black tea is produced by the following process: plucking, wilting, bruising, oxidation, shaping and drying.  

Plucking. 

Picking is done by hand when higher quality tea is made, or in countries where labour costs are low. Machine harvesting does occur but often results in more broken leaves, degrading the quality of the tea. The leaf and stem combination, as well as how developed the leaf is, all shape the grade of tea produced. 

Wilting (Withering).

Soon after plucking has occurred, wilting begins. Withering is done to remove excess water from the leaves and allows some oxidation to occur. Black tea is allowed to wither until the leaf's water content gets reduced to 68-77% of the original amount. Wilting may happen under the sun or in a dry room, depending on the product convention and the producer's preference. Variables in the withering process - like climate, humidity and method - all shape the taste of the black tea.

Wilting is a critical step in the production of black tea as it causes the leaf proteins to break down, creating free amino acids and increasing the availability of caffeine. Changing the concentration of amino acids and the amount of available caffeine changes the taste of the tea.

Bruising (Disruption). 

In black tea, the leaves may get bruised or torn to increase the rate of oxidation. Tearing the leaves can decrease the quality (and price) of the final product, so depending on the quality of tea produced, some tea growers avoid actual tears. Slight bruising consists of tossing tea leaves in a bamboo tray; extensive leaf bruising involves kneading, ripping and crushing. The extent and amount of bruising influences the oxidation of black tea.

Oxidation. 

Oxidation is a critical step in producing black tea. During this step, tea leaves are put in a climate-controlled room where they are allowed to turn a darker colour. In the oxidation step of the process, the chlorophyll and catechins in the tea leaf naturally break down, releasing tannins. Tannins are a bitter-tasting compound and are what give some black teas an astringent taste.

Black tea usually is 100% oxidized, and the oxidation process for black tea takes between 45 minutes to three hours. Black tea oxidation happens at high humidity, with temperatures between 45-90 degrees celsius. In short, oxidation gives black tea its darker colour, characteristic strength and recognizable taste.

Shaping (Rolling). 

Shaping does not occur in every type of black tea. Rolling can be done by hand or by machines, and is when the tea gets wrapped around itself. In black tea specifically, the shaping process can include rolling the tea into balls or pressing it into tea bricks.

Rolling causes more of the leaf's juices, oils and flavour to be released and enhances the taste of the tea. Another critical effect of rolling is that it results in a combination of whole leaves, broken leaves, and particles. These are then sorted and dried, allowing tea from a single plant to get graded differently. 

Drying.

Drying finishes the black tea, making it ready for sale. Drying occurs in many different ways: sunning, panning, air drying or baking. Drying the tea leaves by baking them is the most common.

Health Benefits of Black Tea. 

Black tea has a rich source of active compounds that provide various health benefits (Khan, 2018), and can help prevent a wide variety of diseases (Trevisanato, 2000). The way the tea is treated influences the concentration and composition of heath compounds in the drink.

The antioxidant compounds in black tea are flavonoids (thearubigins), theaflavins and catechins. Black tea also has some amino acids (L-theanine), vitamins (A, C, K), and caffeine. These compounds have positive effects by acting as a cardioprotector, a cholesterol-lowering force, antioxidant and antimicrobial (Naveed, 2018).  

Source of Antioxidants. 

Black tea consumption is healthy because of the antioxidant properties of catechins (Kumar, 2017). It also has a high level of antioxidant polyphenols (Weisburger, 1997)(Butt, 2014), which include theaflavins and thearubigins (Malongane, 2017)(Khan, 2018).

One study found black tea and its derivatives were not absorbed in detectable amounts in our gastrointestinal tract (Pereira-Caro, 2017). Therefore, while black tea has some health benefits, the extent to which those benefits are realized could be limited by our bodies ability to absorb these compounds.

May Help Your Brain. 

Current research regarding the impact black tea has on the brain is conflicting. One study found green tea, not black tea, helped prevent cognitive decline (Noguchi-Shinohara, 2014). However, other studies have found that black tea lowers the risk of cognitive impairment (Chang, 2017). Black tea also helps with brain focus due to the moderate amount of caffeine it contains.

The likely reason behind the positive impact on cognition is the presence of L-theanine, an amino acid contained in both green and black tea. L-theanine acts as a neurotransmitter and crosses the blood-brain barrier, and also increases immunity by enhancing the disease-fighting capacity cells (Butt, 2014). While matcha tea has higher L-theanine concentration per cup, the presence of L-theanine in black tea is seen as beneficial. 

May Help Prevent Strokes. 

Dietary flavonoids found in black tea are associated with cardiovascular health (Chang, 2019) (Grasso, 2016). Black tea flavonoids reduce cardiovascular risk (Grassi, 2016), and decrease the chance of developing cardiovascular disease (Woodward, 2018), specifically atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease (Khan, 2013). Studies have found that drinking black tea can lower blood pressure a small amount (Greyling, 2014), reducing LDL cholesterol (Hartley, 2013), and decreasing the likelihood of strokes (Chang, 2017).

May Help Protect Bone Health. 

Tea flavonoids, especially those in black and green tea, may protect against bone loss and therefore reduce the risk of fracture. This positive effect may be due to tea's antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.   

May Help with Weight Loss. 

Some studies have found that black tea reduces body weight (Pan, 2016), and may provide short term improvements in body weight and body fat distribution (Bøhn, 2014). However, the weight loss effects of black tea happened when tea consumption was high - between three to four cups or more per day (Yang, 2015).

The verdict is still out whether green tea or black tea is better at promoting weight loss. Some studies show that green tea is more effective for weight loss (Yang, 2015), while other studies have found the polyphenols in black tea are more effective (Pan, 2016).

Studies have also shown that the polyphenols in black tea may help with other conditions often associated with excess body weight, such as hyperglycemia and insulin resistance (Tenore, 2015). One study found black tea helpful for people at risk of developing type 2 diabetes mellitus, as well as related obesity-associated metabolic syndromes (Mahmoud, 2015). There is also some research indicating black tea helps regulate blood glucose levels after a meal (Butacnum, 2017).

May Help Prevent Certain Cancers.

Some research suggests that black tea may have chemopreventive effects (Khan, 2013). Black tea consumption has been shown to protect against skin carcinogenesis in laboratory-based studies (Miura, 2015).

Personifying Tea Blends. 

Black tea is often used as a base in tea blends. Famous blends include Massala Chai, Earl Grey, Lady Grey, English Breakfast Tea, English Afternoon Tea, and Irish Breakfast Tea. Each of these blends is well-established and a staple for many tea drinkers. 

Summary.

Black tea comes from the Camellia sinensis var. assamica plant and is a widely consumed type of tea. Black tea is fully oxidized, giving black tea its characteristic taste.

Black tea grows in many different parts of the world, such as India, China, Kenya and Sri Lanka. The country and region of origin influences the taste of the tea produced. Despite being grown in different countries, black tea follows a standard production process: plucking, wilting, bruising, oxidation, shaping, and drying.

The quality of black tea is categorized into grades; grades take into account the type of leaf and its condition. Loose leaf tea is made from higher quality tea, while tea bags use fannings, the leftover dust.

Black tea has several health benefits. It's a source of antioxidants and may benefit your brain and bones, as well as help prevent stroke, cancer and aids with weight loss.