Tea is the second most drank beverage in the world, coming only after water. And black tea is one of the most popular tea types.
From Moscow to London to Cairo to Mumbai, all over the world, people enjoy a cup of black tea to start the day or enjoy it during afternoon tea time. There are many black tea producing regions and each tea has different characteristics and flavors. Let’s take a look at different types of black tea and learn to identify them.
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Types of Black Tea
I always like the comparison between tea and wine because of the many types there are, and the regions, cultivars, etc. both rely on to produce their variations. As an example, red wine, like black tea, has thousands of varieties, and origin makes a huge part of its differentiation between other wines of the same type.
Different black teas can have differences in aromas, notes, flavors, ranging from malty to sweet to savory, body, some being lighter or others more robust. To unlock and discover a tea’s flavor, the brewing method one uses plays a big role. But so does the tea’s cultivation and processing methods, and this varies from region to region.
Black tea is produced from the Camellia Sinensis var. Sinensis (or Chinese tea plant) and the Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica (or Assamese tea plant). The differences in taste are not as marked between the two, but the main differences are the leaf shapes and sizes as well as the climate each one thrives in.
The Chinese tea plant does well in colder temperate climates while the Assamese loves tropical and hot climates. Some of the factors that determine a tea’s flavor include the type of cultivar, climate, temperature and altitude in which the plant grew, and processing methods used. As mentioned above cultivar and temperature usually work in tandem for the best growing results. For example, black tea produced in Korea will most likely use Chinese tea plants while in Sri Lanka Assamese is king.
As mentioned before, altitude plays a big role in tea plants in terms of flavor. Tea plants love high altitudes because it exposes them to more moisture, humidity, precipitation, soil with good minerals and drainage, and also a regular cloud cover to keep the plants from being scorched by the sun. The higher up a plant is grown, the higher complexity the resulting tea will usually have. But this doesn’t mean that tea grown in low altitudes are dull.
Another key factor in a tea’s quality and taste will be at what time during the harvest the leaves are gathered. The earlier (spring) the more sweet, tender, and delicious. The higher on the plant the leaves are plucked from also plays a role. The processing method employed can determine how the tea tastes, too.
Different brewing methods can unlock different characteristics in tea, too. For example, if you choose to brew ‘Western-style’ versus Gong Fu style, the proportion of tea to water is different between both and can result in bringing out different characteristics from the same tea.
Use this brewing guide as a reference. All these parameters can vary according to personal preferences, but use them as a starting point and feel free to play around and discover what you like.
An important factor that can affect a tea’s flavor profile is the water temperature. This is key to controlling astringency (which is different from bitterness, as astringency is a feeling and not a taste). Astringency is that mouth-puckering feeling that comes from certain tea, fruits, and food. It is definitely not a bad thing, but controlling it is a matter of preferences.
Catechins (antioxidants) are the compound responsible for astringency in tea. Different chemical compounds in the tea leaves extract at different speeds and different temperatures, and so catechins are extracted slowly at cooler temperatures, and very quickly at boiling temperatures. So to reduce a tea’s astringency level, you should lower the water temperature at which you’re brewing it.
Let’s finally dive into some of the main black tea producing regions and highlight some of their top types of black tea:
A splendid region for black tea! Chinese black tea is mainly produced in Fujian especially near the Wuyi mountain area. Chinese black teas are often categorized as having a remarkable level of sweetness and smoothness, and some smokiness too.
Jin Jun Mei
(Also known as ‘Golden Eyebrows’) This black tea is a quality leaf. The high quality of Jin Jun Mei can be traced to its leaves only consisting of buds picked during the earlier part of the spring harvest. This tea has a sweet honey-like and fruity flavor with a smooth mouthfeel. And the aftertaste? Also sweet, from start to finish.
It’s a fairly new tea, developed in 2006, went into production in 2007, and rapidly became the most expensive black tea ever sold in China.
Try it Jin Jun Mei, Cha-Wu
This fabulous tea from Qimen county in Anhui province is considered one of China’s most famous teas and also known as Qimen Hongcha. There are several types of Keemun (Congou, Mao Feng, Xin Ya…) but they all have a fruity aroma, featuring some unique hints and notes of dried plum, pine, and floral waves and some subtle smokiness and toastiness too. It is low in astringency and often some types have flavor profiles that resemble Burgundy wines and also cacao. The leaves to make Keemun are harvested in spring and summer.
Try it Superfine Keemun, Teavivre
This widely acclaimed tea is dried over pinewood fires, impregnating the leaves with a smoky and piney flavor with some paprika notes and even whiskey-like hints here and there. The aroma is so strong and easily recognizable from afar, but it has a smooth finish, a sweet aftertaste, and no biterness. It originates from the Wuyi Mountains region of Fujian, China.
There is also a non-smoked, newer version which is slightly woody, it has hints of roasted yam and berries, cocoa, and it’s rich but very smooth with almost no astringency.
Indian black teas host some interesting nuance across the board. Some are robust and so formidable it is no wonder people decided to develop the Masala Chai! Others are fruity, floral, some malty, and others silky sweet. There are even black teas that have vegetal and biscuity flavor palettes. Indian black teas are full of surprises, but with such a multitudinous climate, altitude and terroirs to cultivate tea plants in it is no wonder these leaves can have some exotic flavors.
Interestingly, this tea, from the same state where the Assamese tea plant was originally discovered is cultivated in the lowlands. Assam region is in northern India, and its tea is rich, full-bodied, and possesses a taste that is famously malty and fragrant. It is not as astringent as other black teas, so it goes really well with milk. It is bold and earthy, and this is why it’s one of the favorite black tea types to use as a Masala Chai base. It is also, excellent for blending because it adds body to other lighter, but more fragrant teas.
Boroon Mahanta – Director of Rujani Tea
This Indian black tea is cultivated in the hills and highlands. This results in a markedly different taste compared to its lowland cousin in Assam. Nilgiri black tea has a vibrant color, soft flavor but full-bodied cup and a signature aromatic fragrance. It stands somewhere in between the hearty Assam and the delicate Darjeeling. Its softer flavor with fruity notes, allows it to be a great base for tea blends with flavorings and fruits.
To describe Darjeeling’s flavor without mentioning the region’s location would be improper. This region, which produces exquisite teas, is a high altitude region with intense weather, heavy rainfall but lots of sun too. The plants need to adapt to grow under intense weather and altitude conditions, which translates into a complex tea.
(See the difference in appearance between both flushes of Darjeeling black teas. 1st flush to the left and 2nd flush to the right)
Darjeeling’s flavor varies depending on the season when it is harvested. The 1st flush of Darjeeling is picked from the middle of March until the spring rainy season picks up. 1st flush Darjeeling is gentle, light, floral, but bright with hints of ripe or green fruit and some astringency. 2nd flush Darjeeling is picked in June. This 2nd flush harvest results in a tea that has a full body and a wine-like flavor. It is often referred to as ‘muscatel’ and it is fruitier but can also sometimes have woody notes, and hints of cocoa.
Some people might find 1st flush Darjeeling too astringent, but a good tip is to brew it at 190-195 F for 2-3 minutes to reduce its astringency and appreciate its complexity. You’ll notice its floral notes and a delicate perfume.
Try it To try the full Darjeeling experience I recommend the Darjeeling Black Tea Collection Sampler, Teabox or simply try Glenburn 1st Flush Darjeeling, Teabox and Giddapahar 2nd Flush Darjeeling Black Tea, Teabox
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Black tea produced in Sri Lanka is easily some of the most recognizable and captivating black tea types out there. Sri Lankan black teas are generally strong, bold and brisk in flavor, and have some citrus and spice notes. This nation has 7 different growing regions that produce black tea, and each has a unique profile because of its different elevations. Highland-grown teas have delicate and sweet notes, while the lowlands teas are stronger and more robust.
The most renowned of Sri Lanka’s tea-growing districts. The tea plants are slow grown at an elevation of over 6,000 feet above sea level (the highest region in average elevation) and low temperatures. This results in a rare and high-quality tea that has a delicate and elegant fragrance, light liquor, and floral notes.
Try it Lovers Leap, Harney & Sons
The tea produced in Kandy is produced at a mid-level of elevation and known to be very flavorful. These teas range in flavor depending on exposure to monsoon winds and the altitude where the plantation is located. Kandy teas are very flavorful and malty with strong characteristics and a full body.
Try it Ceylon Sonata, Adagio
Tea cultivation started in the late 1800s with plantations in high elevation and they are often compared to Darjeeling teas because some eastern zones of Nepal share similar geography and topography. Historically, most Nepali teas were usually processed into cheap black tea grades used for domestic consumption and exported for the Indian commodity market. The highest quality leaves were sold to the Indian market, where it was labeled and sold as Darjeeling tea.
Nepali teas have a floral characteristic and they have no astringency. They’re full-bodied but smooth. Leaves picked in early spring are processed as a light 1st flush delivering a delicate and subtle but complex tea, while more mature leaves picked later in the season result in a fruity and stronger 2nd flush. There is also the Monsoon flush which delivers a tea that is darker in color and full-bodied, and the Autumn flush provides a lighter tea, with floral, muscatel, and citrus notes, similar to the 2nd flush.
Nischal Banskota – Founder Nepal Tea
While many people may associate tea cultivation with Asia, Kenya has been producing some exquisite tea as well and it is one of the largest tea exporting countries in the world. Kenya’s geography and climate lend itself to produce some impressive tea plants. Volcanic soil that provides elevation, proper porous soil for drainage and minerals for the plants along with Kenya’s climate and rainfall lead to a wide and thriving tea production region.
Black tea in Kenya is mostly processed using the CTC (crush, tear, curl) method. This destroys much of the leaf’s natural flavor, complexity, and depth. CTC produces a lower-quality, mass-produced tea used as filler in many tea bags. That isn’t to say Kenyan black tea isn’t delicious in its own right. Kenyan black tea is strong, robust, full-bodied, similar to Assam black tea, and certainly, a tea that will wake you up in the morning. It is a tea that goes well with milk.
There is also a small percentage that’s processed with orthodox methods and sold around the world as specialty single-origin tea. Some black teas are also slightly lighter, more complex and fragrant, due to their cultivation in higher elevations.
Tea is Malawi’s second-largest export and 90% of its tea production is of black tea and it has been growing tea commercially since the early 20th century. Malawi’s unpredictable weather patterns can make tea-growing difficult during certain periods, but the tea planters have worked on introducing newer and stronger clonal plants to help alleviate this problem.
In the past, Malawi mostly produced CTC teas, prized by their bright color and rich flavor, adding quality to tea bags, but lately, some producers in the Thyolo province have started to manufacture a range of orthodox black tea and other unique and specialty teas. Black tea from Malawi has a rich, full-bodied characteristic with malty and fruity notes.
While Taiwan’s Oolong teas are usually the stars of the show, black tea produced there is also incredible. Take for example Ruby 18, developed by the Tea Research Institute. Ruby 18 is a hybrid of an existing Taiwanese wild cultivar and Burmese Assam tea plants. The flavor profile for Ruby 18 is very interesting, malty, featuring cinnamon notes and even an aftertaste described as minty. It is rich and has a full body.
It is not an easy tea to find because the supply does not even meet the domestic demand and there’s not a huge production of this tea.
It is mostly known for its elegant and sophisticated catalog of green teas, but Japan does in fact produce black teas (wakoucha) too. More interest to grow and produce black tea has been shown in the past 20-30 years. Instead of trying to replicate other origins for their black tea, Japan focuses on using their own cultivars to produce it.
Orthodox black teas have a flavor profile that captures some earthiness, umami, and sweetness, they are mild, elegant and posess fragrant floral notes. They are less astringent than Indian or Sri Lankan black teas and have a lighter body too.
Ian Chun – Yunomi Tea Merchant & CEO, Matcha Latte Media
Hadong county is one of the main tea producing areas in Korea, where black teas are produced (balhyocha). The elevation and proximity to mount Jiri, the climate, humidity, rainfall, and soil nourished by the sea allows for great growing conditions. Black tea produced in Korea is complex, mellow and buttery, with chocolate or vanilla notes, some hints of nuttiness, sweet fruits, jam, and honey.
It is an absolute delight and quite hard to get, and not many tea companies carry it, so if you see it, you should get it!
Other tea growing regions that are very interesting and worth mentioning are Argentina, Colombia, Vietnam, New Zealand, and USA. I encourage you to explore and try their teas!
Try it Colombian Black, Harney & Sons
Try it Vietnam Golden Monkey, Tealyra or Organic Vietnam Nam Lanh Estate Black Tea, Arbor Teas
Try it New Zealand Waikato Black Tea, Rare Tea Company
Try it Mid-spring Black Tea (USA), Minto Island Tea
This highly oxidized form of the Camellia Sinensis plant features fascinating variations from each region it is produced in. The best way to learn about tea is to try as many as you can! Taste them repeatedly, compare them side by side by regions, or cross-taste black teas from different origins. Take notes and become an expert! Sign up to get my monthly newsletter and get access to exclusive promo codes to purchase tea online.