What is Black Tea?
Tea is considered to have originated in China. As tea culture spread and tea was processed for export to trade beyond regions, neighboring countries and eventually across oceans, it was discovered that the more oxidized black tea would retain its freshness and flavor better over long journeys than its minimally oxidized green tea cousin. To understand what makes black tea black and green tea green, it’s important to know that all tea originates from the same exact plant—Camellia sinensis. It’s the variety of tea plant and how the plant’s leaves are processed that define if a tea becomes black or green. Hundreds of cultivars and hybrid plants have evolved from these Camellia sinensis plant varieties over time. But technically any type of tea—white, green, yellow, oolong, black or pu-erh—can be made from the leaves of any Camellia sinensis plant.
Camellia sinensis assamica is a larger-leafed varietal of the tea plant that is typically used to produce black tea. Originating in the Assam district of India, it grows in warm, moist climates and is prolific in sub-tropical forests.
What is Tea Processing?
What makes black tea different from green tea is that during the production process, the tea leaves are allowed to fully oxidize before they are heat-processed and dried. During oxidation, oxygen interacts with the tea plant’s cell walls to turn the leaves the rich dark brown to black color that black tea leaves are famous for. Oxidation alters the flavor profile of a black tea as well, helping add malty, fruity or even smoky notes, depending on the tea.
Black teas are typically produced using one of two methods:
• Orthodox: In this more time-consuming method of production, tea leaves remain whole or only partially broken during processing. Tea leaves are plucked from the garden, withered to reduce moisture, rolled in a variety of ways to bruise the leaves and start oxidation, oxidized to create color and flavor, fired to apply the heat that stops oxidation, and then graded for quality.
• Non-Orthodox or CTC (Crush-Tear-Curl): In this sped-up version of the production process, the tea leaves are cut into fine pieces instead of rolled. The smaller pieces of leaves are more quickly oxidized, producing a one-dimensional, consistent, strong and bold black tea. The cut pieces also easily fit into commercial tea bags, which are more popular with end consumers than loose leaf tea.