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China Black Tea

Black tea is a completely oxidized (fermented) tea. Black tea, or as it is known in China - hong cha (red tea), was originally only for export to the foreign markets.

In China it is called red tea in reference to the color of the infused liquid or to the red edges of the oxidized leaves, as opposed to the color of the main body of the processed tea leaves. At one time, black tea was considered of lesser quality and not desired by the Chinese themselves and therefore, was exported. Which is why, to this day, black tea is what everyone outside of China thinks of when talking about tea, whereas, tea in China is understood to mean green tea.

Black tea is also known as "Congous" in the international tea trade business. The name Congous is actually taken from the Chinese term Gongfu or Kung-Fu. Northern Congous are also referred to as black leaf Congous, "the Burgundy of China teas", and southern Congous as red leaf Congous, "the Claret of China teas".

Black tea leaves come from the same tea plant, Camellia sinensis as does all real tea, but probably the best comes from the Assam subvariety of the plant, Camellia sinensis Assamica, or a hybrid. The infused leaf is a reddish copper color and the liquor is bright red and slightly astringent but not bitter. The important difference is in the processing of the tea leaves, which makes black tea different from the other kinds of tea.

Black tea's caffeine is approximately 3 %, which is the highest of all the different kinds of tea, but still lower than coffee.

Since originating in China an unfathomable 4,000 years ago, tea has evolved into some 15,000 known varieties. Depending on how it is processed, tea falls loosely into six categories: white, yellow, green, oolong, red (known as black tea in the West), and black tea.

As the name implies, brewed black tea ranges from reddish brown to black in color. One of its unique characteristics is that it mellows with age and grows richer and deeper in flavor. Vintage teas are superlative, boasting flavors and aromas that conjure up the same adjectives used to describe fine wine or whiskey. One key difference, however, is that storing tea is simple: kept in a well-ventilated place, tea requires no temperature regulation. Unlike other teas, black tea comes in compressed cakes of various shapes and sizes (round, square, and even bamboo-like tubes). With the beginning of the tea and horse trade in the Tang dynasty (618-907), caking tea made it easier to weigh and transport to remote tribal villages.

 Like wine, these teas differ subtly in flavor and aroma depending on where they were grown and how long they have aged. Brewed black teas range from reddish brown to black in color.

Tea and Tibet
One of the main reasons black tea remains shrouded in mystery is that its history is different from that of other teas and, until recently, there has been little opportunity for research. The production of black tea is mentioned in Chinese local and court history, but no document covers it in depth—even the classic treatise on tea, Cha Jing (The Book of Tea) written by Lu Yu in 780, makes no mention of the term "black tea."

Although Sichuan is credited as the first main production district, the history of black tea is integrally linked to Tibet, Mongolia, and the Uyghur people of northwestern China. Here drinking black tea is synonymous with health and to go one day without it is to invite illness. The people of these regions drink a dozen or more cups throughout the day, and even have a saying that maintains "man can do without food for three days, but without tea, not for one."


Making China Black Tea

The first step after plucking the leaves is to let them wither. Then there are three additional processing steps that the leaves are subjected to before becoming black tea. They are rolled, allowed to fully oxidize (ferment), and lastly they are dried. Also note, that after rolling, they are also sifted to separate the different leaf / leaf particle sizes.

  1. Rolling - The purpose of this step is to actually break open the surface of the leaves. This allows the remaining moisture, sap, if you will, in the leaves to escape and coat the surface of the leaves. This sap is what contains the polyphenols (formerly known as "tannins").
  2. Oxidation - When exposed to the air (oxygen) and under controlled conditions of heat and humidity, some of the polyphenols are oxidized ("fermented") by an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase. These then combine with other poyphenols to form compounds called theaflavins, which gives the leaves a bright coppery red color. Likewise, the theaflavins react with other compounds to form thearubigins. These ultimately render the leaves their final dark brown / black color. The theaflavins are associated with the "brisk" flavor and brightness of black tea, whereas the tea's strength and color are attributed to the thearubigins. At the completion of the oxidation (usually a few hours), the aroma of the leaves also changes from a "leafy" smell to a "fruity" one.
  3. Drying / Firing - Finally they are dried / fired, which stops the oxidation process. It also turns the leaves to their characteristic black color.

Examples of China Black Tea

  • Ching Wo, a south China Congous from Fujian Province. A bright red infusion, flavor and aroma, but not the body of Keemun. Lapsang Souchong (scented with pine smoke) and Panyang are two other examples of south China Congous.
  • Dayeh, "Broad-leafed", is a subvariety of the tea plant that is native to Yunnan Province.
  • Dian Hong, "Dian Black", from Yunnan Province (Dian another name for Yunnan), has a richness to its taste. Considered to be one of the better quality black teas.
  • Hainan, tea grown on the island of Hainan, in the South China Sea, at the southern extremity of Guangdong Province. Produces a strong flavor and fragrance.
  • Keemun, Qi Men Red Tea, from a former county of Keemun in Anhui Province, was once the popular "English Breakfast Tea". It is the best known of the north China Congous. There are various grades of Keemun such as Mao Feng, Hao-Ya, and Ji Hong. Keemun contains a substance called myrcenal. This is an essential oil that is unique only to the variety of tea plant from which Keemun tea is produced and which gives it a distinctive taste. It is said that it has a flavor that almost sings!
  • Orange Pekoe, not a type of tea per se, in that "Orange Pekoe" is a grade based on leaf size, and has nothing to do with how the leaf was processed.
  • Pingsuey, "Ice water", black tea from the same region as Lung Ching, the Hangzhou district of Zhejiang Province, just south of Shanghai. Mild and delicate for a black tea.
  • Yi Chang, another north China Congous, from the western Hubei Province, grown around Yi-Chang, just below the Chang Jiang (Yangtze) gorges.
  • Yunnan, "Cloud South" (or South Cloud), the mountainous southern Province that borders Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and Tibet that is thought to be the "origin" of the tea plant (Camellia sinensis). There is one wild tea plant there that is over 100 feet tall and estimated to be about 1700 years old! Of the 320 subvarieties of tea plants in China, Yunnan is home of 260 of them.
  • Zao Bei Jian, from Sichuan Province.

Beijing salon style
Like bamboo shoots after a spring rain, new tea salons are popping up all over Beijing. Tea salons are popular in Taiwan as well; however, they are slightly different in style. Because Chinese tea itself is so varied, tea salon menus are a diverse lot, reflecting a surprising range of originality. The interiors of these shops are also quite varied. Most tea salons, like bars, stay open late into the night and are popular with younger generations.
The tea salon Taiyuanfang specializes in Chinese black teas, offering 60 to 70 varieties including vintage teas—some of which have aged more than 20 years.

The tea salon Taiyuanfang specializes in Chinese black teas, offering 60 to 70 varieties including vintage teas—some of which have aged more than 20 years.

Tea salons in China stay open late into the night, functioning as places for people to gather. Taiyuanfang features several small private rooms, as seen in the photograph below at left. Each is furnished with different styles of tea tables and chairs. Here, customers can spend a relaxed evening playing weiqi (go) and other board games, or reading books while, of course, sipping tea.

In addition to traditionally steeping in hot water, black tea can also be enjoyed as milk tea by warming it together with milk, or by adding rose or chrysanthemum petals  to lace it with floral scents and flavors. The Tibetans traditionally drink black tea mixed with butter and salt.

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