In an earlier article, I answered the question “what is black tea?” In this article, I’ll explore a little of the huge number of regional variations on this one beverage.
Varieties of black tea
Although all black tea is essentially the oxidized leaves of the same Camellia sinensis plant, a number of factors influence the taste of the final product. In particular, environmental factors such as altitude, soil type, proximity to the sea and climate play a large part.
In addition, over the past few hundred years since it was first taken from its home in China, Camellia sinensis has adapted to its new life in very different environments, leading to different botanical varieties. This has given the different tea-growing regions different versions of black tea with particular taste characteristics.
Blended black tea vs. single-origin
Most (black) tea sold in the UK as just “tea” is a blend of teas from at least three different regions and outside of the UK these blends are often marketed as things like “English Breakfast tea” or “Afternoon tea”. Blends are usually crafted and selected by tea tasters in order that there is as little variation as possible between different batches.
In contrast, single-origin, or unblended, teas often taste strikingly different from batch to batch because the leaves will have grown under different conditions at different times of year and over a period of time. Just as you would expect the wines of a certain region to vary in taste over time, so it is with single-origin tea.
Having said that, the different regions which produce tea are often known for producing teas with particular flavours. Although weather patterns may vary in a short space of time, the altitude, type of soil and production method in one region will not vary and over time certain taste associations form between a region and its tea.
Within a region, which may be geographically very large, there has traditionally been a system whereby a group of producers come together to combine their teas to create a more consistent product. This is then sold to a tea merchant who was then responsible for shipping the product to tea markets for sale.
However, the internet has made it possible for more and more individual tea farmers and producers to be able to sell their product directly from farm to consumer, no matter where they are in the world. It is now relatively easy to buy a true single-origin tea from a single estate or farm and have it shipped directly to your door.
Some of the most popular single-region teas include:
- Assam: made distinctly from Camellia sinensis var. assamica, the same variety used for Chinese Yunnan tea. Most “breakfast tea” blends contain a good proportion of Assam because it is a bold, rich, almost malty tea, excellent in the morning to wake you up.
- Darjeeling: sometimes called “the Champagne of tea”, and considered by many to be the best tea in the world. Darjeeling is delicate, fruity, floral and light and is best enjoyed without milk or sugar.
- Nilgiri: from South India. Nilgiri is a fragrant, floral tea, best enjoyed without milk or sugar. It makes a particularly lovely iced tea, perhaps with the addition of a little lemon.
With the exception of teas from the Yunnan region, Chinese teas tend to be produced from Camellia sinensis var. sinensis which has a subtly different flavour to var. assamica, although far more of the characteristics of ea
- Keemun: from the Anhui Province of eastern China. A highly distinctive flavour and aroma which is variously described as smooth, fruity, piney, wine-like and tobacco-like. An important component of English Breakfast tea.
- Yunnan: most Yunnan black teas are partially fermented, so they occupy a middle ground between black tea and Yunnan’s more famous export, Pu-erh tea. The flavour is dark, malty, and almost chocolatey. If you love chocolate, then Yunnan might be the tea for you.
- Lapsang Souchong: the most famous and popular of the smoked teas. No surprise to learn that it’s dried over burning pine, hence its smoked, slightly piney taste.
From Sri Lanka
- Ceylon: bold, strong and rich, sometimes with notes of chocolate or spice. “Ceylon” refers to the island of Sri Lanka which has a huge range of altitudes and growing conditions so there is a great deal of variation of taste within the region. Tea grown at higher altitudes tends to be golden in colour and light in flavour whereas tea grown at lower altitudes is more burgundy-brown in colour and stronger.
- Sun Moon Lake: Taiwan’s best-known tea is honey in colour and has a rich, almost sweet taste, reminiscent of cinnamon and menthol. Sun Moon Lake makes an excellent iced tea.
- Jackseol (or Jacksul): the unique process of withering, drying and fermenting under the sun gives this tea its unique characteristics. It is a light, golden colour and a light, delicate taste.
- Kenyan black: Kenya grows Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and, although it is often overlooked, is an extremely important tea. It forms the majority of most English Breakfast tea so if you’re looking to blend your own, this is an important tea to consider. Kenyan black tea is full-bodied and robust.
- Rize: Turkey produces almost 5% of the world’s tea yet only 5% of that is exported, at least in part because the Turkish government imposes a huge 145% import tariff on tea meaning that domestic consumption is high. If you can get hold of some of this tea, or you visit Turkey, you will be presented with a strong infusion of black tea, without milk but with a number of sugar cubes.
In addition to regional variations, there’s a whole world of black teas whose flavour is altered after processing by smoking or adding other flavours. These will be the topic of a future article.
Have you tried any of these single-origin teas? How do you think they compare to blended teas? Let me know your thoughts in the comment box below.
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