Black tea is the most popular tea in the world. There is a huge variety of blends such Darjeeling and Earl Grey but this article will focus on your basic good strong black tea. Find out:
- What is black tea?
- Why drink black tea?
- Black tea and health
- Grades of black tea
- Tea bags or loose tea?
- Brewing black tea
- Choosing a good quality black tea: our recommendations
- A changing drink
What is black tea?
Outside of the United Kingdom, black tea is often marketed as “English Breakfast Tea” but here in the UK it is usually just called “tea”. In China, the original home of tea it is called “red tea”.
It is created from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. The same leaves are used to create green, oolong and white tea. The only difference between these is the degree of oxidization of the leaves, with black tea being the most oxidized.
The longer the oxidation process, the blacker the leaves become. As they oxidize the leaves take on a stronger flavour as well as a darker colour. Unlike green, white and oolong tea, black tea will hold on to its flavour for years. This property led to it being compressed into bricks and used as a form of currency in Central Asia.
Two main varieties
There are two main varieties of Camellia sinensis used to produce black tea:
- Camellia sinensis var. sinensis which has smaller leaves and is used mostly for teas other than black tea, such as green, oolong and white tea. In the UK this type of tea is often called “China tea”. Black tea is consumed less in China than the other sorts of tea so this variety is considered by some to be less suitable for producing black tea than the other main variety.
- Camellia sinensis var. assamica which has larger leaves, is native to the Assam region of India (hence the name), which has traditionally been the most important source of leaves for black tea.
Blend or single-origin?
The vast majority of black tea drunk in the UK is a blend of different varieties. This is the standard drink of a large proportion of the British population: we even have our own Wikipedia page dedicated to it which states that we have an average usage of 1.9 kg (4.18 lbs) per person per year. In 2015, the sales value of black tea in the UK was just over £450 million.
The biggest sellers are PG Tips, Tetley, Yorkshire Tea, Typhoo and Twinings who use varying quantities of mainly Assam, Ceylon and Kenyan teas to create their tea. These big tea companies employ a vast staff of tasters to ensure that their blend always tastes the same, despite variations in weather patterns and other environmental factors which affect the taste of tea.
Rather ironically, what the rest of the world calls “English Breakfast Tea” almost certainly does not originate in England, but rather in Scotland. This particular strong blend of black tea was reportedly made popular by Queen Victoria after a visit to her Scottish residence of Balmoral. A Scottish tea master wanted a blend that could balance the fattiness and heaviness of the elaborate breakfasts taken by the upper classes of the time. His creation, which he simply called “Breakfast Tea” was so popular with the Queen that she took it back to England with her. At that time the adjective “English” was often used where today we would say “British” but the name “English Breakfast Tea” has stuck.
Why drink black tea?
Apart from being the absolute cornerstone of British culture, it has a range of health benefits, as well as being the most refreshing and uplifting drink there is. It warms you up when you’re cold, it cools you down when you’re hot, it’s comforting, it revives, it is just awesome. After water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world, for good reason.
Black tea can be a strong drink depending on how long it’s allowed to brew for. Most British people allow it to brew for around five minutes before drinking it with milk and many people also add sugar or sweeteners too. Traditionally made in a pot or even an urn for multiple people at a time, in recent decades changes to the way we live and work have led to the rise of making a single cup of tea in a cup or mug and many younger people would not think of using a pot at all.
In Europe, there is a greater preference for a shorter brewing time and the addition of lemon or honey. My own preference is for “straight” black tea (why mess with perfection?) so the reviews below are based on good strong black tea, which those of you not in England might call “English Breakfast Tea” but we would rarely call it that here – to us it’s just “tea”.
The health benefits of black tea are immense: vitamin B2, omega-3, manganese, magnesium, potassium, copper, phosphorous and a range of polyphenols and flavonoids. When drunk without sweeteners, milk or other additives it contains almost no calories. It has everything you would imagine you would find in a vegetable leaf but much tastier than kale.
There are two potential health problems associated with tea, but those are to do with the water used in its preparation rather than the tea itself.
- Firstly, if your water supply is contaminated with aluminium, arsenic or other contaminants, by drinking tea you will consume those. This is a very serious concern across much of the world and I am extremely grateful that I live in a country where the tap water is always perfectly safe to drink. If you are interested in water quality, and a UK-based charity which aims to improve that for disadvantaged people across the world, follow this link to the WaterAid website.
- The other concern is that drinking very hot liquids may increase the risks of certain mouth and throat cancers. Again, not the fault of the tea. Just be patient and allow your tea to cool down a bit before drinking it.
Tea is graded according to quality with whole-leaf teas containing leaf tips having the highest quality, then broken leaves (called “fannings” in the trade) and then dusts, which is what it says. Fannings and dusts are the main constituents of most standard tea bags, although some companies do sell bags containing whole leaves. Basically, the smaller the tea particle, the lower the quality and the lower the price.
The highest grade loose teas are called “Orange Pekoe”, often shortened to “OP”, a term thought to have been invented by Sir Thomas Lipton in the late 19th century and has nothing whatsoever to do with oranges, nor their flavour. One of the 19th century’s masters of marketing, it seems he took a transliteration of a mispronunciation for a type of high-quality Chinese tea known as “white down-hair”, in reference to the fine white hairs found on the youngest tea leaves. To this word, he added “Orange” which, at that time, would still have been associated with the Dutch House of Orange, the powerful aristocratic family which had been instrumental in bringing tea to Europe for the first time via the Dutch East India Company.
Tea bags or loose tea?
Tea purists argue that tea manufacturers save the best tea to sell loose and only that of inferior quality goes into bags. That isn’t really true, but because placing the tea in a bag restricts its contact with water, fannings and dusts are widely used in tea bags to allow for a faster brewing time. A standard big brand tea bag will usually also contain some smaller broken leaves.
Buying loose tea allows you to select it much more carefully according to quality and gives you control over the amount of tea that you’re using. Whole leaf tea tends to be sweeter and lighter in both colour and taste than tea made from fannings and dusts. I use both tea bags and loose tea: bags for the morning when I’m in a rush and just want a quick, strong brew and then a more considered selection of a whole leaf loose tea in the afternoon.
- Roughly speaking, you should allow 4 grams or about a teaspoon of loose tea per 200 ml (7 fl oz) of water. Personally, I think my grandmother’s rule of “one spoon per person plus one for the pot” works pretty well if and if you’re with people who like weaker tea, pour theirs first.
- Tea in bags generally needs a slightly longer brewing time than loose tea. It should be brewed for three to five minutes, but I like mine stewed until it’s properly black so will leave it brewing until I’m ready to drink it.
- Black tea must be steeped in water that is as hot as possible, so should be prepared by pouring on boiling water. The teapot or cup should be warmed by rinsing in boiling water or heating on the hob so that the water for brewing doesn’t cool on contact.
- The tea or tea bags should be stirred briefly in the boiling water to make sure there is as much contact between tea and water as quickly as possible.
- A tea cosy can be used to keep a teapot at the temperature needed (90 – 95 degrees C) to brew effectively. Using water that has gone off the boil, even for a few seconds, will result in a vastly inferior brew with a “woolly” flavour.
- Note: brewing green tea is a very different thing because green tea turns bitter when brewed at high temperatures.
Choosing a good quality blended black tea
If you’re looking for something a little more special, perhaps to serve at afternoon tea or just to explore the true flavour potential of black tea, it is worth seeking out the best quality product from a specialist supplier. Our recommendations are:
- Best for starting the day: Art of Tea Classic Black Tea is a blend of whole leaf Nilgiri tea and smooth rich Yunnan golden buds to create a supremely classic infusion that is the perfect start to the day.
- Best for a hit of caffeine: Zest Tea‘s products all have twice the caffeine of regular tea as well as tasting amazing. Their Blue Lady tea blends a black tea base from South India, with an aromatic mix of orange, lemon, passion fruit, and hibiscus. A peppering of vivid blue cornflower petals and bits of orange peel make for a visual spectacle that’s guaranteed to revive the senses.
- Best for breakfast: Tea Box Indian Breakfast Tea is a blend of Assam teas which is malty, brisk and bold enough to be paired with honey, lemon, lime or even milk.
- Best for afternoon tea: Whittard of Chelsea Afternoon Tea blends Chinese black tea, oolong and jasmine-scented green tea, with flavours of bergamot and a flourish of pink and white petals. The rich black tea blends beautifully with the refreshing floral taste of the green, while the hint of bergamot creates the lightest suggestion of an Earl Grey.
- Best for a dinner party: Culinary Teas Russian Caravan Tea is a classic blend of oolong, Keemun, and Lapsang Souchong teas. Delicate with a slightly toasty flavour it is the perfect accompaniment to a grand evening meal.
In addition to this list, check out our favourite black teas for Autumn 2019.
A changing drink
Over the past decade, the way we drink tea has started to change for a variety of reasons. Green tea fell out of favour in the United Kingdom in the early part of the 18th century but in 2010 Twining’s, one of the oldest British tea companies, added it back into its range. We are sourcing more expensive teas, often single-origin rather than blends, and our growing environmental and social awareness has driven a turn away from these global giants towards smaller companies where we can get to know an individual tea estate.
In addition, the rise in awareness of the problem of plastic pollution, and that our paper tea bags actually contain some plastic, mainly in the form of the glue that holds them together, means that people are moving back towards loose leaf teas as well as looking for plastic-free tea bags.
In 2005, Tregothnan Tea in Cornwall in the far south-west of the United Kingdom was the first company to start selling its own home-grown tea, grown right here in the UK, and there are now a small handful of producers here who are growing and processing tea in the UK.
More and more people all over the world are discovering that not only is black tea a healthy beverage, but it is also a delicious one too.