black teas: Can be So Much Better
Most people who drink this tea are used to a “strong brew” prepared usually from broken grades which are inherently more pungent and tannic. And higher in free roaming caffeine ions. The other opposite can be stale or dull tasting tea colour liquid prepared from teabags.
What Black Teas Are Originally
However, this is not what all black teas are like. There are fine quality ones that are pleasant tasting with full body and individual characters, dependent on the make and origin. This used to be what all black tea was about before deterioration of the production process as it was transferred, mechanized, automated, and ‘economized’. Some people just adapt their palatial culture to what is easily and cheaply available.
In fact, the human taste sensibility can be so forgiving that in the early 18th century when the British government imposed heavy import tax on tea, and when the demand was so high, it was not uncommon for wholesalers and retailers to put all sorts of things into the tealeaves to expand its volume to satisfy the quantity needed by the market. The materials they used included various toxic chemicals, leaves of other plants, re-used tealeaves, and even sheep dungs (2). An ex-tea plantation manager Roy Moxham has some explicit accounts about tea commercial crimes of those days in Britain in his book “Tea — Addiction, Exploitation and Empire”. Tea advocate Jane Pettigrew has a lighter writing of it in her book “a Social History of Tea”, if you are not up to the horrid descriptions of the former.
Anyway, let’s refocus our positive energy and look at how black tea has come about and what it really is.
a fully “fermented” tea
By definition, a black tea is one which original tealeaf biochemical contents, such as polyphenols, are oxidized by its own enzymes. Traditionally it is made by withering the leaves so that they become quite soft for curling and twisting. When the leaves are twisted, the cell structure is broken, allowing leaf enzymes to come into contact with other leaf constituents, triggering a sequence of oxidation. The leaves turn from green to reddish brown. People have misnamed this enzyme-triggered oxidation process “fermentation”, but since the word has been used to described this tea making process for one and a half century, we shall follow that use here. A black tea is a fully “fermented” tea.
A fine black tea gives a reddish brown infusion with a golden yellow surface perimeter. It should yield a full, malty and vibrant taste with a silky or even velvety texture. However, the character varies from one selection to another depending on the make, origin, cultivar and the season.
There is a good reason why the Chinese, inventor of the tea, called it red — the colour of both the infused leaves and the infusion is reddish. As for the adjective “black”, there are teas in every single other categories which dry tealeaves are black. That is why the saying that a black tea is called black because its dry leaves look black does not stand. The infused leaves of most post-fermented teas are a lot darker than that of red teas, and the infusion colour is the darkest amongst all teas, so post-fermented teas are actually known as Hei Cha — black tea — in China. I have seen some translated it as “Dark Tea”, obviously to avoid the confusion with the more popularly used English term.
According to Joseph Needham’s great encyclopedic work, “the Sciences and Civilizations of China” and further evidences (more in later writing), the English label “Black Tea” was given first to generic Wuyi oolong in the 18th century, before “red tea” was invented for export. Justifiably, the Chinese characters for oolong transliterate as “Black Dragon”. In the following century when Red Tea was ready for export and its taste preferred (maybe more about its commercial advantages for export), somehow the old label just stayed on for the West. So Red Tea became “Black” outside of the Far East.
The Asian name is not to be confused with the same name that the Americans use for the African Rooibos “tea”. Strictly speaking, Rooibos is not a tea. Tea refers to the drink made from the plant species Camellia sinensis. Rooibos is one of the many drinkable products from other plant families. People normally use the term “herbal teas” for such things. Rooibos has been singled out purely for commercial reasons. For example, the Japanese drink persimmon leaves as a tea, the Chinese have hundreds of popularly used herbal products to make drinks of, from low-cost mint leaves to expensive ginseng, which labels include the character for tea. (link: What is tea?)
For the sake of not confusing most English readers, however, I shall stick with the Western convention of using the term Black Tea in this site, except when I discuss the history of it.
Far top: Franz von Persoglia, Gesellschaft beim Tee im Salon (Tea Party at the Salon, detail), 1892
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