What is Black Tea?
In the Western world the word ‘Tea’ is almost synonymous with Black Tea. It’s the tea our Grannies introduced us to with sugar cubes and milk. It’s the tea you can bank on being available just about anywhere. Breakfast teas, Orange Pekoe, Earl Grey - all black teas!
So, what is black tea anyway?
All true teas (black, oolong, white, green and pu’erh) start as leaves of the same small tree - the Camellia Sinensis. There are several varieties of this tree, and while leaf selection does play a role, it’s how the leaves are processed after harvest that really makes each type of tea so unique.
There are two methods of processing tea. Let’s break them down.
The Orthodox Method
The Orthodox method is the traditional way of processing tea leaves. It takes several days, and it's an art practiced and overseen by humans (much like wine-making). These are the teas called "whole leaf" or "loose leaf."
Once harvested, the leaves are withered to reduce moisture. Next, they're carefully damaged by twisting, tumbling or rolling - we say 'carefully' because Orthodox tea leaves are left whole, or with minimal breakage. Finished black tea nearly always appears to have a longer, twisted leaf. The damage to the skin of the leaves is what facilitates the next step: oxidation (sometimes referred to as fermentation). This processes is where the tea leaves find their unique depth of colour and flavour. Black tea is considered to be fully oxidized, and tends to offer the boldest flavour. Once the Tea Master asserts the leaves are ready, they are heated and fully dried to end the oxidation process.
All the tea leaves you’ll find at The Valley Alchemist Tea Co. are processed using the Orthodox method.
The Crush-Tear-Curl (CTC) method was developed to create larger quantities of tea at a faster pace and lower cost. Rather than being rolled, the tea leaves are cut into fine pieces along an assembly line. These pieces oxidize more quickly - in just a couple of hours! - and are blended with other batches to produce a consistent, strong black tea. You find CTC teas in commercial tea bags. Although they’re more widely available and affordable, they lack the depth and nuance of Orthodox teas.
Is one method good and the other bad?
In short, no. While we prefer to drink teas processed in the traditional way, CTC teas have their advantages. Orthodox teas offer nuanced flavour based on origin, and even when flavoured and blended they have so much interest and complexity. Commercial bagged teas are quite strong and bold, so lend themselves very well to milk and sugar. Plus, they're affordable since there is less labour involved in the production.
Why do we drink so much Black Tea?
The Camellia Sinensis shrub requires a hot climate to grow, therefore tea was only available to Europe through trade. Black tea retained its flavour over time allowing it to be sent on the slow-moving trade routes to Europe in the 1700's, whereas green tea - the tea of choice in Asia - started to lose its flavour after about a year.
Even today more than 80% of all tea consumed in North America is black tea!
We hope now that your brain is full of knowledge about black tea, you'll enjoy sipping it even more.
Fine art. Ancient history. Totally delicious!