A guide to Chinese black tea

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Chinese Black Tea, known locally as Red Tea (Hong Cha), is fully-oxidised whole leaf tea. The best whole leaf Black Teas are made by hand, in contrast to the commercial CTC (crush, tear and curl) machine-made Black Teas of India, Sri Lanka and Africa that make up 95% of the world tea market.

Canton Lapsang Loose

CTC tea undergoes a rapid and intense oxidation whereby the fresh leaves can be processed into finished black tea within an hour or so. Chinese black teas are oxidised slowly to create more complex and subtle flavours.

Black tea was first produced in China around the early 17th Century, most likely by farmers from Wuyi, Fujian, who were looking to transform lower quality green teas into something that would win the coveted accolade of ‘Tribute Tea’. These early producers discovered that allowing the tea to oxidise completely, without fixing, created flavours of extraordinary richness and sweetness. Black teas also deteriorated more slowly than green and were easier to compress into bricks for transportation and trade.

For almost two centuries, China black teas such as Keemun and Lapsang Souchong were increasingly a staple of the British tea drinker, sharing fashionable socialites' tea caddies with the dominant green teas. The development of the first Indian and Sri Lankan plantations in mid 19th Century and the introduction in the 1930s led to the dominance of cheap, harsh black teas in the UK market. This all but destroyed demand for traditional whole leaf black teas from China. It is only in the last 20 years or so that fine whole-leaf black teas have been available again in the UK, so tea lovers can discover and enjoy their inimitable qualities.

Growing and Production

Leaves are picked in early April and there may be several further harvests throughout the year. The earlier pickings are considered the most desirable.
The leaves are withered in warm air to soften them and release the enzymes required to oxidise the tea. Withering of black tea is a longer process than for oolong and green teas, to create deeper, more concentrated flavours.

The tea maker rolls the leaves gently to stimulate the flavonoids that determine the final characteristics of the tea. Most modern black tea makers now use mechanical rollers, but the finest black teas are still rolled by hand.

The leaves are then sorted using a large calibrated screen. The smaller leaves are left to oxidise at this point, while the rest is re-rolled.

Next the leaves are left to slowly oxidise in varying levels of temperature and humidity. This is what determines the flavour profile of the tea. Oxidation turns the leaves a dark brown/black colour, while any tips present turn a coppery golden colour. This difference in colour is due to the higher levels of chlorophyll in the leaves.

A final firing or drying stops oxidation and reduces the moisture level of the tea to around 3%. This stops the Tea from becoming mouldy. Lapsang Souchong is fired with wood smoke.

Once this process is complete 100kg of fresh leaves will have yielded about 20 - 25kgs kg of black tea.

Take a look at our tea menu for Chinese black tea varieties we currently have available

Growing regions
Black Teas are made in most tea producing areas of China, but mainly in Anhui, Fujian and Yunnan. Jiangsu, Hunan and Sichuan provinces also produce Black Teas. Many famous Green Tea plantations use any lower grade leaves they have to produce Black Teas.


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