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Black Tea


About Black Tea



Introduction

These dark brews have proved so enduringly popular in the West that the defining word, ‘black’, has faded into ubiquity and black tea is simply called 'tea'. Curiously, in China and some surrounding nations, black tea is called ‘red tea’ whilst post-fermented tea (such as puerh) is referred to as ‘black tea’.

Although black tea is processed from the same plant species as its counterparts (oolong, white and green tea), it generally possesses a stronger flavour, longer shelf-life and higher caffeine content. These constitute the qualities which have lead to the spread of black tea supremacy as an addictively refreshing pick-me-up, the cornerstone of most mornings and an essential element of any amateur counselling session.

Taste

The taste of black tea varies according to which product is used and how it is prepared, but some factors remain constant such as its malty flavour, refreshing effect and distinct, natural odour.

Steeping the leaves for longer, stirring and wringing any excess tea from the leaves upon their removal are ways in which the strength of the beverage might be increased. Adding milk is very common and makes for a fuller, smoother drink.

Sugar or honey is often used to lend sweetness, covering what can otherwise be a rather grassy flavour to the palettes of the uninitiated. It is said that tea is an acquired taste but, once acquired, it becomes an indispensible ingredient of one’s daily routine. If a dab of sugar is all that’s needed to facilitate the union between you and your brew, don’t let anyone tell you (and some will try) that it’s wrong.

Health

For years uncounted, there has been a schism dividing connoisseurs of the almighty cuppa. On one side sits the green tea party, extolling the virtues of caffeine-free tea with numerous health benefits, whilst, on the opposing side, there are those drink black brews because it tastes better. But, recent research indicates that it doesn’t have to be this way!

Green tea contains the antioxidant compound epigallocatechin gallate (EGCg), which is what bestows the health benefits attributed to that tea. Whereas, black tea contains theaflavins and thearubigans, which can grant many of the benefits that were previously thought to be the sole province of green tea.

The Netherlands National Institute of Public Health conducted a study which found, amongst other things, that LDL (a type of cholesterol that may herald strokes or heart attacks) is reduced by the flavonoids found in black tea. Those who drank more cups per day were at a lower risk of a stroke. These results were mirrored by those of Dr. Joseph Vita at the Boston School of Medicine in a similar, yet separate, study.

As if the psychological association with relaxation were not enough to sooth one’s nerves, psychopharmacological research at the School College London showed that tea consumption impeded the stress inducing hormonal agent, cortisol. Those who drank more tea were able to reduce their stress levels quicker than those who drank other beverages. To make sure it was not a placebo effect, a percentage of the people in the study were given tea substitutes, thinking that it was tea, before the stress tests began.

A German study, conducted on both people and rats, found that drinking black tea helps arterial passages to widen and relax, which keeps blood-pressure in check. However, the study also found that drinking tea with milk (or, more specifically, the casein proteins contained therein) negated the effect on blood pressure. This is a rather unfortunate fact for humans and rats alike, as the majority (estimated at 98% in 2007) of UK tea drinkers add milk.

Origin

Tea is thousands of years old (our tea, however, is fresh!), so the exact origins are shrouded in history. Nevertheless, many believe that it was discovered quite by accident when a leaf fell into hot water sometime around 2700BC, under the steely gaze of the Chinese Emperor, Shen Nung. If true, then the brew must, by now, be completely stewed!

Most types of tea are produced from the Camellia Sinensis shrub and black tea is usually made from the small-leaved Chinese and large-leaved Assamese varieties of the shrub. Our black tea category also encompasses certain blends, of which Earl Grey and English Breakfast are the two best known. Blends can indicate either a mix of different tea leaves or the addition of extra ingredients, for example, Earl Grey was created by adding bergamot oil to the tea.

Once harvested, the leaves are withered, processed (either by the orthodox rolling method or the CTC, ‘crush tear curl’, method), then oxidised (which is often erroneously called ‘fermentation’). Leaf oxidisation, induced by controlled temperature and humidity, determines the quality of the tea, infusing the leaves with caffeine and causing them to darken.

The oxidisation process is halted by drying the leaves, at which point they will be graded. Grading sorts the leaves into categories from the lower quality dusts and fannings, to the higher quality broken and whole leaves.

Because black tea can retain its freshness and flavour for several years before use, it was occasionally substituted for currency by ancient tradesmen. Even as recently as the nineteenth century, compressed bricks of tea could be used as currency in some parts of Asia.

Tea has also contributed to the history of fashion, as one of the heavily pigmented by-products of manufacturing it was used to dye clothes. It was once quite fashionable to wear clothes dyed in this way in the East. You can dye your clothes at home using tea.

Brewing Tips

  • Generally, one teaspoon of tea per cup is sufficient. However, this can be altered to account for different types of tea and to vary the overall strength of the concoction in accordance with personal preference.
  • Black tea should be steeped in boiling water for three to five minutes; three minutes for broken leaf teas (or daintier varieties such as Darjeeling) and slightly longer for whole leaf teas or those which are to be mixed with milk.
  • If the tea is steeped for too long it will become bitter, or ‘stewed’ as it is colloquially known in the UK.
  • Other ingredients can be added to alter the flavour: milk creates a smoother, less herbal taste, sugar or honey sweetens the tea, lemon (typically added without milk) lends a hint of fruity zest and, lastly, a tincture of whiskey can greatly enhance any relaxation which the brew imparts.