Undoubtedly black tea is the most popular type of tea in the UK and we Brits just can’t get enough of it, but can you tell the difference between a Ceylon OP and a Kenyan OP? Test your tea knowledge with our ‘Guide to Black Tea’…
The majority of tea producing countries are in the Eastern Hemisphere, countries like China, Japan, Ceylon and India. Such a wealth of nations growing a diverse selection of loose teas means that we’re spoilt for choice when choosing our next loose leaf tea to enjoy. Black tea is at the top of the list when it comes to tea production level. Here’s our guide to some of the main places they’re grown and what you can expect from different countries and blends.
Situated between China and India, Nepal is nestled in the heart of the Himalayas. The plants grown here are mostly of the China variety as weather conditions are similar to those in Darjeeling. There are cold temperatures due to the mountain terrain. With approximately 5000 family small holdings and 100 or so larger gardens and estates, tea production is thought to have started around the same time as in Darjeeling.
New shoots begin to appear in February and are harvested up until April, the first flush. Nepalese black tea teas give a pale golden coloured liquor and a soft delicate flavour. The second flush teas are slightly more mature. They have a fuller taste and a fruity character compared to teas harvested in the monsoon rains. They have a higher water content, a darker colour and a stronger flavour. Teas harvested after October are freshly aromatic with a slightly earthy character and delicate sweet spiciness.
Did you know that Nepal only produces black tea?
One of the oldest and most prolific of the African producers. Kenya has a history of tea dating back to 1903, when tea seeds from India were first planted on a two acre farm. Because there a few fluctuations in the weather, tea is grown and harvested all year round. Most of the gardens are situated in mountainous regions. This is because the lower land is too hot for the tea bush to thrive. These regions offer cooler air and the volcanic soil provides excellent growing conditions. Plucking is almost entirely done by hand with the average tea plucker collecting around 30,000 new shoots every day. The best crops are harvested from late January to early February. The majority of companies manufacture CTC teas for tea bag blends.
Key Fact: Kenya exported more than 353,000 tonnes of tea throughout the world in 2008.
The teas are very bright and colourful with a reddish coppery tint and a deep full bodied flavour. Often best enjoyed with rich chocolate foods. Kenyan black teas are also blended into many breakfast blends to give strength and colour.
Malawi is the pioneer of tea growing in Africa. Black tea production first started commercially in 1878. Tea seeds were taken from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh and planted on land in what was then called Nyasaland. Plantations gradually spread to the regions of Malanje and Thyolo. Because of the unpredictable weather patterns, Malawi was the first African country to adopt the cloning method of estate refurbishment. This helped to ease the problems the weather was causing the Malawi planters. After cotton, tea is the country’s major commercial crop. Although Malawi teas are not commonly regarded as speciality teas, their superb colour and brightness means they are used in the blending of leading British tea brands.
The Rwandan Tea industry was established in the 1950’s and to begin with tea flourished here. The Civil War in the 1990’s led to the demise of the industry. However, today Rwanda produces some fantastic quality teas and has considerabely increased its production levels. Most Rwandan teas are CTC black with a grainy leaf which when brewed produces a coppery liquor that is punchy and packed with flavour.
CEYLON (SRI LANKA)
An island situated on the south-eastern tip of India. Sri Lanka was once known for its coffee production until the coffee-rust fungus devastated the estates in 1969, forcing planters to diversify. Ceylon black teas span the entire spectrum of tea production, from low to high grown teas. A favourable climate allows growers to produce a number of harvests every year. The weather varies regionally as do the geographic features meaning individual teas have their own flavours and aromas. By blending teas from different areas of the island, Sri Lanka is able to offer a very wide choice of flavour and characteristics. High grown teas are considered to be the best produced in Sri Lanka giving a golden liquor and unmistakable flavour. Some blends are full bodied, others are light and delicate. But, all are brisk, full flavoured and have a bright colour.
Our Tea Taster Recommends: Ceylon Orange Pekoe Kenilworth Estate
Assam is a major growing area covering the Brahmaputra valley, stretching from the Himalayas down to the Bay of Bengal. It was here that the Camellia Sinensis Assamica was discovered. There are over 650 estates covering some 459,810 hectares. Assam black tea has distinctive flecked brown and gold leaves known as “orange” when dried. The large leaves of this tea brew into a full-bodied, dark liquid with a naturally spicy and malty flavour. Assam teas are commonly blended to create ‘British Teas’.
First Flush Assam
Assam tea bushes start to produce new leaf shoots in March, when the early spring weather arrives. This prompts the first harvest or ‘first flush. These first flush Assam teas are generally sold for blending purposes although some are sold as single estate speciality teas. First Flush Assams are best enjoyed with milk and produce a long, smooth finish from a mellow caramel coloured brew.
Second Flush Assam
The plucking of the second flush Assam begins in June with most of the production taking place from July to September. The dry leaf of a second flush Assam is usually a rich dark brown colour containing golden flecks.
These are the tips of the news leaves so when picked they do not contain the same proportion of tea chemicals as some slightly bigger leaves. Therefore, they do not take on darker colour during oxidation. The second flush Assam is the best of the season. When brewed it gives a rich aroma and a clear dark red liquor. It tastes rich and sweet with strong malty taste.
Darjeeling is in the foothills of the Himalayas. The black teas here are cultivated at altitudes of 800–2000 meters. The first recorded plantations date from 1856. Numbers now total at least 80 gardens producing these beautifully unique teas over an area of 19,000 hectares. On the higher slopes, the Chinese variety of the Camellia Sinensis is grown because it’s the hardier of the two varieties. Assamica is grown in the more favourable temperatures and gentler air of the lower regions.
Generally it’s said that the highest tea gardens in this region produce the best quality first flushes.
First Flush Darjeeling
The first flush period runs from mid-March to mid-May with processing taking between 4-6 weeks. The characteristics of a first flush Darjeeling are a flowery, fresh taste, a light bodied liquor and a definitive, complex aroma. The cue to pick the first two leaves and are bud are dictated by the mountain sun, reviving the shoots of Camellia Sinensis.
Second Flush Darjeeling
Compared to the first flush, the Darjeeling second flush has a full, rounder, fruitier taste with a honey-caramel aroma and unique muscatel flavour. This flavour is said to have been brought about by insects sucking on the stems of the tea plants. A flavour which no other tea seems to be able to produce. Second flush Darjeeling teas are also called Summer Darjeeling as it is picked during the first summer months.
The Nilgiri hills are some 1500 miles south of Darjeeling and Assam. They are part of the western Ghat range known the “Blue Mountains”. More than 20,000 smallholders grow and pluck tea with some 106,850 hectares under cultivation. Because of the tropical climate growing and harvesting takes place all year round. Nilgiri has a bright amber colour and a refreshing, bright and delicate taste. Most Nilgiri teas are used for blending, but there is a rapidly growing demand for the speciality tea of the area.
Notes from Our Tea Taster: The black teas produced in Nilgiri are flavourful, bright and brisk with similar characteristics to Ceylon teas that are grown in near-by Sri Lanka.
Sikkim is situated north of Darjeeling and to the east of the Himalayan Mountains. Temi is the only plantation in this area and sits atop a mountain that borders the Teesta River. The dramatic mountain peaks and lush green valley’s provide a stunning backdrop for the tea bushes. Tea produced in Sikkim has the well-structured taste of a Darjeeling but a more full-bodied and fruity taste. Twisted green-brown leaves with a beautiful golden tip give a powerful sweet aroma and an almost honey-like flavour.
Early cultivation of Chinese black tea was conducted by Buddhist monks who tended small tea plantations on land around their mountain top temples and monasteries. China produces around 18% of world tea exports and grows a variety of teas in 16 different regions – Anhui, Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Zhuang, Guizhou, Hainan, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Jaingsu, Jiangxi, Shaanxi, Shandong, Sichuan, Yunnan and Zhejiang. The best estates are concentrated in the south-eastern part of China. The leaves produced in these regions have their own character due to the variety of weather. Because of this these teas are often named after the region they are grown in.
This region has a subtropical climate and is renowned for the quality of the tea it produces. The large tea-drying ovens of the local factories have been fired by pine logs chopped and gathered from the surrounding forests for centuries.
Perhaps the most famous china tea coming from this area is Lapsang Souchong. Large, open, delicate Souchong leaves are smoked over quality pine wood rich in resin. The taste is smoky and spicy. “Souchong” refers to the fourth and fifth leaves of the tea plant. It is claimed by some that Lapsang Souchong was the first Chinese black teas to be produced. According to legend it came about during the Qing era. Passing armies delayed the annual drying of the tea leaves and to be able to supply to need the producers had to dry the leaves over pinewood fires.
Keemun tea is a traditional congou leaf grown in Anhui province. This tea has a light scented flavour and a fruity taste. It is one of the designated “China Famous Teas” first produced in 1875 by a civil servant, Yu Ganchen. He travelled to Fujian province to learn the secrets of black tea production. Prior to that, only green tea was made in Anhui.
Notes from our Tea Taster: The tight black leaves give a rich brown liquor, which has a lightly scented nutty flavour and delicate aroma.
The birthplace of Chinese black teas is considered to be the Yunnan Province. The tropical forests of Xishuanbanna boast a large number of wild tea trees with one reputed to be 1700 years old. A temperate, moist climate manifests into hot summers and mild winters. When these conditions are mixed with rich red soil that covers this region, the tea leaves produced have a generous scattering of golden buds. This gives a brew that is rich, dark and reddish-black with a sweet and malty finish. Yunnan also continues to produce raw bricks or Pu-Erh tea.