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History Of Black Tea

The history of black tea in Europe began in the 17th century when European explorers first reached China. The first documented record of tea in Europe is from 1610, when Dutch merchants first brought back Chinese black tea from China, and then sold it widely all around Europe. In England it was at first considered a “mysterious oriental drink” and sold at very high prices that only the aristocracy could afford. From this beginning it was became a drink that marked the well to do, and so became popular as a drink to indicate your wealth and position in society.

China is the birthplace of black tea, which in China is called, perhaps more appropriately, hong cha – red tea – after its the red colored tea it usually produces. It’s history in China can be traced back to the late Ming Dynasty, around the year 1590, when the first black tea – Lapsang Souchong – was produced in the area around Wuyi Mountain in Fujian province. This high mountainous area was called Lapsang and the small leaf tea trees Souchong – hence the name.

Black tea, also known as “red tea” in China for its rich, reddish infusion, is unique in that it is comprised from two different forms of the camellia sinensis plant: camellia sinensis sinensis and camellia sinensis assamica. Camellia Sinensis Sinensis yields shorter leaves and is primarily used in China and other neighboring East Asian countries. Camellia Sinensis Assamica has larger leaves and is used in parts of India and Sri Lanka. Dry black tea leaves are 100% oxidized, leaving them with a blackened color, thus earning its namesake. While the method in which it is produced varies from region to region, the process always involves withering, rolling, oxidization and drying. There are two primary methods of processing the leaves before they are graded:

Orthodox Method – This is the most common method of processing black teas. With this method, more care is put into the tea leaves. After the leaves are picked, they are allowed to wither in the warm air for up to 18 hours to reduce their water content until they are soft and pliable. The leaves are then rolled in a special machine that gently presses and twists the leaves in order to break the cells to begin the oxidization process. This process can take several rounds, depending on the grade of leaf being cut. After the leaves are cut, they are once again exposed to the air in a climate controlled environment so that they can continue to oxidize, altering the level of polyphenols in the leaf. This is the point where the flavor of the leaf begins to develop. Once the leaves reach the appropriate oxidization level, they are then fed into a machine to dry, which halts the oxidization process.

CTC (Cut, Tear, Curl) Method – This method was developed around the teabag boom of the 1950’s to facilitate the production of smaller cut tea leaves and a quicker processing time. While the production begins and ends in the same fashion with withering and drying, the rolling process is skipped in this method and the leaves are instead minced and broken apart in a rotorvane machine with blades rotating at Until the mid 17th century (Late Ming, Early Qing Dynasty), the only teas consumed in China were green (unoxidized) and oolong (semi-oxidized) teas.

The tale goes that while a passing army entered the Fujian province, they decided to take shelter at a nearby tea factory. This held up production at the tea factory, where leaves were left out in the sun, causing them to oxidize for a longer period of time and resulting in darker leaves. In an effort to accelerate the drying time, they decided to smoke the leaves over pine wood, thus creating Lapsang Souchong, which became one of the very first black teas.

Although compressed, post-fermented teas (pu-erh) were already known as “black teas” in China, the term was usurped by Dutch and British traders who began identifying Chinese “red teas” as “black teas” because of the color of the dark, dry leaves. Even to this day, Chinese “red tea” is still referred to as “black tea” in the Western world.

What impressed the Westerners most about black tea was not only the robust flavor the tea produced, but also the improved lifespan of the leaves over time. And, as British demand for black tea grew, so did the holes in their pockets as they struggled to pay for their tea treasures in a market that was quickly being monopolized by the Dutch. This motivated British traders to explore other avenues for acquiring black tea. After several failed attempts, they discovered a similar genus of the camellia sinensis plant (camellia sinensis assamica) that could be cultivated by machine in India, yielding a bolder crop at a more lucrative return, thus catapulting the Western tea industry to a new level and reshaping our perception of the importance of black tea today.