In general, there are 2 different types of black tea available to buy: single estate teas and blended teas. We are most familiar with blended teas through our exposure to popular blends such as breakfast and builders teas, but in recent years unadulterated, single estae teas are growing in popularity
Single estate teas are considered the “purest” way to enjoy a single type of tea. It means that the tea comes from a single estate or garden and therefore all of the leaves included in the tea will share a unique set of characteristics determined by the garden that it hails from; including the type of cultivar used, soil, altitude and processing methods. Single estate teas are specifically cultivated to achieve excellence in the classification of that particular tea type, which tends to be named after the region.
The most famous regions with a high proportion of estates producing high-quality, single estate teas are: Darjeeling, Assam, Nilgiri, Ceylon, Keemun and Yunnan. Whilst single estate teas are not limited to black teas, “single estate” as a measure of cultivation quality tends to be more popular with Indian/Sri Lankan teas than those produced in China and elsewhere.
Probably the most well-known and popular black tea to be sold as single estate is Darjeeling. Frequently used in afternoon blends, Darjeelings are known for their smooth, aromatic and slightly citrus notes. Darjeeling production is divided into 3 major seasons: Autumnal which uses leaves from late in the year; 2nd Flush which is the main type of Darjeeling sold and the one with the longest harvest season and 1st Flush which come from the very first tips that sprout after the annual early Spring rains. 1st Flush Darjeeling is considered the “champagne of teas” and has many flavour characteristics in common with green and white teas – which is somewhat unusual for black teas.
Almost as well know, but less consumed as a standalone tea, Assam is actually quite well known as a frequent component of breakfast teas. Assam does not have seasons in the same way as Darjeeling because it has a malty character that doesn’t benefit as well from early harvests. Assam is full-bodied and robust and is perfect for “strong” cups. High-quality Assam types (GTFOP and above) tend to be somewhat milder and more complex and are excellent to drink alone rather than blended.
Nilgiri is the lesser known of the Indian “big three” teas and is dark and aromatic. Although most Niligiri is exported and used for tea bags, higher quality Nilgiris have a determined following and have a unique character.
Ceylon from Sri Lanka is well known, but no necessarily so popular to be consumed unblended which is a shame because its distinctive crisp and citrusy flavour makes for a somewhat more delicate and refined black tea than many other varieties. Indeed Ceylon is often used in blends with other types in order to “lighten” a very full-bodied blend, for example with strong, full-bodies Assam to make breakfast tea.
Keemun and Yunnan teas originate from China and so do not tend to have a named garden or estate associated with the tea on buying, but high-quality leaves are still grown, harvested and sold from the same garden so the classification applies, even if the naming convention differs. Keemun is malty and slightly smoky with an underlying cocoa flavour and is commonly used is very high quality blends with strong ingredients. Yunnan is also somewhat malty and smoky, but different in character, being more woody where Keemun is floral. Yunnan is frequently used in blending as well as it has distinctive strength and depth that lend it towards strongly savoury flavours. Both types are less frequently enjoyed alone, but certainly have some devotees!
These are the most famous single estate types, but single estate teas can come from anywhere where a garden specialises in a leaf type and sells it raw and unblended. Some regions, especially in Africa (Kenya particularly) are becoming more interested in high-quality classification and so more single estate teas from those areas are coming to market.
Read Behind the Blend next week for more information on Darjeeling as we explore its fascinating history, cultivation and uses which make it interesting and popular.
Black teas can be cultivated anywhere in the world with many countries or regions having tea industry to a smaller or larger degree.
Black teas famously originate from China and India. Not only is the Cameila Sinensis plant from which all tea is cultivated indigenous to these regions, but the industry and processing methods used to create black teas also originated in these regions.
Amongst the most recognisable varieties are: Assam, Darjeelling and Nilgiri from India; Yunnan, Keemun, Lapsang and Pu Erh from China and Ceylon from Sri Lanka. Many of these types are named for the region in which they are grown, but some (like Lapsang) is names for the specific method used to infuse additional flavour to the leaves..
Black tea production is far from limited to these areas. Long, well-developed, successful and distinct industries are also present in Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda and even Hawaii.
The tea cultivation methods employed to grow and harvest leaves for use in Black tea processing are very similar to those for other tea types. Mature leaves are harvested by hand which allows for only fully ready leaves to be picked
Once picked, the leaves are withered and then bruised by either rolling or curling to shape and assist oxidisation. Once initiated, leaves are allowed to fully oxidise in order to develop the distinct black tea colour and flavours. At this stage smoke will be applied to Lapsang varieties in order to produce its distinct and unique flavour and broken or cut types will be broken down into smaller pieces.
Heat is then applied to stop the oxidisation process and also to remove all remaining water from the leaves. This is often an industrialised process that involves the use of large ovens to cope with the pure quantity of tea in need of drying asap to retain the finest flavour characteristics. The debris remaining after the whole and cut leaves (fannings and dust) are passed through the oven are collected and blended with other tea types to form the tea most often found in UK tea bags..
The oxidisation and drying method also acts as a preservative which is excellent for the transportation of the finished leaves around the world with minimal spoilage
Black teas come in a large variety of lengths, shapes, colours and flavours. However, all black tea types have specific properties for which they are specifically sought and / or cultivated. For example Darjeelings are expected to be vibrant, fresh with muscatel; whilst Assams are expected to be malty, spicy and aromatic.
Many black teas are “graded” which is a classification based on which part of the tea plant is included in the tea leaves. These grades are used to separate the best quality teas from the rest.
For the most part, teas with a high proportion of “tip” or “bud” visible as yellow or orange leaves throughout the tea are considered to be of superior quality. A tea with a high proportion of these buds is referred to as “tippy” and is the youngest leaf on the plant so often adds a fresh, vivacious note to the brewed cup.
In general, black teas are expected to be full-bodied, complex and aromatic; include whole, unbroken leaves and for the finer types, include a significant amount of tip.
At Tea Palace, we are extremely rigorous about product testing and sourcing only the finest quality loose leaf black teas. Our extensive sampling and testing process ensures that our range includes teas deemed to be of the highest possible quality.
Tea Palace does not source broken leaf teas. We are committed to promoting the luxury, quality and flavour of whole leaf and therefore we only accept whole leaf teas classified at the highest end of the grading scale. This applies throughout our range from single estate teas to those used in our blends.
Our black teas are selected to include key characteristics depending on the tea type and country of origin. In each case we will only add teas to our range that we feel demonstrate the finest characteristics of each tea type.
Finally, everything comes down to the flavour. A tea may have an excellent pedigree and leaf grade, but unless it is exceptional when brewed and enjoyed it would never be considered!.