Amongst the British public, black teas are by far the best known, although in a very different format than generally found at Tea Palace. This refers, of course, to black tea bags which are ubiquitous throughout the UK; and to the extent that throughout the world tea is fondly associated as a particularly British predilection. Whilst these familiar packages can be found in any location selling groceries in the UK and few in living memory will remember a time when tea bags were not the norm; tea bags have only been around for 115 or so years and prior to this all tea consumed in the UK was loose leaf.
Until perhaps 20 years ago, virtually all tea bags consumed in the UK were black tea bags, and the reason for this is that the processing method to make black tea particularly lends itself to bagging.
Black tea is the most heavily processed of the tea types; and by this we mean that in order to develop colour and flavour, black tea undergoes special changes that are absent from processing other types such as green or white teas. Whilst black teas are cultivated and harvested in the same way as these other types, leaves destined to be black teas undergo a crushing or rolling process in order to encourage oxidisation and this gives black tea its characteristic flavour and astringency.
This same oxidisation process is also something of a preservative which means that historically it has been easier to transport to the West without the significant spoilage that could take place in transporting less preserved types over the many months that it could take to transport leaves from their place of origin to the West. Due to this, for a number of centuries “tea” generally means “black tea” and it has remained the most pervasive tea type in the West since its introduction.
As black tea usually results in a stronger “tea” flavour and this strength became increasingly popular; an industry for “cut leaf” eventually emerged. After the leaves are crushed and rolled to encourage oxidisation the leaf can be left whole for a more authentic flavour, or can be broken or cut to increase the surface area when brewing for a much stronger cup which often requires blending with other leaves to maximise flavour and minimise astringency whilst retaining maximum strength. Cut leaves were perfect for use in the industrial methods used to create tea bags (whole tea leaves were simply too big to run through the machines), and so a new industry was borne from popularity, technology and increasing need for convenience. Nowadays, “broken” or “cut” leaves are generally the best quality leaves available in commercially available tea bags. The vast majority of large brands use a lower leaf grade such as CTC (crush, tear, curl), fannings or even dust.
This massively popular beverage has undergone a renaissance in the last 10-15 years with the focus moving away from bagged teas and cut leaves and back to more authentic-tasting whole leaf types. At Tea Palace, we believe that whole leaf teas offer the best and most refined drinking experience possible. Our entire focus is presenting whole leaf teas and educating drinkers to the difference between whole and cut leaves; and how tea drinking can be transformed from a perfunctory (but delicious) interlude during the day to a refined and luxurious event where the finest characteristics, blends and flavoured can be appreciated, enjoyed and discussed.
This does not mean that we ignore the convenience of the tea bag! We have developed our own nod to popular tea bags in the form of our pyramid crystal tea sachets and tea bags – but with one important difference. We will only ever use premium quality, whole leaf teas in our tea bags and never cut leaf or anything that we would not be proud to offer as a loose leaf in our range. In fact, all of our pyramid tea bags are made from teas already in our range, so you can be reassured of their absolute premium quality.
Read Behind the Blend next week for Part 2 where we explore more of the history and details of different tea types.
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!.