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As we continue our exploration of black teas, it seems fitting that we should take some time to explore two tea varieties that are extremely well known for their distinct style and flavours: Lapsang Souchong and Pu Erh.
Lapsang Souchong hails from the Wuji mountains. The tea grown is this region is also commonly used to produce Oolongs such as our Organic Oolong Da Hong Pao. The leaves grown to produce Lapsang may be the same or very similar, but the processing method is very different.
Some say that Lapsang Souchong is the oldest type of black tea (the other possibility being Keemun) and that it was first created due a delayed drying of picked leaves and so smoking over pinewood fires was introduced in order to speed the process. This resulted in a distinctive, smoky flavour infused throughout the tea for a strong, black and full-bodied cup. At first Lapsang was formed into cakes (as were all Chinese black teas), but in more recent years it is produced as a tightly rolled loose-leaf tea.
Lapsang is extremely popular and has a very dedicated following due to its distinctive nature and notable characteristics shared with whiskey. This lends itself to being used more widely as a food flavouring but also as a non-alcoholic accompaniment to strong, sweet/savoury flavours such as barbeque.
Pu Erh is another black tea that has become very well-known in recent years, but has a long history in China. Traditionally developed in the Yunnan region in order to preserve tea for transportation to the outskirts of China and surrounding areas, Pu Erh is known as “fermented” tea. In tea terminology this means that microbial growth and oxidisation is encouraged and occurs over a much longer period than with other black tea types, increasing its longevity and complexity of flavour.
Pu Erh leaves can be found in two traditional “shapes”; loose-leaf and “cake” form. Cake (also known as Raw) form for black tea has been popular in China for a great number of years as it is more simple to transport and serves to preserve tea until it is unpacked. Tea “cake” is where the loose leaves are packed into tight coins or cakes prior to final drying and can often be left in this form to continue to ferment for years and years. Cakes can be small single serving pieces known as coins or even huge wheels stored in fermentation racks in much the same way as cheese!
Loose leaf (also known as Rough) is more familiar to most tea drinkers and has become much more popular since the latter half of the 20th Century. Cakes can be difficult to brew and with better transportation the preservative benefits of cake form are not needed, it is often found in this form largely because it is more “traditional”. Loose leaf Pu Erh undergoes all of the same processing treatment, but omits the pressing to cake step.
All Pu Erh, whether loose or in cake form undergoes this fermentation process in order to develop the complex and full-bodied flavours present in Pu Erh. As one of the oldest types of black tea, it is also now one of the most fashionable and present in almost every connoisseur’s collection!
Read Behind the Blend next week for more information on black tea 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!.