Black tea: Basics

2 Mar

Let’s start at the very beginning
A very good place to start
When you read you begin with A B C
So a snooty tea blog must begin with black tea

Blacks are the most common and readily available teas around the world, thanks to our buddy Lipton. (And perhaps a touch of British imperialism–East India Trading Company, anyone?) If you were one of those folks who was introduced to tea via the good ol’ bagged stuff, then I apologize most profusely to your tastebuds and hope that it didn’t put you off tea-drinking for good.

So what’s the real deal about black tea?I’m not going to talk about health benefits. There’s plenty of scientific evidence out there that black tea is good for you, just like there’s evidence that unicorns exist and Elvis isn’t dead. (On the Internet, anything is provable. Anything.)

We’re here for flavor, not polyphenols.

And flavor is what matters when you get down to the nitty-gritty of it, because there’s black tea and black tea. Go to a tea shop and say, “Hi, I’d like a black tea please.” They’ll nod, and wait for you to say what kind of tea you’d like.

But you just told them, “black tea,” right? That’s a kind of tea. Aren’t we done here?

Not quite. It’s like you’ve asked them for a muffin. Great, now which muffin? Blueberry? Banana? Corn? Gluten-free?

Time to get specific. Black teas come in a wide variety of types depending on their origin, each with its own personali…-tea.

South Asian blacks (India, Sri Lanka, etc) are most likely to end up in your cup if you’re just ordering a hot drink to go. Remember what I said about imperialism? Ceylon is the base for most mass-produced black tea, with Assam being a close second. English breakfast and Irish breakfast? Those leaves didn’t come from the Emerald Isle. Despite the name, they are both Ceylon/Assam blends grown in South Asia and popularized in the UK. The same goes for Earl Grey; it’s usually a Ceylon with the flavored accents thrown in. Now, if you’re feeling extra classy, Darjeeling is the way to go. Since it’s generally more expensive, you’re less likely to find it in a random cup.

Flavor-wise, these teas are dry and sweet. Darjeeling having the sharpest aftertaste while Ceylons and Assams are more mild. Like coffee, the dryness can be tempered with a neutral, creamy mask, hence why so many people add milk to their morning brew. They are usually described with notes like “floral” and “fruity”; if you sip and close your eyes, they’ll leave your tongue thinking of roses and wine.

East Asian blacks (China, Thailand, etc) aren’t as widespread in the West since the market is dominated by the South Asian blends, and they tend to be on the pricier side as well. So if you can get your hands on one, savor it! Yunnan and Keemun are most likely to be found in specialty tea shops, along with Pu Erh and Lapsang Souchong. The latter two don’t run cheap, appealing to a certain niche of tea connoisseurs, ie: other Snooty Tea People.

But if you’re not crazy about the astringency and perfumishness of South Asian blacks, then their East Asian cousins may be right up your alley. These teas come out with an aftertaste that calls up warm, toasty flavors like nuts and unsweetened chocolate. Look for tags like “smoke” and “earthiness.” The latter is especially true of Pu Erh and Lapsang Souchong; unwary customers may complain of a barn-y smell upon opening the bag.

What about when to drink black tea? If you’re caffeine sensitive, save them for the morning. If you’re not, it’s up to you!

Not just a drink with jam and bread, eh?

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3 Responses to “Black tea: Basics”

  1. Sai March 2, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

    Yunnan forever and always, oh my goodness.

    • Natasha N March 2, 2013 at 7:33 pm #

      Mmmmm indeedy yes. Though I’ve been eyeing some Fujian Baroque lately, for next time’s Adagio haul.

  2. The Tao of Badass Review March 19, 2013 at 9:40 pm #

    Getting KTFO’d and having a slight blemish on his precious pro record. After explaining to a confused Melissa that he is not Waldo, but The Hon Ludovick Watson, she agrees to go to England. Be prepared to go on a series of good and bad dates before finding a potential mate.

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