Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The 5 Tea Siblings: Black Tea

As promised, we are continuing on with the tea family and being introduced to Black tea, the second eldest sibling.

There is no easy way to begin such an introduction so we are going to jump right in and ignore the pleasantries. Black tea is serious business and isn't afraid to show it with its 100% oxidation. It's a strong confident tea and has every right to be considering it is one of Europe's most loved and most commonly drank teas.  It is India's tea of choice and even extends his reaches to North America when it is used to brew both hot and iced teas. He has no shame being combined with milk and sugar and provides a comforting, yet confident flavour. He is quick to boast about such accomplishments but is elusive when confronted with the fact that he is China's, Japan's, Korea's, and Taiwan's least consumed tea. This shameful flaw is not without a slight sense of irony as China produces some of the most pleasant and enjoyable black teas.

Black teas are an odd bunch as they can range greatly in quality, leaf types, and preparations. To give you a brief idea, black tea exists in four basic groups: Blended teas, seasonal teas, single-estate teas, and  self-drinking teas. Blended teas are teas such as Earl Grey or Ceylon Breakfast blend and are immensely popular. Being somewhat of a tea purist, I tend to frown upon blended act, I must admit, that is slightly naive and stupid. Blended teas can be some of the most enjoyable, flavourful, and unique types of teas when created by the hands of a skillful and passionate blenders. The secret is combining the right proportions of teas to bring out and accentuate various qualities and aromas. Come to think of it (and as I mentioned in my first post) my first introduction to loose-leaf teas was an incredible blend of Earl Grey! That being said, I do prefer when it is just me, the leaves, and water.

Seasonal teas are quite self-explanatory and are not unique to black teas. They are teas that are produced during a specific seasons, and as such, have unique qualities. Single-estate teas are much like a good scotch and are pure teas from a specific farm. They remain unblended and true to their roots.

Because of the large varieties of black tea, it is hard to recognize the loose leaves at the drop of a hat (with the exception of blended teas which contains lots of bits of shredded leaves and stems...depending on the quality...coming up in a future post). Black tea leaves can be distinguished by any of the following: curly, broken, granular, wiry, rolled, or spiral shaped. As you can see, not as distinctive as rolled oolong!

What black tea lacks in loose leaf appearance, it more than compensates with flavours and aromas. A good steeping is often very aromatic and full bodied, some many be reminiscent of nuts and freshly-rained-upon-earth, while others may be have a sharper, coppery, spicy, or smoky personality. Either way, it will not be easily forgotten.

An interesting aspect of black teas is that it does not shy away from additions to it's brew. Unlike lighter  teas which would be ruined by the addition of anything, black teas invite milk, sugar, honey, or even lemon to join the party. Most people prefer to add sugar and milk to help with the natural astringency present in black tea (due to the fermentation) but surprisingly, adding a touch of lemon will help to accentuate the astringency and introduce you to a whole new experience.

Being such a broad type of tea, precise steeping instructions do not exist as such but the following will start you off on the right foot. Once you experiment with different types of black teas, you can adjust according to your tastes and preferences. 2 tablespoons for 6 ounces of water at around 195F (91C) will push you in the right direction.

Like white teas, I am not as comfortable and familiar with black teas as I would like. It is a personal goal of mine to venture into the world of black teas and come to appreciate them as I do a nice cup of green or oolong. Do you have any to recommend?

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