Your Definitive Guide to Black Tea
Black tea is the most popular type of tea to be consumed in many countries of the world. Generally more robust in flavour than green, white, or oolong teas, black teas offer a diverse range of characteristics, from the delicate, muscatel notes of a Darjeeling, to the rich, malty flavour of an Assam, or the distinctive smokiness of a Lapsang Souchong. Black teas are usually stronger teas, with a higher tannin content, and may produce a darker liquor when infused compared to other teas. However, the colour of a black tea infusion can range from a pale amber hue to a deeper red or dark brown, and in China, black teas are generally referred to as ‘red teas’. Black teas are produced from the Camellia sinensis plant, like other teas, but differ from others in that the leaves used to produce them have been fully oxidised when processed rather than partially so, as in the case of oolong, yellow and white teas; green teas are not oxidised at all. If you’re looking to buy black tea and trying to decide which is the best black tea for you, it may be useful to know a little about the different black tea varieties, where they come from, and the type of flavour profile that they offer.
Different Types of Black Tea
Tea originated from China, and the first black teas were developed in China during the 18th century. Black teas may be sourced from a number of countries around the world, but India, Sri Lanka, Kenya and China are the main black tea producers. Indian black tea types are principally produced in the Assam, Darjeeling, and Nilgiri growing regions, while Chinese black tea types are mainly grown in the south of China, in the provinces of Anhui, Fujian and Yunnan.
Black teas come in the form of unblended tea leaves or blends of two or more types of leaf. Unblended black tea types usually take their name from the region they were cultivated, and have flavours characteristic of teas grown in that particular area. The flavour of a black tea depends on the cultivar of tea, its terroir, and how it has been processed. The two principal varieties of tea leaves used are the large-leaved Camellia sinensis var. assamica variety and the smaller-leaved Camellia sinensis var. sinensis type.
The following black tea types are some of the most well-known and well-loved, unblended black teas:
- Assam tea comes from the state of the same name in northeastern India. It is produced from the large tea leaves of the Camellia sinensis var. assamica variety, and its distinctive malty flavour and depth of character varies depending on when they were harvested; teas produced from the first flush, picked earlier in the year, yield lighter, more subtle flavours than those plucked later, that produce a more full-bodied brew with earthy aromas. Assam is an excellent quality unblended tea, but it also makes a great base for blends, and is often included in breakfast teas.
- Ceylon teas come from the country that is now known as Sri Lanka. Here, the terroir is perfect for growing tea, and there are three main growing regions: Dimbula, Nuwara Eliya and Uva. With tea gardens located at varying altitudes, with different climates, a diverse assortment of flavour profiles are produced in Ceylon’s high quality teas. When infused, the colour of a Ceylon tea can range from a pale honey to a deep Burgundy, and its flavours may reveal sweet chocolate, spicy, or molasses notes, delightful aromas and a pleasant astringency.
- Darjeeling tea grows in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, and is known as the ‘Champagne of Teas’ in reference to its delicate fruit and floral flavours and muscatel notes. A Darjeeling black tea will have unique characteristics depending on when tea leaves have been harvested. For instance, first flush Darjeeling tea leaves, harvested between March and May will reveal a light-coloured liquor, with a floral scent and mild astringency, whereas a second flush Darjeeling, picked between June and August will yield a full-bodied cup with an amber hue and musky flavours; third flush leaves, plucked between October and November produce heavier, darker teas.
- Keemun is a tea that originates from Qimen County in the Anhui Province of China, and was first produced in the late 19th century. There are many varieties of Keemun tea and different processing techniques result in teas with individual flavour profiles. A slow withering and oxidation process brings out subtle, complex characteristics, that can include winey, floral, fruity, piney, malty and slightly smoky flavours and aromas.
- Lapsang Souchong is believed to be the first black tea to be created, being produced in 17th century China, in the Wuyi Mountains of China’s Fujian Province. The smoky character of Lapsang tea occurs during processing, when the tea leaves are dried over pine wood fires. The name Lapsang Souchong is derived from ‘Lapsang’ meaning ‘smoky’ and ‘Souchong’ referring to the fourth and fifth (older) leaves down from the bud of the tea plant.
- Nilgiri teas are cultivated in the Nilgiri Hills, part of India’s Western Ghats, known as the ‘Blue Mountains’, where high altitudes and fertile soil provide the perfect growing conditions for high quality tea leaves. A light, brisk and fragrant tea, with lively, citrus fruit flavours and floral notes, Nilgiri black tea is often used in tea blends, and the light, clear liquor it yields when infused makes it a good choice for an iced tea.
The following black tea types are some of the most popular blended black teas:
- Earl Grey is a well-loved tea that gets its unique, citrusy taste from the addition of oil from bergamot orange rinds. It is generally accepted that this distinctive flavoured tea is named after Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey, who was Britain’s Prime Minister between 1830-1834. It is sometimes referred to as ‘Earl Gray’, particularly in the United States. Initially made with Chinese black tea, Earl Grey is now usually made with stronger, Indian black tea, making it more suited for the addition of milk and sugar if desired. There are also green, white, oolong and rooibos variations, and loose Earl Grey leaves are sometimes blended with flower petals and fruits for added interest.
- Breakfast Teas are blends of two or more black teas, traditionally made with Assam, Ceylon, and Kenyan teas, that are typically full-bodied, to create a blend that works well with or without milk and sugar. There are different accounts as to the origins of breakfast teas, but such blends are thought to have been around since the 18th century, possibly from American colonial times. Queen Victoria is said to have popularised breakfast tea, after trying it while staying in Scotland, and bringing some back to England with her. As well as English Breakfast Tea, other popular breakfast blends are Irish Breakfast Tea and Scottish Breakfast Tea.
- Masala Chai is a spicy tea beverage that originated in India and has become popular worldwide. It’s made by boiling black tea in water and milk with added aromatic spices and herbs. Traditionally, this mix of black Indian tea and spices may include ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, aniseed, cloves and black pepper. Herbs like bay leaves or chicory root may also be used. The best black tea for chai will usually be a bold Indian tea such as Assam, but Kenyan teas may also be used in a chai spice black tea. Tea Direct has a wonderful assortment of chai tea infusions made with black loose leaf teas mixed with selected spices, to capture the distinctive character of this fabulous traditional drink. And if you’re in a hurry, a powdered form is available for you to create a delicious chai tea latte. Bollywood Chai Latte Tea Powder is an aromatically spiced instant black tea powder with non-dairy creamer. Its blend of tea extract and spices creates a milky Indian chai tea taste without any fuss or mess.
- Russian Caravan is a blended tea that gets its romantic name from 18th century China, when camel caravans laden with tea traversed the Ancient Tea Horse Road on the long journey from China to Russia. Its unique smoky flavour resulted from the tea absorbing dampness from the atmosphere, and smokiness from campfires lit throughout the journey. Today, this flavour is reproduced by a mix of Keemun, Oolong and smoky Lapsang Souchong teas.
- Decaffeinated Black Tea. For those who prefer to drink decaffeinated tea, whether for health reasons or they feel drinking black tea at night will affect their sleep, Tea-Direct has a great selection of delicious loose decaf black teas made with choice Ceylon leaves, including favourites like Decaffeinated English Breakfast, Decaffeinated Irish Breakfast, and Decaffeinated Earl Grey.
- Flavoured Black Teas. Black teas can work really well when blended with additional ingredients, as their characteristic flavours will still be discernible, and their versatility means they can be mixed with a wide variety of complementary flavours, including fruit and fruit flavourings, spices, flowers, nuts and chocolate. Refreshing beverages, like mango black tea, apricot and peach black tea, and strawberry black tea, can be served iced on a hot day, and black teas with added marigold blossoms and cornflowers can look delightful as leaves and petals unfurl when infused. Spiced teas, such as ginger black tea and orange spice black tea, are warming and invigorating, mint black tea will soothe body and mind, and those with added vanilla, nuts or chocolate provide a satisfying sweetness.
What is the best black tea?
It may be possible to make suggestions as to the best black tea, gauged on the terroir of the tea, the quality of its leaves, and the depth of flavour and character it may possess, but ultimately the best black tea for you will be the one you most enjoy. The black teas mentioned above are just a small selection from a multitude of classic, and more unusual, black tea varieties that Tea Direct can deliver directly to your door. Some of the finest teas the world has to offer are sourced through our network of gifted buyers for your enjoyment. You can view our full range of loose leaf black tea.
If you would like to try an assortment of black tea varieties before committing to a larger pack, our Black Tea Gift Pack contains a carefully chosen selection of our finest black teas, beautifully presented in a black presentation box or luxury wicker hamper. The black tea selection pack includes nine 125 g packs of black loose leaf teas, that include Earl Grey Tea, Russian Caravan Tea, English Breakfast Tea, Assam Leaf Tea, English Afternoon Tea, Darjeeling Leaf Tea, Ceylon BOP Tea, Nilgiri BOP Tea and Keemun.
How to Infuse Loose Leaf Black Tea
Once you’ve decided on the best black tea for you, there are a number of things to consider when you make your black tea infusion. It’s worth bearing in mind that the amount of tea leaves and water you use, and the length of time you steep the leaves, can make a big difference to the end result. Below are a few pointers to help you achieve the optimum in flavour and be able to really appreciate the unique character of your chosen tea.
- Teapots or other vessels used for steeping should first be warmed by rinsing round with hot water, then poured away.
- Water for steeping should be freshly boiled. Filtered tap water or bottled spring water are the best options, particularly in hard water areas.
- One teaspoon (5 ml) of black loose-leaf tea for every 8 oz (230 ml) of water should be sufficient.
- Never pour boiling water over the leaves, as this could scald the leaves and impair the tea’s flavour and aroma. Either let the water cool a little before you add it to the pot, or invest in a kettle with temperature control.
- Trial and error can help you decide how long your tea should be steeped to get the flavour you desire. Taste it after a minute or two, then leave it longer for a stronger brew. Care must be taken not to over-steep, as the tea may taste bitter or stewed. It’s worth bearing in mind that broken leaf teas have a larger surface area than whole leaf teas, so brewing time may be shorter. Also, teas that are to be enjoyed without milk or sugar can do with less steeping. Below is a general guide to infusing different types of black tea:
- Assam - 2-4 minutes at 203 °F (95℃)
- Ceylon - 2-4 minutes at 194 °F (90℃)
- Darjeeling - 2-3 minutes at 194 °F (90℃) (cooler temperature for first flush teas)
- Keemun - 2-3 minus at 194 °F (90℃)
- Kenya - 2-4 minutes at 203 °F (95℃)
- Lapsang Souchong - 2-5 minutes at 203 °F (95℃)
- Nilgiri - 2-4 minutes at 194 °F (90℃)
- Earl Grey - 2-3 minutes at 194 °F (90℃)
- Good quality loose leaf black teas can usually be steeped more than once.
How to Serve Black Tea
The way you serve black tea is really a matter of personal taste. It has long been customary in the United Kingdom to add milk and sugar to black tea, and many people would be reluctant to relinquish the habit. However, the addition of milk and sugar in tea is likely to mask some of the tea’s characteristic flavour, and if you’ve bought a high quality single estate tea or a classic black tea with typical flavours, it seems a shame not to fully appreciate the subtle and complex tasting notes on offer. That being said, some of the darker, more astringent, strong black teas, like Assam, Keemun and Ceylon, can still hold their flavours well with milk and sugar in them. Chai teas are good when simmered with milk, as this is how Masala Chai was intended to be drunk. Breakfast teas work well with a splash of milk and sugar if desired, and Earl Grey teas are often consumed this way, but some prefer them without, to savour the leaves’ subtle bergamot notes. Plant based milk is becoming popular, and black tea with almond milk works well, particularly with Chai teas.
Black tea with lemon is a popular choice, and black tea with lemon and honey provides a sweeter option. And in the warmer months, why not try an iced black tea or a cold brew black tea to cool you down and help you rehydrate? An aromatic Darjeeling iced tea will really hit the spot on a sultry summer’s day.
Customer Reviews of our Black Teas
A selection of classic and well-loved black tea varieties:
A luxury black tea made from flowery orange pekoe leaves sourced from Nandi in Kenya. When infused, it produces a bright, golden copper coloured liquor with a delicious smooth, malty flavour.
“The Kenya kosabei will be a favourite from now on.”
Liam B. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
A black Ceylon tea that is sourced from the Kenmare tea estate in the Nuwara Eliya district. Revealing the delightful, bright flavours of a classic Ceylon tea, Ceylon Nuwara Eliya BOP is a refreshing tea to enjoy throughout the day.
“Really like this, clean and astringent, a refreshing variation from the 'norm'. Great mid afternoon, also good with or without milk.”
Peter E. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
“Addictive. A deep, rich liquor, fruity with a noticeable phenolic finish that keeps bringing you back for more.”
A luxurious darjeeling tea that offers wonderful aromas of sandalwood, damp forests and plum, and a pleasant, lingering finish enhanced with light floral notes. A delicate and delicious treat.
“A beautiful Darjeeling tea - though I find that to get the very best flavour, pour some boiling water into the pot, stand for 5 seconds then pour the liquid away before filling the pot with boiling water.”
Mark B. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
“Delicate lovely smokey light flavour needs a long infusion if you add milk.”
Ken I. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
A medium-bodied, Indian black tea from the Quinshola garden, Nilgiri BOP is a refreshing, fragrant tea, that reveals the characteristic well-rounded flavours of a Nilgiri, with the strength of an Assam. Perfect to drink at any time of day.
First time trying Nilgiri and find it very nice, not too far off orange pekoe in taste. I got the 1kg bag, which is great value.”
Simon L. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
A classic favourite from the beautiful Wuyi Mountain region of China’s Fujian Province, Lapsang Souchong is known for its distinctive smoky aroma and flavour that are created when the tea leaves are dried over pine wood fires. A well-balanced and robust tea that can be enjoyed on its own, or with the addition of lemon, or milk and sugar to taste.
“Wonderful fragrance, full of flavour, could drink this all day every day.”
Patricia B. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
“Always a pleasure to do business with Tea Direct. Tea great, service great, prompt delivery. I have used them now for some time for my loose leaf tea requirements. Their lapsang teas...and I've tried them all, are the best in my opinion.”
Miriam C. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
This highly prized black tea from the Fujian Province gets its name from the shape of its leaves, that are said to resemble monkey paws. Just the delicate first leaf and bud are picked when harvested, which help to give the tea a delicious natural sweetness, with flavours of roasted apples, walnut, cocoa, palm sugar, rye and lingering spice notes.
Very nice tea.”
Sarah O. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
This delicately perfumed, luxury black tea is combined with fragrant rose petals to provide a delicious brew with an aftertaste reminiscent of rosewater.
“This is the best Rose Tea I have ever tasted. It is not too sickly, sweet or overpowering. The quality of the Black Tea is truly superior. It makes a delicious drink that you can add more or less, to hit the right notes of rose. Better than any of the finest teas from London's best shopping establishments. I have tried them all.”
Tessa S. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
How does black tea differ from other teas?
Black tea differs from green, white, yellow and oolong teas because it has been fully oxidised. It has a higher tannin content and usually produces more caffeine due to oxidation, and also because it may be infused for longer, and at a higher temperature than other more delicate teas. Black tea flavours are often bolder and more distinctive, and when stored, black tea tends to retain its freshness and flavour far longer than other teas.
What health benefits does black tea have?
Like other teas, black tea contains powerful polyphenols that are full of natural antioxidants like catechins, to help protect against a number of chronic health problems. However, because it is fully oxidised, black tea does not contain such high levels of antioxidants as unoxidised or partially oxidised teas. When it comes to the nutritional value of black tea, it contains minerals, including zinc, magnesium and potassium, and vitamins B2, C and E.
Black tea can be used in healthy recipes, such as kombucha tea, the fermented beverage made from tea, sugar or honey, bacteria and yeast, said to offer a diverse range of health benefits. As well as containing antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, there are probiotics in kombucha that provide good bacteria for optimal gut health. Most kinds of real tea can be used to make kombucha tea, but probably the best teas for kombucha are fully oxidised, black teas, such as a Ceylon or Darjeeling; blended breakfast teas also work well. Flavoured and scented teas, such as Earl Grey are not really considered suitable for kombucha.
Will drinking black tea help me lose weight?
Studies looking into black tea and weight loss have shown that drinking black tea may help with losing weight. One such study concluded that when participants drank three cups of black tea a day over a three-month period, there was an increase in weight loss and reduction in waist circumference compared to a control group. One suggested explanation for this is that black tea contains high levels of flavonoids, antioxidant agents from plant foods that are believed to help block fat absorption in the body.
Drinking black tea is also a good alternative to other beverages that may have a higher calorie content, as a cup of black tea only contains approximately 2 calories. Of course, if milk, sugar, or honey is added, that number will increase, but the addition of lemon or mint will be negligible, and still provide a refreshing and revitalising drink.
What are the advantages of buying black tea online?
When you buy black tea products online, you can be assured of optimum freshness and flavour from the multitude of teas there are to choose from. Compare this to the limited selection of black loose leaf teas you’re likely to find on the supermarket shelves, and who knows how long they’ve been sitting there?