What is Black Tea?

Posted on April 30, 2014 by Bruce MacNaughton

It was once believed that green teas and black teas, oolongs and whites, were produced from different species of tea plants. This is certainly NOT the case. All tea (thea sinensis) comes from the evergreen plant of the Camellia family. The reason that some leaves are green and others black is all do with how the leaves are treated (or not treated) after they have been plucked. 

Black teas are the most processed of all teas. Methods do differ from region to region however the process always involves four basic steps: withering, rolling, fermenting and firing.  Plucked leaves are spread out to wither until they are limp enough to be rolled without affecting the integrity of the surface of the leaf. Next the withered leaf is rolled in order to release the chemicals in the leaves that are essential to the final colour and flavour.  Some factories still do rolling by hand but Rotorvane machines are becoming more and more popular.  After the leaves are rolled they are broken up and spread out in a cool, humid atmosphere for 3.5 to 4.5 hours in order to absorb oxygen which causes chemical changes in the leaf particles – morphing them from a green colour to a coppery red. Lastly, the oxidized leaf is fired in order to stop the natural decomposition process and at this stage the coppery red leaves turn black and acquire their recognizable tea smell. Traditionally firing was carried out in large pans over open fires and this method is still used in some Chinese factories though most producers now pass the tea through hot air tunnels or bake it in hot ovens.

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