Beginner’s Guide To Black Tea (Everything, Explained)

Black tea has got to be the most famous tea, possibly better known than green tea. But did anyone ever stop to explain, from start to finish just what black tea is ?

I’m betting they didn’t, and never did a comprehensive guide. So here I am, and I’m going to tell you everything I know about black tea.

Make yourself a cup of tea, and let’s sit down. We’re brushing up on the basics today.

black tea

The Who, When, Where of black tea

Since black tea is so well known, there aren’t many guides on it since it’s kind of… something everyone just picks up as they go. But let’s start with the most basic questions, regarding the basics.

What is black tea ?

Black tea is a true tea, meaning it’s made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. This is the original tea plant, that sprung up in China so many centuries ago.

Black tea was pretty much the first version of tea to ever exist, though green tea followed soon after.

The young adult leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant are picked, then bruised to so they start to ferment/oxidize, then they are exposed to high heat to both dry out and retain their flavor. This gives the leaves that dark color, which Westerners called black tea.

It’s the most common tea in the West, and if you’re from the U.S. you’ve probably noticed that “tea” is pretty much the same with “black tea”.

The main reason is that black tea was what was imported to Europe, and later the U.S., and any other kind of tea was specified, like “green tea” or “chamomile tea”, and so on.

Where does black tea come from ?

Black tea originally comes from China, though nowadays pretty much all of Asia grows black tea. So you’ll find black tea from Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and even Turkey joined in the fun.

The main competitor is India, and it has a history of competing with China on the black tea market, on behalf of the British.

You see, a few centuries back only China produced tea. The Brits love it, but wanted to have their own, and wanted part of the tea market to be theirs.

So they offered free land in India, especially in the Assam region, to anyone who would be willing to grow tea plants there.

This led to the development of the Camellia Assamica tea plant, a more robust, malt-flavored tea than the usual. This is what is used for Assam tea, and you may have heard of that kind of tea.

So in short, your black tea comes from various parts of Asia, and exactly which region will be stated on the tea box or bag.

Short history of black tea

loose leaf black tea

The earliest credible record of tea is from the 3rd century AD, from a medical text written by Hua Tuo (ancient Chinese physician).

Now, if the man managed to write about it back then, it’s safe to say the actual drinking of tea (at the time black tea) came much earlier, and took a while to spread throughout China, and to him so he could write about it.

In 2016 some actual physical evidence was discovered in the mausoleum of Emperor Jing of Han in Xi’an. It was a few remnants of Camellia sinensis leaves, which were found to be as old as 2nd century BC.

Back then it was only referred to as ‘tea’, and was used recreationally, but soon became mainstream, and in time its medical properties were noticed. It wasn’t until the 8th century AD that tea drinking spread to other countries in Asia.

In time the actual growing of the tea plants became more specialized, the farmers more careful with how they treat the plants, and the processing of the leaves took different turns.

This is how green tea came to be, as one of the turns traditional black tea.

How is black tea made ?

Black tea is made by using the leaves of the Camellia sinensis or Assamica plant. This is a tea plant that’s evergreen, meaning it does not wither throughout the year, and can be continuously harvested.

However, there are several seasons during which these plants can be harvested, and during the winter or colder months they are generally left alone, since their leaves don’t produce a very flavorful drink then.

So, black tea leaves can be picked as early as April and as late as September. Earlier in the year the leaves are a fruitier, flowery note. Later in the year they are maltier and more nutty.

Once the leaves are picked, they are bruised, crushed, and sometimes even torn a bit. This is to jumpstart the fermentation/oxidation process, which will develop the flavor. They are usually heaped in piles so this process moves along faster.

Black tea is the most oxidized tea, meaning it spends the most time in this part of the process. The leaves must be bruised and battered, so they can begin to ferment.

Once they’ve reached a level of oxidation the tea master is looking for, the leaves are cured with high heat. This locks in the current oxidation level, meaning they cannot ferment more.

After being cured, the black tea leaves actually look black, or a very dark brown with a hint of green.

Now the leaves are cooled, but mostly pliable and flexible, meaning they will be curled or twisted into specific shapes is the tea type dictates this.

After shaping, the leaves are left to dry completely. Once that is done, they’re ready to be used.

About black tea’s taste and brewing methods

Black tea has a taste of its own, and getting used to it is going to be easy if you’re a coffee lover. If you’re a green tea lover, then black tea manages to be easier on the taste buds.

However we should note that black tea comes in several varieties and this in several flavors, so keep that in mind.

How to brew black tea

make black tea

Brewing black tea is something that requires a timer, is you really want to get a good cup of tea.

You’re going to need 90 C/194 F hot water, preferably boiled in a pot and not in the microwave since it’s more reliable.

As for quantity, I’ve noticed that 2 full teaspoons are enough for 8.5 oz/250 ml of brew, so feel free to use that measurement.

Place the tea leaves in any sort of item that will strain them for you – like a tea ball, an infuser, a teapot with a strainer on the spout, whatever you like.

If you have no such thing, you can check out this cute ceramic mug on Amazon. It’s got a big capacity (15 oz/450 ml), and it’s got a strainer built in, and a nice lid to keep everything hot.

Got something to brew your tea in ? Good.

Only let the leaves sit there for 3 minutes, no more. There is no stirring or swishing required while the leaves are steeping, though you’re free to do so after they’re done.

Once the 3 minutes are up, remove the leaves and make sure there are no stray bits of tea in your cup.

As long as you follow these instructions, your cup of tea should be alright.

What does black tea taste like ?

Black tea has a variety of flavors. Their main notes are usually malty, since that’s the general flavor profile for black tea.

But, depending on what kind of black tea you’re getting, you would find some very strong black teas and some lighter, flowery black teas.

For example Darjeeling black tea is one type that’s harvested twice during the year, once in Spring and once in Summer.

The Spring harvest for this tea is called Darjeeling First Flush, and it’s a very flowery, slightly malty brew. It’s a nice amber color, and a more delicate tea.

The Summer harvest is the Darjeeling Second Flush, which tends to produce a slightly wine-like flavor, definitely fruity, like raising and a pleasant wood aroma.

A simple black tea you’ll love

This black tea is a Darjeeling, but not just any kind. It’s a mix of second and third flush, meaning you’ll get a full bodied cup of tea, with fruity notes and some malty notes.

It’s one of the stronger, more flavorful black tea types out there. So if you’re looking for a good black tea that will really show you its flavor, this is it.

It comes in a 3.5 oz package, full leaves. It should least you about 50 cups, if you use 2 teaspoons/cup.

You can check the listing on Amazon here, and read the reviews as well.

Other black teas are blended teas, meaning they contain something other than black tea. For example Earl Grey is a classic, and it’s black tea that’s infused with bergamot essential oil.

You can taste the black tea, but it’s very well paired with the citrusy notes of bergamot, leaning almost towards flowery.

A flavored black tea you’ll love

For example this flavored black tea contains Mango, and black tea. It’s a Ceylon black, so comes from Sri Lanka.

A great combination, since it can also be used as an iced tea (just let the leaves brew in cold water overnight), or just plain hot tea.

The mango really is a nice tough, and adds a summery vibe to the drink.

This tea comes in a 3.5 oz package, meaning it will serve you about 50 cups of tea, if you use 2 teaspoons per cup.

You can check the listing on Amazon here, and read the reviews as well.

How many black tea varieties are there ?

Black tea varieties are very hard to count, as in the whole spectrum of blended black teas, with their flowery notes and fruity tones, nutty and buttery tastes and so on.

But, there are some main types you can guide yourself by. Usually the name of the black ta is given by the region it grows in. So for example we have:

Indian black tea: Assam and Darjeeling, both being protected and heavily regulated tea types.

Sri Lanka black tea, which is mostly known as Ceylon black tea – the old name for Sri Lanka. It’s usually a mix between Assam and Sinensis varieties.

There’s the Chinese black tea, which is exclusively Sinensis, and rarely you’ll find the Japanese black teas.

The varieties like Assamica and Sinensis (tea plant types) are not that different, thought hey do produce small differences in the teas they bring to the market.

Does black tea take milk ?

Black tea does take milk, and it’s actually one of the best teas out there to add milk to, right alongside Rooibos tea.

What kind of milk you add to your black tea is up to you, though if you’re using dairy I recommend you stick with 2%. It seems to have the best balance between flavor and fat content, while still letting black tea shine through.

Whatever you do, do not add heavy cream to your black tea. It will overpower your cup of tea. If you want to add something a little heavier than milk, but not heavy cream, look for cashew milk.

It’s thicker and creamier than regular milk, without being too overpowering. Still, so easy on it.

And if you use powdered creamer, remember that’s pretty strong stuff, so you won’t have to add much to make your black tea taste good.

Is breakfast tea black tea ?

Yes, breakfast teas are all black teas, and I’ll tell you why.

Back when drinking black tea became common, it was still cheaper than coffee. It meant the masses could easily afford tea, as opposed to coffee.

The whole “drink black tea for breakfast” thing started from the Bristish (again), when their workers needed a strong brew with caffeine to get their day started.

This is why you’ll sometimes find breakfast teas named “builder’s tea”, since it was used primarily by them. It’s a strong black tea, meaning it will also have a higher amount of caffeine than other black teas, by virtue of being more concentrated.

So you could easily replace your morning coffee with black tea. Black tea is weaker than coffee, and there’s less caffeine: 8 oz/250 ml of black tea has about half the amount of caffeine as a shot (1 oz/33 ml) of espresso.

Meaning it reaches about 40 mg caffeine, while espresso is about 60-70 mg. These are all relative numbers, since it really depends on how you brew the tea, the age of the tea leaves when they were picked, what coffee you’re using, and so on.

A great thing about black tea, since it’s so much of a replacement for coffee, is that it’s easy to get into. Brewing a cup of black tea is easy, and adding a dash of milk will make it resemble coffee quite a bit.

For example this breakfast tea from the Republic of Tea is an organic black tea, of the Assam variety.

It’s a full leaf tea, meaning it’s going to give you a much better aroma than teabags. It comes in a 3.5 oz package, meaning you’ll get about 50 cups of tea if you use 2 teaspoons per cup.

It’s a golden tipped Assam tea, meaning you get some younger buds. This results in higher caffeine, and a bit more delicate taste.

You can check the listing on Amazon here, and read the reviews as well.

Is black tea the same as red tea ?

Red tea and black tea are the same thing, depending on who you ask. First, let’s start with a short history lesson, so you can follow what I’m saying.

Black tea, and tea in general, is originally form China. Alright, when they name their teas they go by the color of the brew, not the color of the leaves used.

And if you’ve ever seen a cup of black tea, you’ll know it’s not black. Rather it’s a dark amber, leaning towards red. Which is why the Chinese (and Asians in general, actually) say red tea when they mean black tea.

Black tea was known as black tea by the Brits, who named it after the color of the leaves used, which are pretty darn black. And since it was they who did most of the tea mongering in Europe, and thus the West.

Meaning black tea is black only in the West, and in the east it’s known as red tea.

There is another tea, Rooibos tea. That tea really is red tea, and in the West is known as red tea, or Rooibos. Which only serves to add to the confusion. Though in lately everyone started calling it Rooibos.

The East called it Rooibos from the beginning, since they already had a red tea.

black tea brew
Actual color of brewed black tea.

You might wonder who is right. If I had to guess, I’d say the people who came up with tea in the first place – so the Chinese – are right. But naming conventions stick, so calling it black tea is fair in its own right, at least in Europe and the U.S.

Why is my black tea bitter ?

Your black tea can and does get bitter if it manages to break down and just go bad.

It can also become bitter if you oversteep it, or scald it.

This happens if you use 90 C/194 F water but leave it to steep for more than 3 minutes. Like, say you forgot it there and only remembered 10 minutes later.

This is a common occurrence for people who are not used to black tea (or timed teas in general). Which is why I recommend you use the timer option on your phone, which will sound an alarm when the 3 minuets are up.

If you just leave it on the stopwatch you’re bound to forget about it, since pretty much everyone is going to get distracted in those 3 minutes.

The other reason (scalding the tea) happens when you sue water that’s just too hot, like actually boiling water, straight off the heat.

The hot water will bring out too much of the bitter elements of the tea, and make it steep way faster than you can stop it. This releases too many tannins in your tea, which give ti that overly bitter taste.

Still, it’s more tolerable than bitter green tea.

What you can do to mellow out bitter black tea is to add a touch of milk and sugar, and see if that helps. But if that doesn’t do the trick, you’re better off making a new cup of tea.

Health-related effects of black tea

Black tea, right a long with green tea, has a whole slew of health benefits. They’re maybe not as well documented as green tea, since more studies have been done on green tea than black tea.

But black tea does have an effect on health and our overall well-being, so I’ll get into that now.

Does black tea contain caffeine ?

cinnamon black tea

Yes, black tea does contain caffeine. It’s the main reason some people have decided to replace their morning coffee with black tea, and why it’s also enjoyed as a quick pick-me-up by most Brits.

Black tea’s actual caffeine content isn’t very well known, since it’s difficult to measure out such things.

Tea, in general, is believed to be about 40 mg of caffeine for 8 oz/250 ml of brew. Now, no one really knows if black tea (as a general tea type) has more caffeine than average, and I’ll tell you why.

What decides how much caffeine in each tea leaf is: the tea plant itself, where it’s grown, the weather conditions there, soil quality, altitude.

What decides how much caffeine is in your brewed tea is: how long you let the tea steep, how many leaves /grams of tea you use per cup.

This all means that we can really only use intervals when talking about caffeine in tea. An exact measurement can only be done on a brewed cup of tea, and very few people can do that at home.

But in short yes, black tea does have caffeine. About half the amount in an espresso, and 3-4 times less than filter coffee.

Is black tea safe for children or elderly people ?

Black tea can be safe for children as long as they are not very young – think 10 years or older. And for the elderly, as long as they have no serious blood pressure problems, respiratory problems, anxiety or past heart attacks, just one cup of black tea per day should be fine.

After all, the caffeine content is low and won’t do any damage.

However keep in mind that I’m no medic, so if you’re unsure what to do, it’s best to call your doctor and ask him/her. They’ll be able to give you a more competent answer, especially since they should have the medical records needed for each person.

Does black tea have tannins ?

Yes, black tea does have tannins. In fact it’s the number one source of tannins of all the teas, and it’s part of the reasons it has so many health benefits.

So you know how everyone’s raving about the antioxidants in green tea ? Well, those same antioxidants, when the tea leaves are processed into black tea, change their properties a bit, and become tannins.

King of like altered antioxidants.

Now, the fact that black tea has tannins is neither good nor bad.

In moderate amounts they actually do help your metabolism, but if you take too many of them you risk getting some side effects. I’ll get into those in a bit.

What are some black tea health benefits ?

Some of the most important health benefits of black tea are related to blood circulation, and improving heart conditions, though these effects only happen when you consume 3-5  cups of black tea per day, for several weeks or months.

It’s mostly got to do with the tannins present in black tea.

Black tea also helps in improving cholesterol levels – both good and bad, lowering the ‘bad’ and raising the ‘good’.

And like green tea, it can also help reduce blood sugar (to a degree).

Add to this the fact that black tea contains caffeine, which if taken in small doses will improve focus and alertness.

What are black tea’s side effects ?

The flipside to all this, especially the caffeine, is the fact that consuming too much (over 5 cups a day) black tea can lead to high blood pressure, and worsening heart conditions.

Palpitations are also accompanied, since more than cups of black tea means lots of caffeine and no one really wants that.

Final thoughts

Getting yourself a nice cup of black tea is easy to do, but how much did you really know about black tea until reading this ?

It’s always what we think we know best that we don’t really look into.

If you want to know more about coffee or tea, feel free to check the related articles below. Who knows what else you might find ?