If you’re looking to learn more about black tea, or you’re not sure which type to buy next, we’re here for you! This is our guide to the different types of black tea.
You’ve read our ultimate guide to loose leaf tea. You understand all about the different types thanks to our complete guide to the types of tea. Now you’re sure that you want to find the best black teas out there to get your teeth into (or your tongue, we guess?!).
Anywhere that grows tea will almost certainly produce black teas, but some areas are definitely more known for their types of black tea. This is down to a combination of factors, including the terroir (environment) and cultivars (plant varieties/hybrids). Some variations of these two factors, along with the historical experience and machinery used in black tea production, lead to certain areas producing extremely good quality black teas.
Let’s take a look at some of the most famous tea producing countries, along with their most famous exports!
A bit of background
Oxidation is one of the main ways that teas are categorised. All types of black tea undergo a complete oxidation period as part of the processing of the tea. This is why the leaves – and the resulting brew – are darker. Oxidation is simply the process of leaving the tea leaves to air dry. This process darkens them and develops the flavour.
You can read all about how the various types of tea are produced in our complete guide to the different types of tea.
No two teas taste the same and even within individual categories they can vary wildly! We’ll talk about the classic flavours of each growing region throughout this article. You can expect flavours like malt, caramels, woods, honey and a whole variety of fruits like plum and raisins.
Check out our entire collection of black teas.
There are three varieties of tea from China that are particularly famous around the world.
Yunnan sits within the birthplace of tea, the Himalayan corridor. Stretching from Southern Yunnan (a province of China), through Northern Vietnam, Northern Laos, Myanmar and Assam (a state of India). Tea is indigenous to the Himalayan Corridor.
Yunnans are a type of black tea from the Camellia Sinensis Assamica subspecies. It has a larger leaf, can withstand higher growing temperatures and humidity (heavy rainfall), and prefers lower altitudes. Though, it has been adapted to grow at high altitudes too. It’s generally considered to be a stronger tea with more punch.
There are many wild tea trees in Yunnan that can grow to an unbelievable 10m tall!
Many man-made hybrids, known as cultivars, have also been developed. A great example of this is the Taiwanese cultivar, Ruby 18.
So, what does Yunnan tea taste like? Because it is part of the Assamica subspecies, it has lovely malty notes, as well as a sweeter edge. Flavours like toffee, caramel, raisins and dates sometimes come through. Those malty notes mean that Yunnan tea takes milk well, because they pair so well with each other.
They can be quite strong and powerful teas. The higher the bud content (i.e. the more golden the leaves), the more delicate the flavour will be. Here are some examples of our types of Yunnan black tea:
Black Dragon Pearls – the strongest of the bunch. Black Dragon is a comforting earthy tea, with sweet notes of dark raisins.
Peregrine Mountain 1st Flush – a more mild tea. Smooth with notes of dark raisin, plum and caramel.
Golden Dragon – the most delicate of the three. Aromatic with smooth caramel notes and a wonderful after-taste.
Keemun (or Qimen) is a county within the Anhui province of China. Keemun tea comes from the Huangshan area, which translates as the Yellow Mountains. Huang = Yellow and Shan = Mountain.
Huangshan is one of the most famous tea growing mountains in China. They’re considered to be a sacred or spiritual place for many locally. The overall Anhui province is one of the most important tea production regions of China.
There are many different graves of Keemun tea, with grades being used to determine the quality of the tea. The best are considered to be amongst the top tea produced throughout the whole of China. Our Keemun Mao Feng is an “Imperial” grade – we’re proud that it won 2 stars at the Great Taste Awards 2020.
Keemun teas are characterised by their tightly twisted, jet-black leaves. They should look almost wiry. The tea liquor has a coppery, reddish brown colour.
What does Keemun tea taste like? Keemuns have a powerful, woody flavour profile. They’re well balanced – slightly sweet, but no fruitiness, and a hint of nuttiness but no earthiness of astringency. Our Imperial Keemun Mao Feng is strong enough to enjoy with milk, but smooth enough to enjoy without.
Lapsang Souchong tea originates from the Tongmu Village in the Fujian province of China. Tongmu Village lies within the Wuyi Mountains – perhaps the most famous and important of all the tea mountains in China. The conditions are very misty within the mountains, which almost shades the tea from direct sunlight. The area surrounding Tongmu is a pine forest.
Lapsang Souchong is thought to be the first black tea ever produced. It’s now one of the most famous teas, known around the world. There are a couple of legends surrounding its origins:
- The Chinese army needed a place to sleep, so they took over a tea factory for the night. The soldiers slept on the freshly picked green leaves. In the morning, the leaves were all bruised (and had oxidised) and they smelt of soldiers! One of the workers decided to try smoking the leaves over wood from the local pine forest to hide the smell.
Prior to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Chinese teas were compressed into beengs (cakes). However, all sorts of other things were being pressed into the cakes, along with the tea. To stamp out corruption, the Ming outlawed the practice of making beengs. This meant that for 150 years, no tea was produced in the Wuyi Mountains.
When the producers eventually started making tea again, all the knowledge had been lost. The leaves became too oxidised so, not knowing what to do with the oxidised leaves, they decided to dry them over a fire (using the local pine). This gave the tea its distinct, smoky aroma.
What does Lapsang Souchong taste like? It’s characterised by its smoky quality, due to the leaves being finished over a fire of local pine. It’s a bit of a Marmite tea – people either love it or hate it.
The smell is often stronger than the taste. When being brewed, it can smell like a bonfire and you should be able to smell the distinctive pine note. It produces a powerful, warming taste.
You can find unsmoked Lapsang Souchong tea now. But while it’s growing in popularity, the smokiness is really the defining characteristic that people have come to expect from Lapsang.
Our Lapsang Souchong actually comes from Nantou County in Taiwan. It still packs that classic Lapsang flavour though! Expect pine and oak notes, with a smoky aroma.
India also produces three very famous types of black tea.
Assam is a state in North East India, nestled between Bangladesh, Burma, Bhutan and China. Unlike the altitudes that teas are grown at in the Chinese mountains, Assam tea grows at just 0-200ft above sea level.
Assam has a tropical climate, with temperatures in the 30s (centigrade) during summer, and only getting hotter with climate change. “Shade trees” are used amongst the tea bushes to try keep them a bit cooler. Assam also experiences high rainfall with heavy monsoons.
Here’s a quick history lesson on Assam tea:
- 1764 – the British East India Company (BEIC) began considering growing tea itself, to reduce the British dependence on China. North-East India was recommended as the perfect location.
- 1825 – Robert Bruce (a Scot), learned that tea was growing wild in Assam.
- 1833 – Robert’s brother, Charles, informed the BEIC that tea is growing in Assam and that the locals are drinking it.
- 1835 – 20,000 seedlings are brought from China to be planted in Assam. Only 8,000 survive the journey, but unfortunately they were Camellia Sinesis Sinesis. The Sinesis subspecies struggles with the tropical climate of the Assam region.
- 1838 – the first type of black tea is made from the local Assamica bushes. Commercial production grows from there.
Assam tea grows quickly and is less seasonal than the high-altitude teas of China. This makes it ideal for the mass-market. As teabags became popular, the demand for smaller, broken grades of tea grew. These broken grades and fannings can be better processed by bagging machines. This led to the Cut Tear Curl (CTC) production method being developed, which has largely taken over as the main production method in Assam.
We’ll give a really quick explanation of the CTC method, because it will help explain some elements of this article! It’s a much more mechanised/automated production method than orthodox. Withered leaves are passed along a conveyor belt, through a series of machines, that successively cut, tear then curl the leaves into small granules. After oxidation, they go through another series of automated machines that dry and fire the leaf granules. The granules are ideal for bagging, infuse quicker (due to increased surface area) and often have a stronger flavour. They have a more uniform profile though, so don’t offer the same layers and notes of flavour that orthodox teas have.
What does Assam tea taste like? It has a strong malty character, making it a great tea to drink with milk. Expect a strong, full-bodied tea.
The majority of our teas are orthodox, following the traditional production method of rolling the whole leaf. While CTC Assam tea is a lot more common, there are still some amazing orthodox teas being produced from the region. Our Tarajulie Assam shows off the best of the local flavour profile – it’s smooth and rich.
Darjeeling is a region in the state of West Bengal, India. It’s nestled within the foothills of the Himalayas.
The British acquired the land in 1835 and Darjeeling town started as a sanatorium and hill station, to avoid the summer heat of Calcutta.
Here’s a quick history lesson on Darjeeling tea:
- 1839 – First tea was planted.
- 1850s – The first commercial gardens were planted. The Alubari garden claim they were the first, in 1856. Many of the gardens were planted by Scottish pioneers.
The terrain in Darjeeling is very inhospitable. The altitude varies from 2,000-7,000ft above sea level and is characterised by its very steep slopes and dense forests. The forest would have been cleared by hand to plant the bushes.
The machinery was all made in Britain – you can still see huge cast Victorian machines used in the factories today. The foundry details on the side of the machines include Cardiff, Belfast and other major British towns and cities. All of this heavy machinery would have been dragged up the steep slopes.
What does Darjeeling tea taste like? It is sometimes called the “Champagne of teas” – it shares that exclusive, small geographic area. Darjeeling is known for its distinctive muscatel note (muscatel = from the Muscat grape). Because of the seasonality of it, the flavour profiles vary from flush to flush – a flush effectively being a tea season.
- First flush tends to be March-April. These teas are light and fragrant. They can have grassy notes and tend to be a little brisk (or astringent).
- Second flush is from May-June. They are balanced, more rounded and fruitier in flavour. More of that distinctive muscatel note is present and they’re sweeter than the first flush.
- Monsoon flush is June-October. Heavy rains saturate the leaves. The high water content can leave the tea tasting “washed out” or a bit plain.
- Autumnal flush is October-November. These teas are increasing in popularity. As the temperature drops after the monsoon the tea grows more slowly, imparting more flavour. Compared to a second flush, they are often more full-bodied and bolder, but less floral.
Nilgiri is in the state of Tamil Nadu, South West India. The Nilgiri hills were planted with tea in the 1850s, at a similar time to Darjeeling. The teas of Nilgiri are far less well-known internationally than Darjeeling though.
The hills of Nilgiri are much more gentle and rolling than the steep slopes of Darjeeling. The tea is still grown at an extremely high altitude though, up to 8,000ft, the highest that tea is grown anywhere in the world. In fact, the estate that our organic Nilgiri tea comes from – Korakundah – claims to be the highest tea producer in the world!
Despite the high altitude, the region mainly grows the Assamica subspecies, which is much more suited to lower altitudes. These Assamicas produce a strong type of black tea – somewhere between an Assam and a Ceylon (the next tea we talk about) in flavour.
What does Nilgiri tea taste like? As well as the malty notes that you expect from Assamica, there are creamy notes. On top of that, there are notes of prunes, figs, dates and honey, which adds a lovely sweetness. If you’re a fan of Yorkshire tea, be sure to check out our Korakundah Nilgiri Organic.
Ceylon teas come from Sri Lanka. Ceylon is actually the old name for the island of Sri Lanka.
Before the 1870s the island was a big coffee producer. In the 1850s, James Taylor (a Scot), started experimenting with growing tea and in the 1860s planted out 20 acres. Then in the 1870s a rust fungus wiped out the coffee production and producers switched to growing tea instead. By 1890 hardly any coffee was being grown on the island anymore.
The climate in Sri Lanka is actually not that different to England. It doesn’t have distinctive weather patterns like monsoons.
Much like Nilgiri tea, despite the high altitude that Ceylon teas are grown at, they are mostly Assamicas. The tea grows much slower in these conditions, when compared to the low plains of Assam.
Ceylon tea became hugely popular in the UK when Thomas Lipton started selling it in his chain of grocery shops, after buying land in Sri Lanka.
What does Ceylon tea taste like? While you get a strong tea because it is an Assamica, Ceylon tea is often more refined with notes of eucalyptus or cypress.
There are many regions in Sri Lanka that each have their own characteristics and flavour profiles. Our Lover’s Leap comes from the Nuwara Eliya region, in the rugged mountains of the central highlands. It has a medium body with a flowery aroma – considered to be Sri Lanka’s “champagne of teas”.
African teas account for a large portion of the world’s black tea market. It’s estimated that 50% of the tea drunk in the UK is grown in Kenya alone. However African teas are generally better suited to the CTC market, due to their longer growing season, which allows a consistent supply. This means African teas don’t feature much on the speciality market, although this is changing and some exciting teas are emerging!
In the 19th century settlers from Germany, France, Belgium, Holland and Britain acquired land in Africa. They established tea estates, along with other crops such as coffee. From the 1930s onwards the factories were equipped with CTC machines to capitalise on the long growing season.
The major African tea growing countries are:
- Kenya – which sits on the equator. Kenya has a hot and humid climate, with consistent rainfall, which is ideal for growing tea.
- Malawi – south of the equator. This makes it more seasonal, with first flushes picked in September. As happened in Sri Lanka, Malawi had its coffee production devastated by rust fungus. They’re also feeling the effects of climate change, with erratic rainfall and droughts. This reduces productivity as well as shortening the growing season.
- Rwanda – the tea industry here was devastated during the 1990s genocide, but the industry has since received investment from the World Bank. There are now privately owned factories with the tea plants being cultivated by smallholder farmers.
We had to include a section on blends, because they’re so popular! When most Brits think of types of black tea, they think of Yorkshire, PG Tips, Typhoo and co. – all tea blends. Blends can be flavoured or unflavoured and, put simply, they’re just a mix of teas. They could be teas from different origins, seasons or they may have flavourings added.
Blends exist for a number of reasons, but the main one is consistency. Tea is a natural product so is affected by flavour variation due to seasonality, growing conditions etc. Blending different types of black tea together allows companies to even out the flavour profile for a consistent product.
The most famous unflavoured blends include English Breakfast and Yorkshire Blend. Both of these refer to a style (or flavour profile). English Breakfast is a strong, malty tea that has been blended to be drunk with milk. Yorkshire Blends originate from – you guessed it – Yorkshire! They were blended to suit the local water and are also strong, designed to be drunk with milk. They’re less malty though, often described as being “brighter” and a better all day drinking tea.
We can’t talk about tea blends without mentioning the most famous flavoured blend, Earl Grey. It’s a black tea flavoured with bergamot, a type of citrus fruit. The key with flavoured blends is matching the base tea to the flavours. So, for example, our classic Earl Grey is rich, creamy and has a hint of vanilla. It uses a strong black tea from Sri Lanka to carry the flavours.
Our Himalayan Earl Grey, on the other hand, starts with a more delicate, high-altitude black tea. The flavours added provide a lighter and zestier profile to complement the more refined base tea.
Our Rose Congou is one of the few flavoured black teas that is scented at source, in China. The black tea is layered with fresh rose petals, with rose essence often being added to enhance the flavour. The final tea may or may not contain petals – ours does. The Chinese use rose as they believe it is good for the heart.
What’s your favourite type of black tea, and how do you drink it? A splash of milk or a slice of lemon?
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