Black Tea — (Not) The Dark Side of Tea

Amber and coppery hued liquors lend themselves to a myriad of ways of enjoying the beautiful depth and complexity of black tea leaves. Whether taking it with milk and sugar, or a twist of lemon or orange, or simply just as a neat infusion, black tea makes a delicious brew that contains a plethora of health benefits.

How Black Tea is Produced

Though  somewhat underrated to its green counterpart in terms of health properties, black tea is in fact just as beneficial to consume as green tea. Black tea does contain a little more caffeine, but this is still fairly minimal when compared to coffee. The main difference between green and black is the change that occurs in the antioxidants as the leaves are turned from their original form to black leaves — a process known as oxidation.

Oxidation occurs when the cell walls in the leaves are broken down, exposing them to oxygen and causing the familiar reddish-brown pigmentation of black tea and a change in the aroma of the leaves. This is comparable to when apples, bananas, or potatoes are peeled and turn brown as their insides are exposed to oxygen.

There are different approaches to carrying out oxidation of tea leaves. These include maceration, which produces CTC (cut tear curl) leaves and other BOPs (broken orange pekoes), or gentler methods such as rolling or tumbling, which create larger high quality black tea leaves.

The oxidation process is also sometimes referred to as fermentation. However, because no microbial activity actually takes place, it is not fermentation in the true sense of the term, but rather an enzyme reaction as previously described.

Health Benefits

When oxidised, the antioxidants in green tea, known as catechins, are diminished. However, in turn, black tea antioxidants called theaflavins and thearubigins are produced. Studies have shown that the conversion of these antioxidants during the oxidation process does not significantly alter the potency of the antioxidant properties that are generally sought after in tea.

In fact studies have shown that it may be due to the production of these distinctive antioxidants that gives black tea the potential ability to reduce diabetes. Further research also uncovered that higher consumption of black tea related to lower levels of obesity and the risk of cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, black tea has shown to be particularly effective in dealing with stressful situations by reducing elevated cortisol levels.

The chemical structure of black tea has been considered quite complex due to the oxidation process that the leaves go through. However it is only through oxidation that beneficial antioxidants and other molecular compounds are created to give black tea its unique health properties.

The Taste of Black Tea

The nuances of black tea, as with most teas, exist due to the varied growing conditions to which the tea plants are exposed. Besides how much processing a black tea goes through, the differences in terroir are what also dictate the characteristics of tea varietals. Variances in altitude, climate, and soil will affect the flavour and look of the leaf, even from season to season.

So while a tea may be considered black, there is not one taste that embodies black tea as a whole. For example, Chinese black teas are characterised by smoky or delicately sweet fragrances; Ceylon teas are fairly medium in strength and bright on the palate; Assam teas are known for their full, malty body; and although produced in the same country as Assam, Darjeeling teas will exhibit light and fruity flavour traits.

Handy Tips for Preparing Black Tea

Of course black tea can be prepared a number of ways like being chilled, taken with citrus and honey, as a latte, or simply with a dash of milk and sugar. If using milk, try stronger, more full-bodied teas like an Assam or breakfast blends. Or instead of milk or lemon, add a slice of orange to hot Assam teas — the sweetness of the orange complements the rich, malty body of Assams. Try and avoid using milk in more delicate Chinese black teas or Darjeelings as this may wash out the more subtle fragrant notes of the tea. Adding just a tiny bit of sugar to black teas can help in accentuating any restrained flavour characteristics, similarly to how salt helps bring out the flavours of food. Experimenting with black teas doesn’t just have to stop at how they’re prepared as a drink, but can also work in cooking. Whether using Earl Grey in desserts, or using Russian Caravan when smoking a duck, black teas can also be a tea lover’s or foodie’s dream ingredient.

As one of the most highly produced and highly consumed teas in the world, black tea will always be a popular option amongst tea drinkers. Whether a single estate, a flavoured blend, or just a good ol’ breakfast or afternoon tea, all black tea offers a satisfyingly delicious source of benefits for mind, body, and soul.