China Black Tea

Hong cha, known as red tea in China (for the amber/ red colored tea liquor in the cup) and black tea in the West (for the dark color of the dried tea leaf), was the final type of tea to be developed by Chinese tea makers in the 16th century.

Historians debate whether it was a Fujian hong cha or a Fujian oolong from the Wu Yi Shan area that was the first non-green tea introduced to the European social elite by Dutch traders in the latter half of the 17th century. Advances in tea making at that time ultimately perfected the crafting of semi-oxidized tea (oolong) and soon afterwards, fully oxidized hong cha . Both of these teas joined the repertoire of other fine teas – green, Hei Cha, white and yellow teas – all of which continue to delight both Asian and Western tea drinkers.

In the 17th century, several hong cha such as Zheng Shan xiaozhong (souchong) and Zheng Shan congou (non-smokey) were being made. When the European traders were given one of these teas to consider…. they liked it. Practically, they discovered that hong cha held up better during the long sea voyage back to England than green tea, resulting in better tasting tea on arrival to port in London.

So a new style of tea drinking was born. English tea traders throughout the 17th to mid-19th centuries made history bringing their cargos of precious hong cha – ‘bohea’ as it was called then – to Europe. Despite the familiarity European tea drinkers had with green tea, black tea quickly became the preferred tea. Later, in the late 19th century when black teas from India and Sri Lanka became available to English tea drinkers, the most costly and prized English tea blends continued to feature a high proportion of finely crafted, rich and sweet Chinese black tea.

Today, despite the large quantity of tea that China produces each year, hong cha accounts for only 15% or so of China’s total tea production in an average year. While crop production of black tea in China is low, desirability of hong cha is very high among tea lovers worldwide. This demand is no surprise as Chinese hong cha is unique and delicious. All are naturally sweet – some are smooth and soft while others have a mature, rich style. Their flavors suggest chocolate, dark red fruits, woody aromatic spices such as cinnamon, caramel, malt, and a delightful characteristic that tea tasters refer to as “biscuit”. Some teas feature a touch of delicate smoke, or a flinty, brisk characteristic known as ‘winey’. Almost all have a sweet finish that leaves a pleasant aftertaste in the mouth.

Hong cha is made in several provinces of China – Anhui, Fujian, Guangdong, Sichuan, and Yunnan Provinces – and these teas are generally comprised of large, thick and substantial,  dark brownish-black or grey-black, fragrant leaves. Sometimes the tea leaves are small in size and contain an abundance of sweet brown tip. Other times the leaf is pure dark black or chestnut brown in color.

As is true for all Chinese teas, various aspects of the local terroir (geography and climate, tea bush cultivar, age of the tea bushes, harvest time, oxidation level) contribute the essential differences to the unique regional styles of hong cha.

Hong cha is made to be drunk plain – as the Chinese drink them – and in China they are rarely blended together as each tea contributes distinctive taste profiles in the cup. To blend these teas would be to lose that uniqueness. Also, these teas rarely need milk and sugar – they are soft and mild and need no dilution.

We are smitten with hong cha and offer an extensive collection of both new harvest and ‘rested’ and aged selections from all the primary hong cha producing areas of China. We think that these teas are among the tastiest black teas made anywhere.

lleaf2 Black tea steeping instructions

lleaf2 New Tea, Rested Tea, and Aged Tea