The family of teas Western cultures consume most is that of black tea, which can be offered as single-estate, blended, or flavored. Plucked green tea leaves are allowed to wither for 12 to 24 hours. These limp leaves are in the early stages of oxidation, the principle chemical reaction that determines tea families. After the withering process, rolling machines twist and bruise the leaves, releasing the leaves’ juices. The rolled leaves are allowed to oxidize, in the manner of compost, for up to 4 hours. To halt oxidation, the now black leaves are dried with hot air, usually in a drying machine. The finished tea is cleaned, sorted, and graded before packing. A well-stocked cupboard should include at least four classic, handpicked, unflavored black teas from the major growing regions of the world.
Black Teas from Major Growing Regions
Assam This robust, malty tea is from the northeast Indian state of Assam, where more than 800 tea gardens are cultivated. It is often manufactured for drinking at breakfast and is suited to the addition of milk. Look for a mellow tippy grade to accompany afternoon-tea meals.
Darjeeling A delicate, slightly green black tea, Darjeeling hails from the Himalayan foothills of India. Eighty-six gardens in the state of Darjeeling produce exceptional, and expensive, teas known for their distinctive muscatel overtones. The four yearly pickings are First Flush, Second Flush, Rainy Teas, and Autumnal Flush. These delicate, light teas are best infused for no more than 4 minutes.
Golden Yunnan China’s Yunnan province has produced exceptional teas for more than 1,700 years. This gorgeous black tea displays big golden buds and uniformly shaped leaves that brew to a rich, dark reddish-black liquor that has a molasses-like sweetness and an earthy finish. Show the dry leaves to your guests for added appeal.
Ceylon Orange Pekoe Many tea blenders offer a tea called orange pekoe (OP). It is not a blend and has nothing to do with oranges. Orange pekoe is a grade of uniformly long, pointed tea leaves, usually from either India or Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). Look for a single-estate Ceylon OP tea for all-day consumption—with or without milk.
Bruce Richardson is the owner of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas and the author of The New Tea Companion. Read his blog at theteamaestro.blogspot.com.