All about Chinese Black Tea

Chinese Black Tea History


Chinese black tea, also known as “red tea”(红茶,hóngchá) in China due to its reddish-brown colour when brewed, has a rich history dating back over a thousand years. It is believed that black tea was first produced in China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644, 明朝), but it was not until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912,清朝) that black tea began to gain widespread popularity.

One of the earliest forms of black tea was Lapsang Souchong(正山小种红茶), which is a smoked tea that originated in the Wuyi Mountains (武夷山) of Fujian (福建). According to legend, during the Qing Dynasty, a group of tea farmers were forced to dry their tea leaves over pinewood fires due to a shortage of fuel. This resulted in the leaves being smoked, which gave them a unique flavour that tea drinkers quickly appreciated. 

Yunnan plantation hills


Mainstream Black tea production was initially concentrated in the Fujian province, but it quickly spread to other regions of China, such as Yunnan (云南) and Keemun (祁门), which are now famous for their black tea varieties. Each region has unique growing conditions, giving the tea its distinct flavour and aroma. Keemun, which originated in the Anhui province (安徽省) during the late 19th century, has a mellow and smooth taste with a subtle floral aroma, which makes it a favourite of tea connoisseurs. Whereas Yunnan black tea has a bold and robust flavour with a hint of sweetness and a unique aroma that is often described as earthy or woody. This type of tea is produced in the Yunnan province, which is known for its fertile soil and perfect tea-growing conditions.

Other popular varieties of Chinese black tea include Lapsang Souchong, Jin Jun Mei (金骏眉), and Dian Hong (滇红). Lapsang Souchong is a heavily smoked tea with a distinct smoky flavour and aroma. Jin Jun Mei is a rare and expensive tea made from the youngest tea leaves, which are hand-picked and processed with great care. Dian Hong, also known as Yunnan Red, is a popular tea with a sweet, honey-like flavour and a golden-red colour.

In the early 20th century, black tea became a major export for China, particularly to the West. Today, China is the largest producer of black tea globally and exports it to countries worldwide. China exported around 330,000 tons of black tea in 2020, with the largest importers being Russia, Kazakhstan, and the UK. The high demand for Chinese black tea in these countries reflects the popularity of this variety.

Learn more about the deep history from our Chinese history blog here.


Chinese Black Tea Production

Farming Chinese black tea starts with selecting the right cultivar, a type of tea plant specifically bred for its flavour and aroma. The most common cultivars for black tea production in China are the small-leaved and large-leaved varieties. Small-leaved cultivars are typically used to make Keemun black tea, while large-leaved cultivars are used to produce Yunnan black tea.

The tea leaves are harvested from the tea plants, typically in the spring or summer, and are then withered to remove moisture. The withering process begins immediately after the freshly harvested tea leaves are brought into the factory. The leaves are spread out on large bamboo or wire mesh trays and then left to wilt in a controlled environment. This process typically takes around 12-18 hours, depending on the temperature and humidity levels in the factory. When we visited Lincang Anshi village (临沧安石村) with Etta’s brother, Jason, our Chinese source, the withering took 24 hours due to the inclement climate that year.


Yunnan tea farm

Visiting Yunnan tea plantation


 During the withering process, the tea leaves lose moisture, which causes them to become softer and more pliable. This makes them easier to handle during the next stages of processing. Withering also helps break down the complex organic compounds in the leaves, which contributes to developing the tea's unique flavour and aroma.


Harvesting Chinese black tea


Withering Chinese black tea


The withering process is carefully monitored by experienced tea makers who can judge when the leaves have reached the optimal moisture content by examining the leaves for signs of pliability and checking their colour and aroma, not scientifically, but rather by a very seasoned tea expert with (I would say) at least 50 years experience, named Father Li simply feeling and smelling the leaves. Once the withering process is complete, the tea leaves are ready to be rolled.


Withering Chinese black tea


Close up Chinese black tea withering


The rolling process involves breaking down the structure of the tea leaves to release their natural oils and flavours; this allows for oxidation to occur, which gives the tea leaves their distinctive colour and flavour. This can be done by hand or using a machine, depending on the scale of production. In Lincang, they undertake this by hand. However, the factory on the outskirts of the village processes larger harvests from several farms nearby.

Tea makers will typically roll the leaves between their palms, using their fingers to apply pressure in hand-rolling. The leaves are rolled until they have twisted and curled into small, tightly packed balls. The rolling process is repeated several times to ensure the tea leaves are evenly rolled and oxidised.

In machine rolling, the tea leaves are placed in large rolling machines that are designed to simulate the hand-rolling process. The machines gently roll the tea leaves, applying pressure to break down the cell walls and release the essential oils. This process is much faster than hand-rolling and is used in larger tea factories producing high volumes. Often factories perform this on behalf of several local plantation owners.


Hand-rolled Chinese black tea (Father Li)


Machine-rolled Chinese black tea (Lincang district)


After the rolling process, the tea leaves are allowed to ferment, which is a crucial step in the production of black tea. The length of the fermentation process depends on the desired flavour and aroma of the tea, but it usually takes several hours to several days. This is an especially important stage for the development of the world-famous Pu’erh tea, which I will write about in more detail soon.

Once the tea leaves have been rolled, they are left to undergo oxidation in a process known as "fermentation". Fermentation is a crucial step in the process that helps to develop the tea's unique flavour, aroma, and colour. However, it's important to note that fermentation in tea production refers to the enzymatic oxidation of the tea leaves, not the microbial fermentation used in producing other fermented foods and beverages, such as beer.

The leaves are spread out in thin layers in a cool, humid environment and left to rest for a period of time. During this time, the enzymes in the tea leaves react with the oxygen in the air, causing the leaves to turn darker and giving them their distinctive flavour and aroma.

Tea makers, in our case Father Li, monitor the tea leaves throughout the fermentation, checking the colour and aroma of the tea regularly. The length of the fermentation process can vary depending on the type of tea being produced and the desired flavour profile. The level of oxidation during fermentation affects the final flavour of the tea. For example, a tea that is lightly fermented will have a more delicate, floral flavour, while a heavily fermented tea will have a stronger, richer flavour with hints of caramel or chocolate. Our Keemun Mao Feng black tea is fermented for around 12 hours, while others may be fermented for several days; Oolongs and Pu’erh take much longer to ferment.

Once the tea leaves have been fermented, they are dried and roasted to stop the fermentation process and enhance their flavour and aroma further. The drying and roasting process is often done using a large wok or a machine, depending on the size of the operation. In essence, locking in the fermented flavour.

They then go off for packaging and export!

Who Drinks Chinese Black Tea?

Chinese black tea is enjoyed by people all over the world. It is a popular everyday drink in China, often served with meals or to relax and unwind. 

In other parts of the world, Chinese black tea is often consumed as a gourmet beverage. It is commonly found in high-end tea shops and speciality stores. For instance, our Golden Money tea and Tuo Cha Pu’erh tea cakes are sourced for the newly renovated Estelle Manor in Oxford, a luxury, soho member-only club who have opened a new rural retreat. Tea enthusiasts appreciate Chinese black tea's complex flavours and aromas and enjoy exploring different varieties. 

Uses of Chinese Black Tea

In addition to being enjoyed on its own, black tea is often used as a base for other beverages such as Hong Kong milk tea and bubble tea (don’t forget to check out our authentic Hong Kong Milk Tea blend, new to market).

In cooking, Chinese black tea can be used to add flavour to a variety of dishes. It can be infused into sauces, marinades, and glazes for meats, added to baked goods, or used as a base for a tea-infused dessert. Some traditional Chinese dishes, such as tea-smoked duck and tea eggs, also use black tea as an ingredient. You will need our Lapsang Souchong tea for trying this yourself!

Chinese smoked tea eggs


Chinese black tea is not only delicious but in traditional Chinese medicine; black tea is believed to have various health benefits. It is thought to help improve digestion, boost the immune system, and reduce inflammation. Some studies have also suggested that black tea may help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

One of the reasons black teas are so beneficial to health is due to its antioxidant content. Black tea contains polyphenols, which are natural compounds that have antioxidant properties. Antioxidants help to protect the body against damage from free radicals, which can contribute to ageing, inflammation, and chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Additionally, black tea contains the amino acid L-theanine, which has a calming effect and can help to promote relaxation and reduce stress & anxiety. It also contains flavonoids, which are beneficial plant compounds that can help to reduce inflammation and improve overall health.

Black tea also contains caffeine, which can help to increase alertness and improve cognitive function. Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system and can help to improve mood, energy levels, and mental performance. 

How to brew Chinese Black Tea

Brewing Chinese black tea is a straightforward process that can be easily accomplished with a few simple steps. Here's how to brew Chinese black tea:

  1. Boil water: The first step is to boil water. It's recommended to use fresh, filtered water and to bring it to a full boil. It's important to ensure the water is hot enough to extract the flavours and benefits of the tea fully.
  2. Preheat teapot or cup: Preheating your teapot or cup is a simple way to ensure that the temperature of the water doesn't drop too much when the tea is added. You can do this by pouring hot water into the teapot or cup and letting it sit for a few seconds before discarding the water.
  3. Add tea leaves: Add the desired amount of loose-leaf Chinese black tea to your teapot or cup. The amount of tea you use will depend on personal preference and the strength of the tea you want to brew. A good starting point is to use 1-2 teaspoons of tea leaves per cup of water.
  4. Pour hot water: Pour the hot water over the tea leaves. It's recommended to pour the water in a slow, circular motion to ensure that all the leaves are fully submerged and to release the flavour and aroma of the tea.
  5. Steep the tea: Let the tea steep for 3-5 minutes, depending on the desired strength. Steeping the tea for too long can make it bitter, so it's important to keep an eye on the brewing time.
  6. Strain and serve: Once the tea has steeped for the desired amount of time, strain the tea leaves out and serve. You can drink the tea hot, let it cool, and serve it over ice.


Serving black tea


You might have heard about “Washing the tea” (Xi Cha, 洗茶) or “Waking the tea up” (Xing Cha, 醒茶) with boiling water prior to appreciating the tea from the second infusion. This step serves two purposes: one is to awaken the leaves of a specific good-grade tea (i.e. Dang Hong Pao oolong as it’s roasted over charcoal). The other purpose is to remove the impurities of a lower-grade tea. Heavily fermented tea such as Pu’erh may be too strong on the first wash, with many preferring to begin their drink on the second.


Does a delicious cup of black tea tempt you yet? Check out our collection.

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