You may be surprised to know that Red Tea is the most popular type of tea in the West. How is it that most Westerners drink Red Tea without ever having heard of Red Tea? Simple. It just isn’t usually known by that name in the West.
In China, where Red Tea originated, it was (and is) known as ‘Hong Cha’ (literally, ‘Red Tea’), after the reddish color of its infusions. However, early in the tea trade to the West, very little information was exchanged when the tea was handed over for silver. (Come to think of it, things aren’t usually much different today!) Even things like teas’ names could be (and often were) terribly misunderstood or mangled in those days. And so it came to be that the name Red Tea was dropped in favor of ‘Black Tea’, which referred to the dark, withered leaves of the tea. (After all, these already dark leaves were likely made even darker by the long and salty boat journey from China to Europe and to America.) The name ‘Black Tea’ stuck in the West, but in recent years there has been a shift toward more tea awareness and the spread of the term ‘Red Tea’.
What Makes Red Tea Red?
Unlike other tea types, Red Tea typically has leaves that dwell in the red-to-black range of the color spectrum. This includes the muted orange of Dian Hong, the deep rust of Assam Second Flush, the greenish-black of Darjeeling First Flush and the blue-blacks of many Keemun and Ceylon teas. Regardless of the color of the leaves, though, the infusion is typically dark and warm in color, i.e. deep tan, rust red or espresso brown. The colors of Red Teas’ infusions and leaves (which resulted in the names ‘Red Tea’ and ‘Black Tea,’ respectively) are both primarily the results of tea processing.
Different tea types are processed differently. While processing is not the sole differentiating factor (Indeed, varietals, terroir, harvest seasons and many other factors can make substantial differences!), processing often makes the most profound difference in how a given leaf’s liquor will look, taste, and feel by the time it reaches your teapot or bowl.
Red Tea processing generally follows these steps:
1. Harvesting, either by hand or by machine.
2. Heavy withering (or ‘piling’). This step involves piling the tea in woven trays or in large troughs with fans to circulate air and remove moisture as it evaporates. The withering process reduces moisture content and initiates oxidation.
4. Further oxidation. This optional step entails additional exposure of the leaves’ essential oils to oxygen. It involves letting the tea sit for up to a few hours before the oxidation is halted with heat. This additional oxidation results in further changes in the tea’s flavor, aroma, color and impact on Qi when drunk.
5. Baking or firing. These quick, high-heat processes halt oxidation and dry the tea for storage.
6. Sorting by hand or machine. In this process, waste material (such as large stems and tiny, broken leaf fragments) is removed. In India, Sri Lanka and other countries geared toward mass production of Red Tea, different sizes (or ‘grades’) of leaves are divided into separate batches.
7. Flavoring and blending. These optional steps are usually reserved for commodity grade teas and some specialty teas rather than handmade or single-batch teas. For example, teas like English Breakfast Tea and Afternoon Tea are typically blends of many different batches of tea, while teas like Earl Grey are typically made of blended teas that are flavored with essential oils and/or other ingredients. However, there are some handmade teas that are flavored or blended, such as true Lapsang Souchong from Wuyi Shan, which is aromatized with pine needle/pine bough smoke.
You may have noticed that three of the eight steps above involve oxidation. Heavy oxidation is the main differentiating factor between Red Tea processing and other types of tea processing. It is what brings out the deep colors and the aromas and flavors of fruit, malt and tobacco leaf in Red Tea. It’s also a factor in Red Tea’s relatively long shelf life.
There is some overlap between tea types with regard to oxidation. For example, a dark oxidation Oo- long such as Wuyi Cliff Tea may be considered to be an Oolong in China and a Red Tea (‘Black Tea’) in the West, while a lighter oxidation Red Tea from Darjeeling or Nepal’s first flush (spring harvest) may be thought of as akin to an Oolong. However, Oolong tea entails several steps that are not utilized in Red Tea production, differentiating it from Red Tea despite the occasional similarity in oxidation levels. Therefore, while oxidation is a key difference between Red Tea and other tea types, it is not the sole difference.
* In the case of CTC (Cut, Tear, Curl) Tea, rolling is combined with additional steps which chop the tea leaves into tiny pieces, causing them to quickly oxidize, and then rolled into pellets as it is further oxidized and dried. CTC processing is an efficient and cheap means of tea production, so CTC Tea is commonly used in teabags and in less wealthy tea-drinking countries, such as India and Sri Lanka. CTC Tea is intended to release all its flavor very quickly; it usually lasts only one infusion or two to three boilings. Just having spent five months in India, I can tell you from personal experience that it is harder to appreciate the culinary and spiritual aspects of tea when it is processed in this way.
An exploration of red tea was written by Lindsey Goodwin and originally published by Global Tea Hut in September, 2012. Part two of this post, Red Tea’s History, will publish next Wednesday, October 1. Global Tea Hut has generously granted permission to T Ching to publish past articles from their publication each week. These appear on Wednesdays.