Best Black Tea Guide by Zest Tea
If you've ever wondered how a simple cup of black tea is made, where it comes from, and which is the best black tea to drink, you've come to the right place. This guide to black tea will explain it all, diving into how black tea is made before counting down some of the most popular black tea blends and origins in the world.
Black Tea - Everything You Need to Know
Black tea is a caffeinated tea type, meaning it's made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis tea plant. This plant produces the tea leaves and buds for all the traditional tea types - green tea, white tea, oolong tea, etc.
The origins of the tea plant are in China, but it's now grown across the world (discover tea origins below) and there are so many diverse varieties and cultivars producing different flavor profiles.
What really separates black tea from the other types, however, is the way it's processed. To turn the fresh green leaves of the plant into the dark brown-black dried leaves you find in a tea bag, the leaves need to be oxidized. Here's a rough outline of the process for making black tea:
- The tea leaves are harvested either by hand of machine,
- The leaves are sorted by grade, if fine loose leaf tea is being made,
- The leaves are left to wither so they are more easily manipulated,
- The leaves are twisted, pressed and rolled to oxidize them - this exposes the enzymes in the leaves to oxygen and turns them from green to a brown or black color,
- The leaves are dried very quickly by exposing them to a high heat.
Once the leaves are dried, they are ready to be packaged as loose leaf teas or in tea bags. They may also be mixed with other flavor ingredients to create a black tea blend. The whole process can be done by hand, which is the orthodox method, or it can be done with a crush tear curl (CTC) machine.
Learn more about how teas are manufactured, read our article How Is Tea Made? next.
Black Tea Flavor
Teas from the Camellia sinensis plant can have a wide range of flavors depending on the plant variety, growing conditions/technique, processing method, and any additional flavors added to create a flavored black tea.
In general, the oxidation during black tea production produces a malty flavor. Compared to white tea and green tea, black tea has a strong flavor that coats your taste buds with tannins, malt and sometimes slightly sweet notes. The best black teas are complex and rich, creating a delicious drink with or without milk.
The rich flavor of black tea goes particularly well with milk and sugar - just like coffee.
Black Tea vs Green Tea
The key difference between green tea and black tea is the tea production method as well as the flavor. They are on opposite ends of the spectrum - you wouldn't drink black tea and mistake it for green tea.
Technically, you could make both black tea and green tea from the exact same tea plant just by altering the production method. However, tea growers tend to stick with just one tea type for their plant cultivar - whichever is best suited to it.
You'll also find that black tea and green tea have some differing health benefits. With less tannins and more amino acids, green tea is a rich source of L-Theanine and EGCG. It's linked to reducing anxiety, improving heart health and lowering blood pressure.
Black tea, on the other hand, improves gut health, lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease, and has some antiviral properties.
Discover more health benefits and distinctions between black tea and green tea in our article Black Tea vs Green Tea.
Tea Bags vs Loose Leaf Tea
The two main formats that you can buy black tea leaves in are tea bags and loose tea. Technically, the tea leaves may be exactly the same - this is the case with Zest Tea, as we use the same leaf in our pyramid sachets as our loose tea pouches.
However, in many cases loose leaf tea is a higher quality than tea bags, simply because lower grades and smaller leaf pieces are often used to fill tea bags and sachets. Loose leaf tea, on the other hand, is more likely to be whole leaf so you can preserve delicate leaf buds and complex flavors.
If tea drinking is new to you, don't worry. Nearly all black teas and flavored teas are available in tea bag format, which is the easiest to brew. All you need to do is select one of the best flavored black teas or single origin teas from our list below.
7 Best Black Tea Blends and Varieties
From breakfast blends to chai tea, here are 7 of the most popular black teas that are widely available to purchase.
1 - Black Energy Tea
Energy tea is our creation. We source fine quality black teas from around the world, then add additional tea extract. This ensures that we can maintain that great flavor while also creating a high-caffeine hot beverage that can rival coffee.
Many coffee and energy drinkers are accustomed to that huge hit of caffeine in the morning. Tea, although flavorful, is usually much lower in caffeine. At Zest, our energy tea formula for black tea pushes the caffeine levels up to 150mg per serving.
We also create tea blends, which are a blend of the highest quality black teas with other flavor ingredients. For a traditional blend, take a look at Earl Grey and masala chai below. For something a little more unusual, try a cup of Blue Lady or Cinnamon Apple.
One of the great things about black tea is that it tastes great iced too. If you're interested in discovering iced energy tea, take a look at our ready to drink options that are made with high quality black tea and non-GMO ingredients.
2 - English Breakfast Tea
English breakfast teas are some of the most widely consumed teas in the world, especially in the UK. Although English breakfast tea doesn't contain any additional ingredients, like fruit pieces or spices, it's still a blend as it's made from a selection of black teas from different tea producing countries.
Originating from the late 18th century, an English breakfast tea is characterized by a very bold flavor. It's malty, rich, robust and full-bodied - the perfect kind of tea to go with a hearty breakfast, whether it's an English style breakfast or just a stack of pancakes.
There's no strict recipe of black teas that go into an English breakfast tea, but traditionally Assam black tea, Kenyan black tea, and Ceylon (Sri Lankan) black tea are blended together.1 Different blends of black teas to create a robust tea flavor are also referred to as breakfast tea - see Irish breakfast teas below as an example.
English breakfast tea may also be a good option for an iced tea or cold brew, as the robust flavor pulls through the cold temperature and sweet additives.
3 - Earl Grey Teas
Earl Grey is a classic black tea, and another that we're borrowing from the Brits. Of course, we had to put our own twist on it at Zest Tea! Our Earl Grey blend is made with our signature high caffeine black tea and bergamot (orange-lemon like citrus fruit) to create a refreshing and juicy tea flavor.
Bergamot, much like orange peel, has a bright and slightly sweet flavor. Earl Grey black tea is a really subtle blend compared to the likes of Irish breakfast tea and other bold malty flavor types.
Any black tea can be used for the base of an Earl Grey, though traditionally Chinese Keemun black tea was used.2 Delicate black teas, like Keemun and Darjeeling teas, may be best consumed without milk. But with more robust Earl Grey teas, like our Zest blend, go ahead and add a splash of milk if you like!
4 - Masala Chai
Masala chai - meaning 'spiced tea' - is a blend of black tea and spices. It's often made with plenty of milk and sugar in the traditional Indian method.3 This is another amazing black tea type that we've put our own spin on at Zest Tea. Our Spicy Masala Chai is made with cardamom seeds, ginger root, cinnamon chips, and cloves to create a smooth spicy yet mild flavor. Other common ingredients in chai teas include black pepper, star anise, nutmeg and vanilla.
Assam tea, grown in India, is a popular black tea base among tea lovers for chai tea. This is a really rich and comforting tea to try - that's why we recommend it as the best black tea for ex coffee drinkers.
To make a chai tea, you can toast the spices and boil the black tea in water or milk to enhance the flavor. A quicker and simpler method is to use a tea bag that contains both the tea leaves and the spices together - you just need to pour boiling water over it and wait 3 to 5 minutes for it to steep.
5 - Irish Breakfast Tea
Similar to English breakfast tea, Irish breakfast tea is a bold and robust blend of black teas designed to withstand heavy, rich food served at breakfast time. What differentiates the Irish version from the English version is a much higher ratio of assam black tea, with less Ceylon and less (or no) Keemun tea present.
There's no standard or regulation that tea producers follow for Irish breakfast blends, however they tend to all contain Assam and have that bold, strong flavor that you expect from a breakfast tea.4
Learn more about Assam teas and why they're a popular choice for breakfast blends below.
6 - Milk Tea
Milk tea can refer to any tea that's served with milk. Black tea is widely consumed this way, with most green and other delicate tea types served plain or with lemon.
However, milk tea can also refer to a variety of Asian beverages. For example:
- Bubble Tea - a Taiwanese tea typically made with black tea, milk and tapioca bubbles or pearls. It's served cold and is often very sweet. There are many variations of bubble tea, however, so it's not always made solely with black tea.
- Hong Kong Style Milk Tea - black tea sweetened with evaporated milk rather than standard milk, for additional richness and sweetness.
- Thai Tea - another sweet and milky black tea, often made with condensed milk. This tea is made with Ceylon teas sourced from Sri Lanka and is often served over ice as an iced tea.
You can read our recipe for making sweet Thai tea with Zest Spicy Masala Chai in our article Does Thai Tea Have Caffeine?
These milk teas are easy to make at home but are also popular as a kind of street food. They're loaded with sugar, so they're not the healthiest way to get your morning caffeine boost. We recommend sticking to energy tea every day and saving sweet milk tea for special occasions.
7 - Lapsang Souchong
Lapsang souchong is a smoked Chinese tea, made originally by tea plantations in the Wuyi Mountains region of the Fujian province of China. You can find modern lapsang souchong tea leaves made in many tea producing countries, including Taiwan and India (although that's much rarer than Chinese lapsang souchong).
This is the best black tea if you like really bold and unusual flavors. To give this tea that smoky edge, it's smoke-dried over a pinewood fire much like savory meats. In fact, lapsang souchong is a popular ingredient in many savory recipes, especially mushroom soup.5
Like unsweetened chocolate, it's a flavor that can certainly be prepared as a sweet drink but also has the depth and richness to be a savory element in culinary dishes.
4 Great Black Tea Origins
Learning about a few of the most fertile tea producing regions and the teas they produce is very helpful for any aspiring tea drinker. When you know your Assam tea from your Ceylon teas, you can begin to understand what a black tea will taste like before you even purchase it.
1 - Indian Black Tea
India is home to one particular variety of the tea plant - Camellia sinensis assamica. Along with Camellia sinensis sinensis which is the "original" Chinese tea plant (scroll down for Chinese teas) these varieties create nearly all of the tea consumed in the world today.
We're starting with Indian black teas because at Zest, we've used them in the past for some of our energy teas and we can attest to their amazing flavor and versatility!
Cultivating the tea plant in India for tea production was only really introduced in the 19th century, whereas China's history of tea cultivation dates back many centuries earlier.
Once established, however, tea trade from India overtook that of China by 1888.6
Two of the most well-known Indian black teas grown are Assam and Darjeeling, both named after the regions they are grown in.
Assam Black Tea
Assam tea, grown in the Assam region of India usually at sea level, has a coppery color and a rich, robust flavor. Its most distinguishable flavor note is maltiness. This is a really bold tea that's at the heart of many breakfast blends. It's also the tea of choice for making masala chai.
Darjeeling Black Tea
Darjeeling tea, grown in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, is a light and floral black tea. The finest Darjeeling black tea is made with just the buds and fresh new leaves of the Camellia sinensis sinensis plant variety. Green and white teas are also made from Darjeeling tea plants, but this is less common.
2 - Chinese Black Tea
China is the birthplace of tea. As we explored in our article A Complete History of Tea, the beverage was first consumed for pleasure rather than medicinal reasons in the 4th century. While many civilizations have used plants for medicinal properties and combined - or steeped - them with water, China was the first to use the Camellia sinensis plant.
Depending on the region that the tea is grown in, Chinese black tea can have a wide range of different flavors and characteristics.
Yunnan Black Tea
The Yunnan province of China is known for its tea gardens and estates, it produces black tea as well as pu-erh Yunnan tea too.
Yunnan black tea is better known as dianhong black tea. The finest grades are soft, mellow and almost sweet in flavor while lower quality dianhong black tea is more robust and bitter.7
Keemun Black Tea
Keemun black tea has a mellow yet fresh flavor and a great aroma that you'll love smelling as you sip. Keemun tea is produced in the Anhui Province of China and is considered the best Chinese black tea by many people.8
3 - Ceylon Black Tea
Ceylon teas are sourced from Sri Lanka. They're known as 'Ceylon' teas as this was the name for Sri Lanka when the island was a British crown colony, and even though the country has been known as Sri Lanka since 1972 we still refer to the teas as Ceylon teas today.9
Ceylon tea is often used in English and Irish breakfast teas, as it has a bold and brisk flavor that works well with Assam teas and tastes great with a splash of milk.
4 - Kenyan Black Teas
Although Kenyan teas are last on our list of the best black teas, there are plenty more tea producing countries and flavor combinations to explore, so don't stop here.
Kenyan black teas have a smooth, full-bodied and rich flavor. Certain varieties also have sweet honey notes. Like China, India and various other Asian countries, Kenya has a good climate and elevation for growing tea - this is important for producing good quality, flavorsome tea leaves.
Which black tea brand is best?
For black tea that kicks like coffee, we are the best! Check out ZestTea.com to learn more. There are hundreds of black tea brands in the US. Lipton, Teavana, Bigelow, and Yogi tea are among the most popular, but with so many more out there, you're really spoilt for choice.
What kind of black tea is best for chai?
In India, mamri Assam is the black tea of choice for chai (unless Kashmiri chai is on the menu, in which case gunpowder green tea is used).10 You can use any bold malty tea to create chai, however. Assam is best, but a strong Ceylon tea will also suffice. You also don't need to follow the traditional method to make masala chai - there are some great chai tea bags available!
What is the healthiest brand of black tea?
Black tea itself comes with numerous health benefits (learn about those in our article A Quick Guide to Black Tea) and there will also be health benefits associated with any additional ingredients added, e.g. bergamot or spices. The healthiest black teas will be naturally grown and processed. For example, we only use non-GMO tea leaves at Zest Tea.
Is black tea the healthiest?
Which tea type is the healthiest depends on which health benefits you are seeking. In our guide to black tea, we discovered that black tea types can enhance weight loss, reduce blood pressure in high-stress situations, and improve recovery after exercise.
However, other tea types have different health benefits that are worth exploring too. You can learn more about tea, health, and everything in-between by reading articles published on the Zest Blog.