There are black teas. There are red teas. And there are dark teas. Which is which? Over the years we’ve put out some info on each and now want to bring it all together into one handy spot.
Black vs. Red Tea – A Matter of Terminology
Trying to talk about tea on a worldwide level can bring up some conflicts in what terms we use for the various types of tea. One of these conflicts is about red tea versus black tea. Many sources address this issue by stating flatly that they are the same thing and that the name difference has to do with what part of the world you are in. Tea drinkers in the U.S. and in other parts of the world use the term “black tea” to refer to the color of the dry tea leaves. They are fully oxidized and are, therefore, dark brown to black in color. However, in a lot of Asian countries this type of tea is called “red tea” based on the reddish color of the liquid. (In Mandarin Chinese it’s hóngchá; in Japanese it’s kōcha; and in Korean it’s hongcha.) That makes sense to us.
These Chinese black/red teas are also called “congou teas” (one of those regularly ordered from local tea merchants by Thomas Jefferson for his household). “Congou” is probably derived from “kungfu” or “gongfu,” meaning “skill and patience.” Very appropriate, since this type of tea requires a great deal of disciplined production skill to achieve one of its main characteristics: unbroken leaves.
Originating in Fujian Province, black/red/congou teas are now the most widely produced and drunk teas in the world. The robust flavors and aromas ignited the original love of tea among the British. They are considered by some to be enjoyed best when consumed straight without flavorings or milk and sugar added (however, the British tended to do just that). An example is Keemun Hao Ya A which produces a liquid that has a luster and bright reddish brown color. While a lot of breakfast tea blends have switched to using cheaper and lower quality black/red teas from other tea-growing countries, many tea connoisseurs are going back to these original black/red teas.
3 Subcategories of Chinese Black/Red Tea:
- Kung Fu Black/Red Tea — considered one of the unique black/red tea products from China, it has only been popular in China and Asia whose tea drinkers care about the black/red tea leaf quality.
- XiaoZhong Black/Red Tea — the other unique black/red tea product from China, it is the only product of Fujian Province, China, with its top end grade named Zheng Shan. An example is Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong #1. (Edited per comment from gohchengfai.)
- Broken Black/Red Tea — the leaves were broken into pieces on rollers; this is the variety that made tea really popular overseas, but it’s considered an inferior product (the lowest quality of black/red tea) in China. In 1876 George Reid invented a machine to cut tea leaves into small pieces, so this tea began to be produced and gained popularity in Europe and North America. It currently comprises about 80% of global tea exports.
Westerners also call an herbal from South Africa by the name “red tea.” It is actually not a tea but an infusion from the dried leaves of Rooibos (red bush). When buying any “red tea,” read the vendor’s description on their site or one the package label carefully to be sure which you are getting. Buying from a vendor who specializes in premium Chinese teas, though, will assure that when they call something “red tea” you will be getting true tea.
Fujian Black/red teas
In the Fujian province of China, three “Famous Fujian Reds” are produced:
- Tanyang Gongfu (Tan Yang Congou, Panyang Congou) – The most common of the big three congou black teas produced in Fujian province. From Tanyang in the mountains of northern Fujian province of China. This black/red tea is considered the “king of the Fujian Artisan Red Teas.” It is made from the Tanyang Cai Cha cultivar, which was developed in the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) but wasn’t used to make black tea until 1851 when Tanyang was just a tiny tea village. This black (red, congou) tea was further developed and exported to Western Europe where it became quite popular by the end of 19th century. The leaves are jet black and shiny and steep up a clear liquid with a bright red color, a thick, smooth texture, and a mellow yet rich aroma without a hard edge. The flavor is described as fresh, smooth, and having a sweet aftertaste. Over the years the plantation trees and production process were developed further and the tea is now called “gongfu” due to the great amount of manual skills and efforts needed for producing the tea.
- Zhenghe Gongfu or Ching Wo Tea (Zheng He Congou Tea) – One of the big three congou black teas produced in Zhenghe County, Fujian province. It is made from the Da Baicha cultivar and another unknown cultivar. (Other teas are produced there but the name Zhenghe is usually used for the black/red tea, which was first produced in 1874.) Leaves from the two cultivars are carefully blended together. The Da Baicha cultivar leaves are plucked when they are small and covered with downy hairs, like a white tea, and the other cultivar also has small leaves but with an aroma similar to Keemun Congou. Often referred to as “claret” because of its full-bodied, winey flavor with some honey notes. The liquid has a deep, full body, a smooth and mellow flavor, and a hint of subtle pepper in the taste and fragrance. It is excellent at breakfast and for your afternoon tea time since it blends very well with sweetened milk for added flavor and extra smoothness.
- Bailin Gongfu or Bai Lin Congou (Tangerine Black) – One of the big three congou black teas produced in Fujian province. From Bailin, Taimushan of Fuding County. A rare, hand-crafted black tea that’s been around for over 150 years. In the 1850s, tea merchants gathered in the Bailin area to collect roughly manufactured black teas and refine them into what became the Bai Lin Congou. It is processed by hand, using young leaf buds that are kept whole and then fully oxidized (a process that takes over five hours) and heated. This results in a malty flavor that is rich, caramelly, and has chocolate and tobacco notes. Made from either of two tea plant varietals: Da Baicha used for white tea or a native small leaf Fujian green. The dry leaves are yellow and black with a shape that is long, thin, bent, and sort of like a fuzz ball. They steep up a bright red liquid with a fresh, mellow aroma and a clean, sweet flavor.
North China Congous
These congou teas are from the provinces of Anhui, Hunan, and Kiangsu. They are the typical English breakfast style teas, the most famous ones being Keemuns. They are hand-made in the orthodox processing manner; both the hand processing and small production area in Keemun County results in a low output. The flavors are nuanced and layered.
- Keemun Gongfu or Congou — Made with careful skill (“gongfu”) to produce thin, tight strips without breaking the leaves.
- Keemun Mao Feng — A variety, where Mao Feng means Fur Peak, which is made of only slightly twisted leaf buds and is sometimes noted for a smoother and different flavor. Many people prefer to brew a smaller quantity of this tea for a longer time than usual, up to 7 minutes, to bring out more interesting tones in the tea.
- Keemun Xin Ya — The early bud variety, said to have less bitterness.
- Keemun Hao Ya — A variety known for its fine buds, sometimes showing prominent amounts of silver tips, and generally the highest grade. Hao Ya is sometimes graded into A and B, where A is the better grade.
- Hubei Keemun — Not a true Keemun, a variety that comes from the Hubei Province west of Anhui , said to have similar qualities to the Anhui Keemun.
- Yunnan Black Tea — A large-leaf Yunnan Congou black tea with a perfect leaf appearance and golden tips.
- Lichee Congou (Guangdong Province) — A black tea flavored with lichee.
- Rose Congou (Guangdong Province) — A black tea flavored with rose petals.
Whether you like these teas straight or with milk and sweetener, they are a truly special taste experience.
What Are Chinese Dark Teas?
These are not to be confused with what we in the Western world call “black tea” (and the Chinese call “red tea”).
Simply put, dark tea (Hei Cha 黑茶) is a unique tea type made by post fermentation. It’s been around for more than 400 years. The Chinese often call it Border-Sale Tea (Bian Xiao Cha 边销茶), meaning literally “tea sold on borders.” The leaves are usually compressed into bricks and sold in western minority areas of China.
The “dark tea” name is based on the color of the dried leaves, which are generally old and coarse raw leaves that have been stacked a long time for fermentation. The more specific types are designated by their producing areas and productions processes. For example, there is Hunan Hei Cha (from Hunan Province where tea has been produced for over 2,000 years), Hubei Hei Cha (from Hubei Province which has a subtropical climate and distinct seasons), Sichuan Route Tea, and Dian-Gui Hei Cha.
The taste of dark tea can be fairly strong, especially for those whose palates are used to lighter flavors such as delicate green and white teas. You can easily get accustomed to it, though, if you drink it on a regular basis. And many consider it mellow and unique. Enjoyed in the provinces of Guangxi, Yunnan, and Sichuan, the tea has now gained popularity among Tibetans, Mongols, and Uygurs, so much so that they consider it an essential. The Yunnan and Sichuan hei chas are also known as “pu-erh” (plus variant spellings). The Sichuan versions are mainly produced in Yibing and areas close by.
Some Other Varieties of Dark Tea (Hei Cha):
- Laoqing Tea – produced mainly in Chibi, Xianling, Tongshan, and Chongyang in Hubei province
- Raw Dark Green Tea
- Several from Guangxi Province: Liupu Tea originally produced in Liupu village, but now produced in more than 20 counties; Bainiu Tea produced in Jinxiu; Liudong Tea, produced in Xing’an; Xiuren Tea, produced in Lipu; and Wantian Tea, produced in Lingui
This type of tea has a reputation for having lots of healthful properties. It is said to contain many vitamins, minerals, protein, amino acids, and sugar substances. It also has caffeine and phospholipids, and is considered a great digestive aid, regulating fat metabolism. This also leads many to consider dark tea good for weight loss and longevity. Other health benefit claims are: significant inhibiting effect on tumor cells, a role of lowering blood pressure, lowers blood sugar, acts as bactericide and anti-inflammatory, and detoxifies. [Note: We present this as information but not as medical advice. Consult your doctor before starting a tea regimen.]
Try some and see what you think.
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