Being world’s most famous tea, black tea is actually one of the youngest tea. Black tea first appeared in 1600s. Compared to green tea, which is thousands of years old, the history of black tea seems to be oddly short.
Some tea lovers think the late appearance of black tea is related to the location of Village of Tongmu (Chinese: 桐木), the birthplace of black tea. Tongmu is in a fairly remote location in Wuyi mountains. It situates in between the border of Fujian Province and Jiangxi Province. Being a UNESCO world heritage site, today’s Tongmu is still quite inaccessible. There is still only one way in and out of the village. (We actually have another tea blog on Tongmu, please click here to read it.)
Because of this, many people think black tea was simply “discovered” late due to the difficulty of getting into Tongmu. However, this is wrong. You see, black tea wasn’t “discovered”. It was created by tea makers (see our previous blog here). In fact, before Tongmu became famous for black tea, it was a oolong-making village. You might ask, what happened to Tongmu that eventually led to the creation of black tea?
As we introduced earlier in this blog, village of Tongmu sits in an important pass between Fujian and Jiangxi. The unique location gives Tongmu a crucial military significance.
In the second year of Emperor Long-Qing of Ming dynasty (1568), there was a lot military movements near Tongmu. One rainy night during the harvest season, villagers heard that an army was going to pass through the village. Alarmed villagers dropped newly harvested fresh leaves and hid in deep mountains to avoid encountering soldiers.
When the army finally reached the village, exhausted soldiers didn’t even bother to remove cloth-covered leaves on the ground. They slept right on top of those leaves. After the army finally left, tea makers returned home only to find that all fresh leaves were overheated and over-fermented. Heartbroken tea makers had two options: to discard all leaves and waste a year’s work, or to find a way to save fresh leaves.
Fortunately for us, Tongmu tea makers chose to take a leap of faith. Originally, they wanted to spread out all rolled leaves for drying. But the rain at that time forced them to give up idea and switched to very lightly roast leaves using local masson pine wood.
Surprising, after the roast, fully-fermented leaves turned into a darker color. Once the leaves were infused, the tea soup displayed a bright and clear red color, and it tasted like lightly scorched dried longan fruit.
Tongmu tea makers named the tea after the color of the tea soup. They called it Hong Cha (Chinese: 红茶, meaning: red tea, the reason it’s called “black tea” in English is because English traders named the tea after the color of dry leaves). They also gave a name to the particular black tea from Tongmu: Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong (Chinese: 正山小种, meaning: a variety of tea plants that has smaller leaves and the growth of these plants are affected by the small climate in the righteous mountain, where village of Tongmu is).
Europeans missionaries who later came to the village were charmed by this tea. They translated Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong by its pronunciation into Lapsang Souchong. Eventually, Lapsang Souchong became the most popular tea in Europe.
Unfortunately, the appreciation of the tea didn’t turn into the respect for tea makers. English explorers came to the village and “stole” tea plants (well, they certainly removed tea plants and seeds without permission) and replanted them in their colonies. Zheng Shan Xiao Zhou (正山小种), a name that includes the territorial place of origin like “Champaign” and the specific tea growing environments, got reduced to its superficial pronunciation of “Lapsang Souchong”.
The creation of black tea was purely a lucky incident. The motivation of making black tea wasn’t that “we want to create a new kind of tea”. 400 years ago, Tongmu tea makers only wanted to minimize their lost. If it were not for those talented, hardworking tea makers, the world would never have black tea. When a cup of black tea warms a cold night, we have that beautiful incident to thank for.
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