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Blog 103: What Defines A Good Black Tea?

In English, black tea has a controversial name. Because in its birthplace China, “black tea” is actually called “red tea” (Chinese: 红茶, pronounced: Hong Cha).

This confusion is caused by international tea trades hundreds of years ago. Chinese tea makers named this tea after its signature tea soup color, which is red. European tea traders, who primarily did business at sea ports, didn’t have the condition to sample the tea. Therefore, they named it after the color of its dry tea leaves —black.

However, after knowing this part of the history, many tea lovers raise another question: if black tea has a red tea soup color, how come my black tea doesn’t look red at all?

A just question. In fact, the tea soup of black tea is not always red. The common color of a good black tea is orange red, reddish golden, and deep yellow.

The color difference is the result of tea-making.

As we know, black tea goes through a fermentation tea-making process. During the fermentation process, tea polyphenols are oxidized, polymerized, and condensed to theaflavin, thearubigin, and theabrownin, which are the major components of black tea’s colors and tastes. When tea polyphenols are fully oxidized, black tea’s fermentation process is pretty much finished. After getting in contact with hot water, these chemicals form the red color we see.

It is worth noting that the quality of a black tea is not associated with how “red” the tea soup is. Among all three substances, theaflavin and theabronin decide how “red” it is, and thearubigin decides how “bright” the color is.

If a black tea contains too much theaflavin and/or theabrownin, it’ll be too dark and tastes lighter (specific to theaflavin). Thearubigin, on the other hand, is the more the better. Not only does it determine how bright the soup color is, but also it has multiple health benefits. It can anticancer, prevent cardiovascular diseases, loss fat, and reduce the level of blood cholesterol.

A black tea’s soup color is determined by how much these 3 substances are presented in tea leaves, as well as how balanced they are.

After understanding what defines a black tea’s soup color, we can now talk about how to choose a good quality black tea.

In general, we have 4 ways to judge a black tea:

1. The Appearance

2. The Aroma

3. The Taste

4. The Tea Soup

The Appearance

Black tea has a huge variety of shapes. Common black tea shapes are: string-shaped, needle-shaped, and ball-shaped. When choosing a black tea, we should select those unbroken, evenly-shaped tea leaves that fit the general appearance character of that tea. For example, the original and authentic Lapsang Souchong (Little Chi-Gan) from Tongmu has a string shape, and those “Lapsang Souchong” that have other shapes are not standard.

The Aroma

There’re over 300 known fragrances in black tea. The most noticeable aromas are: fruity, floral, and honey. Some smoked Lapsang Souchong will carry a smell of pine soot. The pine soot smell in this tea should be pleasant. If you find this smell to be intrusive or scorched, it’s not made right. A perfectly fermented black tea should have distinct layers of sweet aromas. And these aromas should not be overshadowed by the pine soot smell.

The Taste

Generally speaking, the taste of all black teas is quite similar. The standard taste is mellow, soft, sweet, no bitter or dry mouthfeel. Good quality never need sugar, milk or honey to taste better. If you find a black tea that tastes bitter and scorched, it doesn’t mean it’s “made differently”. It’s just made wrong.

The Tea Soup

Finally, the tea soup. As we discussed earlier, the tea soup of a black tea doesn’t have to be red, but it has to be bright and clear. If a black tea’s tea soup has a very dim and dark red, it means it might contain too much theaflavin, and it will have a “flat” taste.

Valley Brook Tea | Blog
Not all Black Tea has a red tea soup color

Compared to oolong tea, black tea’s standard is more straightforward. Hopefully this blog can help you determine the quality of a black tea before you buy.

As always, if you have questions or suggestions, please leave a comment, tweet us @valleybrooktea or email the author directly at Please also follow us on Instagram @valleybrooktea and join our mail list to get our daily tea updates and our latest promotions!

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