Continuing my informal guide to selecting tea, we’ve come to black tea, the most oxidized of the tea types, and oolong, which falls between green and black tea in oxidation. If you’ve decided that the vegetal nature of green teas just is not for you, head for an oolong or black tea.
Black Tea. Everyone knows what black tea is. Or think they do. If your experience is limited to iced tea (most likely a Ceylon tea) or Earl Grey (in TeaHaus’ experience, the most popular tea in the U.S.), know that there’s waaaaay more available.
Things to consider when picking a black tea is how strong and bold you want it, how much astringency (that dry feeling in your mouth) you want, whether you want simply strong or something with layers of flavor, and whether you like earthy or smoky.
If you like strong tea, and especially if you plan to add milk and/or sweetener, breakfast teas are a good match. These would include those labeled as Irish, English, and Russian blends, plus any East Frisian blend (which traditionally is poured over rock sugar, with cream carefully added but not stirred in). If you enjoy these teas black, they are definitely strong, and you must take care in brewing them so that they don’t become bitter.
For coffee lovers who are used to deep and complex flavors, consider malty Assam; full-bodied wild-grown tea from the Caucasus nation of Georgia; malty, tobacco-y black tea from China’s Yunnan Province; or earthy, fermented pu-erh, also from Yunnan. While these are all strong teas, they aren’t in-your-face bold like the breakfast blends. Rather, they are intriguingly full-bodied and multilayered in flavor.
Wild-grown teas are often particularly interesting with their complexity and full-bodied character, fruity and spicy.
I personally think that malty Assam tea (especially Mokalbari) pairs particularly well with food. Assam, in northeast India, is bisected by the Brahmaputra River. The unique environment—humid and hot—contributes to the malty flavor that is characteristic of Assam teas.
If you want something that’s a bit malty but also earthy, tobacco-y, mushroom-y, try a black tea from Yunnan. Again, unlike the straight boldness of breakfast blends, these are complex, with an entire spectrum of flavors.
And if you want to go entirely into earthy, woody, mushroom-y, dive into the rabbit hole of pu-erh, teas that have been fermented and often aged. These are a category unto themselves because other black teas are oxidized and not fermented (although you will sometimes see these term erroneously used interchangeably). Pu-erh is available as loose tea or pressed into cakes, and can be rebrewed multiple times.
Moving from earthy into more smoky, there’s a range of smokiness available, from a hint of smoke, like keemun from China, to a more definite smoky note, as in gunpowder, also from China. Russian breakfast blends are generally a bit smoky, whereas lapsang souchong, dried over a pine wood fire, is full-on campfire smoky.
But for those who prefer a much less intense cup of tea, there are plenty of options. Ceylon teas from Sri Lanka are full-bodied and brisk, and can have spice notes; they lend themselves well to being iced; they work well with any additives, including lemon; and they are probably what many people think of when they think “black tea,” with just the right astringency.
Darjeeling teas are viewed as the Champagne of tea, are highly esteemed, and are characteristically astringent. A first flush (the first harvest, meaning that newly emerging leaves were plucked) will be more delicate and fresh than the more full-bodied second flush (more mature leaves).
There are also many flavored black teas, with Earl Grey, flavored by bergamot oil, and chai, a blend of spices on a tea base, being perhaps the best known. When selecting a flavored black tea, the choices are limitless—floral, fruity/citrusy, minty, spicy, chocolatey, and any combination of these. Most flavored black teas are also good iced.
Unlike flavored green teas, in which the additives (fruit, flowers, etc.) seem to just shine on the clean tea base (especially when iced), flavored black teas are a bit different. The black tea works together with the additives; it’s more like the additives complement the black tea flavor rather than the flavor of the additives prevailing over the tea base.
Oolong Tea. I’ve left this for last because it’s the most complex category of tea. The leaves selected may be from any harvest, and the production steps are numerous, requiring deep knowledge and great skill.
Oolongs fall between green teas, which are not oxidized, and black teas, which are fully oxidized. And they may be anywhere on this oxidation scale—from lightly (10%; a “green” oolong) to more highly (85%) oxidized. (See What Is Oolong Tea? for more.)
One stellar example of a green oolong is Sumatra Barisan, or Iron Goddess of Mercy, with its grassy, buttery, floral notes.
When you go into the more oxidized oolongs, you get more nutty, toasted, spicy. Examples include Formosa Fancy Superior Taifu (“Five Color Tea”), Nepal Jun Chiyabari, and Formosa Dark Pearl.
Therefore, if you’re looking for something between green and black tea, go for an oolong, and within that category, you can find one that runs more green if you like grassy/vegetal, one more oxidized if you prefer black over green tea, or one right in the middle! Note also that all oolongs can be rebrewed multiple times, with each infusion having a slightly different taste.
Flavored oolongs can also use a less or a more oxidized oolong base, a choice that will enhance whatever additives have been added to the tea leaves. Lemon flavors might be better paired with a greener oolong, whereas if you want something warm and nutty, a more oxidized oolong might be used.
As I said in the beginning of this series, visiting a teashop where someone knowledgeable can help is probably the best way to find a tea you’re liable to like. However, during these pandemic days, when more of us are shopping online as much as possible, I hope that this brief look into tea categories will help you if you just don’t know where to begin.
Most teas shown here available at TeaHaus.