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A deeper look into Chinese black tea: Hong Cha

Posted by Angelina Kurganska on

In the west, we refer to it as "Black Tea," while in Asia people call it "Hong Cha" ("Red Tea"). Black tea is well-known as an afternoon tea for its mellow and sweet flavor.


According to a wide-spread legend, the Wuyi Mountains in northern Fujian, China, is where black tea first developed.


Up until the mid 17th century (Late Ming, Early Qing Dynasty), people in China mostly drank Green (unoxidized) teas.


Nowadays, Red tea is one of the most popular and widely produced teas in the world. However, it wasn't always this way. 


hong cha


The History Of Hong Cha In A Nutshell 

In fact, up until the 19th century, black tea wasn't widespread at all. The only black tea in existence was a modern-time favorite — Lapsang Souchong (Zhen Shan Xiao Zhong). Read more on Chinese black tea history here

For decades, even centuries, people barely consumed black tea in China. At the time, farmers produced hong cha almost exclusively for export. Chinese black tea wasn't an equal within the Chinese tea market until quite recently — 2005, to be exact.

This year a team of tea experts and masters in Tongmu, with a substantial financial support coming from the capital of Beijing, developed a new type of black tea, known as Jin Jun Mei. What made this tea special was that it was made solely from the tea buds. A pound of this tea was sold abroad for a few thousand US dollars. This event brought the collective mindset within China to see Chinese black tea as an item of appreciation. Thus a new era of hong cha emerged. 


How Is Black Tea Made?

Green tea processing attempts to preserve the green color of fresh tea leaves. On the other hand, black tea processing encourages the tea leaves to oxidize and change color from green to coppery red. We call this oxidation.


Being fully oxidized, black (or red) tea has dark leaves. It produces a deep-colored liquid, as well as tender, yet profound characteristics. 


During processing, Chinese black tea goes through the following steps:

• picking — farmers harvest the fresh tea leaves and buds 
• wilting — then they shade the tea leaves or leave them to dry in the sun
• rolling — tea farmers then roll the leaves to enhance the oxidation processes; rolling also helps release the tea leaf's natural oils
• oxidation — the farmers leave the tea leaves to oxidize for anywhere from 2 to 10 hours
• baking — finally, they bake the leaves in a special oven until fully dry


    Black tea at peak oxidation is undeniably sweet and mellow, differing it from all the other tea types


    lapsang souchong


    The Most Famous Chinese Black Tea Types 

    Lapsang Souchong Black Tea

    The first black tea in existence was Lapsang Souchong. This smokey black tea originated in the Wuyi Mountains of Fujian province, in the area of Tong Mu Guan. Nowadays, this area is nearly a national treasure. While foreigners are entirely prohibited from entering, Chinese citizens can come only with a special permit. This area is the birthplace of the tea, and farmers still produce Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong there. However, a large amount of Lapsang Souchong doesn't come from this area, and some tea companies falsely market it under its name. 


    Traditional Lapsang Souchong Black Tea is made in a unique smokehouse, using the smoke from pine tree branches. Because Lapsang Souchong grows at high altitudes in a slightly northern region of China, farmers harvest this tea last. Lapsang harvest dates stem into late May (Chinese tea harvest season begins as early as late February). 


    Dian Hong Black Tea 

    Dian Hong Black Tea is a group of teas from Yunnan province (same province as pu-erh tea) and is currently one of the most popular teas in China. Tea enthusiasts love it for its thick, robust taste with a gracious floral aftertaste. The tea itself is relatively new, emerging in the late 1930s. 


    Keemun Black Tea

    Keemun black tea is one of the first black teas we recommend to people getting into the sublime and at times mysterious world of hong cha. It has an intense yet delightful fragrance of flower fields and ripe fruits incomparable to other Chinese black teas.

    Keemun is the only black tea variety that is on China's Ten Famous Tea's List. 


    How To Brew Black Tea