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Tea 101: A brief history of black tea

Black tea is called red tea (紅茶) in Chinese, because of its red liquor. In Chinese, the categories of teas are named by the colour of their liquor. The British named it “black tea” after the colour of the finished leaf.

So, how was black tea first discovered? 

Legend has it that in the mid-17th Century, an army from Jianxi set up camp at a tea farm in Fujian. The tea producers were so busy hosting the army encampment, that the tea was neglected and left to oxidise much longer than intended. In order to save the harvest, a farmer smoked the leaves over Horsetail Pinewood and sent it off to try and be sold at the market. To their surprise, Dutch traders loved the tea (now known as Lapsang Souchong) and came back for more the next year. 

The traders found it kept its flavour well over long voyages back to Europe and was cheaper than green tea, because the Chinese considered it “damaged”. Demand for black tea in the West flourished, which paved the way for black tea production in China and, eventually, the British colonies, too.

In 1834, the British began producing black tea in Assam, India from the indigeneous varietal Camellia sinensis var. assamica, which has physiological and chemical differences that create a more bitter and astringent tea than the Camellia sinensis var. sinensis most often used in China.

While the British were producing their own black tea, they were still importing green tea from China. It wasn’t until 1843 that the British realised that green and black tea were made from the same plant!

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