Autumn has arrived, and for the vast number of tea-drinkers in China today, this can only mean one thing: From now until spring next year, their beverage of choice will no longer be the green tea now reaching the end of its shelf life. Instead, the nation will opt for oxidized variants such as oolong or black tea.
Oxidized teas are more mellow and less astringent than green tea. When drunk with milk and sugar, black tea also has a number of health benefits for those cold winter days, warming the stomach and providing the body with important nutrients.
For centuries, Chinese people were not particularly fond of black tea. Although it is well-known that tea plants are native to China, black tea tends to be seen as a foreign import. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that China, a nation that has been drinking tea for more than 2,000 years, only came up with a Chinese term for “black tea” (hongcha) less than 200 years ago. While in English we say “black tea,” the corresponding term in Chinese literally means “red tea.”
From the late 17th century to the mid-19th century, most European countries imported their tea leaves from China. According to one of the Dutch East India Company’s inventories for 1716, China primarily exported green tea at this time, as well as small quantities of an oxidized tea called “Bohea,” a transcription of the local name of one of eastern China’s most famous tea-producing areas: Wuyi Mountain in Fujian province.
While Chinese people traditionally prefer green tea, the British generally prefer Bohea teas, which have a relatively high level of oxidation. This type of tea contains more tannins than green tea, giving it a fairly bitter taste. However, as water in the London area is relatively “hard” — it has a higher concentration of dissolved minerals — it staves off some of the acridity of black tea and produces rich flavors, fragrances, and colors.