What Is Black Tea?

A Guide to Buying, Using, and Storing Black Tea

Assorted black tea leaves on tea spoons

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Black tea is the most popular type of tea in the West, most likely due to its bold flavor and long shelf life. The category of black tea is diverse, including several popular varieties such as English breakfast and Earl Grey. India produces half of the world's black tea, with Sri Lanka and Africa making up a large percentage of production. Black tea is enjoyed both hot and cold.

Fast Facts

  • Origin: China
  • Temperature: Hot or cold
  • Caffeine: 50-90 mg per cup

What Is Black Tea?

Black tea is a true tea that comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. Black tea leaves are allowed to fully oxidize before being processed and dried, which makes the leaves dark brown and gives the tea its signature flavor profile. Black teas tend to be bold and brisk, and they are often described as astringent.

Discovered in China in the mid-17th century, black tea was the first type of tea to be introduced to Europe and the Middle East. Its commercial success in the West led to large-scale production in China. Fueled by Scottish and English entrepreneurs and adventurers who stole tea plants and seeds from China, black tea production spread to other countries. These early English tea companies used enslaved workers in other countries and developed machinery for processing tea without the need for skilled tea makers. Over time, black tea production spread to India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya, and later to Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Rwanda, Brazil, and elsewhere.

In China, black tea is known as hong cha (or red tea) due to the reddish color of its liquor (or infusion). In the East, however, black tea consumption is less common than green tea.

Uses For Black Tea

Black tea is used for making both hot and iced tea; in the United States, the vast majority of black tea is consumed as iced tea. Some black teas are intended to be drunk with milk and/or sugar, while others are self-drinkers, meaning teas that are best without anything added. Teas that are traditionally drunk with milk and/or sugar include masala chai, English breakfast, and Assam black tea. Teas that are traditionally drunk with lemon and/or sugar include Earl Grey (which is not traditionally consumed with milk), iced Ceylon teas, and Nilgiri black teas.

Many of the best teas for breakfast and afternoon tea are black teas. The bold flavors of black teas make them ideal for pairing with Western cuisine, but black teas may also pair well with some Indian, Thai, and African foods.

How to Drink Black Tea

Of all the types of tea, black tea is usually the easiest to steep. Use about 1 teaspoon of tea leaves per cup of hot water. The water can be at a rolling boil or nearly boiling. Place the leaves in the boiling water and steep the tea leaves for 2 to 6 minutes. The timing will depend on your tastes and the type of black tea; Darjeeling black teas usually taste better with a shorter steep, for example. Strain out the tea leaves and drink the liquid as is or add milk, sugar, or lemon as desired.

You can use cold water and cold steep ("cold infuse" or "cold brew") your black tea for 4 to 18 hours in the fridge and then strain out the leaves. To make iced black tea, double the amount of tea leaves, steep the tea as usual and then pour the hot tea over ice.

Caffeine Content in Black Tea

Generally speaking, black tea contains between 50 to 90 milligrams of caffeine per cup. However, there are many factors influencing caffeine levels in tea that may make a particular cup of black tea higher or lower, including the tea varietal, the way it is brewed, and whether the leaves are whole or broken. Black tea beverages that include other ingredients like milk and spices will have a lower amount of caffeine than a cup of straight black tea. For example, masala chai will likely have less caffeine than pure Assam tea because it is blended with milk and spices that do not contain caffeine.

Buying and Storing Black Tea

Many different varieties of black tea, including flavored, are readily available and sold as tea bags or loose leaves. The boxes of tea bags can be purchased at major supermarkets while the pouches or bulk tea leaves are more often found at health food stores, specialty tea shops, and online.

Tea should be kept in a cool, dark place such as a cabinet, drawer, or the pantry. Do not store tea bags or leaves in glass jars as exposure to light will damage the tea over time and alter the flavor. It is best to keep the tea in the manufacturer's box or in a tin container.


From a mint iced tea to a hot tea latte, there are lots of ways to prepare black tea. Iced teas are among the most popular black tea recipes, as they are easy to brew and can be enjoyed any day of the year.

Types of Black Tea

There are many types of black tea available, and most commercial brands are blends of black teas with different origins. Popular black tea blends include English breakfast and Irish breakfast. Different tea origins produce different black tea flavor profiles due to their unique terroir. The flavors of single-origin teas can be broadly described based on where they are from.

  • India's Assam Black Tea: From the largest growing tea region in the world, this tea is bold, malty, and brisk; ideal when combined with milk and sugar.
  • India's Darjeeling Black Tea: The mountainous region of Darjeeling produces a tea that is delicate, fruity, floral, and light. The season in which it's grown will affect the flavor of the tea. A spring-harvested Darjeeling black tea will have a much lighter, green flavor, whereas a tea harvested slightly later in the year will be sweet and fruity.
  • India's Nilgiri Black Tea: This tea is fragrant and floral, with a subtle sweetness. It has a medium body and mellow taste and is ideal for making iced teas.
  • Sri Lanka's Ceylon Black Tea: This tea varies by origin but is generally bold, strong, and rich, and sometimes has notes of chocolate or spice.
  • China's Keemun Black Tea: Winelike, fruity, and floral, this tea can also have piney and tobaccolike aromas, depending on the variety. The flavor is mellow and smooth.
  • China's Yunnan Black Tea: Grown in the higher elevations of the Yunnan Province, this tea evokes the flavors of chocolate and malt, sometimes with notes of spice.
  • Africa's Kenyan Black Tea: This African tea is bold, astringent, and dark. Introduced into the black tea family in the early 1900s, Kenyan black tea is considered a newcomer.

Black tea is also used to create blends that are flavored with fruit, flowers, and spices, and exhibit a wide range of flavor profiles depending on their ingredients. Classic flavored black tea blends include Earl Grey, which is flavored with bergamot essential oil or citrus flavor, and masala chai, which is blended with various spices. In recent years, many tea companies have started to offer more unusual and nontraditional black tea blends, including flavors like chocolate or vanilla, wood or smoke, tropical fruits, warming spices, and dried herbs.

Black Tea vs Green Tea

With green tea, the leaves are preserved with heat immediately after harvest, whereas black tea leaves are left to oxidize before they're dried.