The name discrepancies between the East and the West on two of the six major tea categories, the heavily oxidized tea category and the fermented tea category, have existed since Europe traded tea with China in the late 16th century. In China and other East Asian countries that incorporate Chinese language characters named the heavily oxidized tea as red tea and the fermented tea as black tea. In the English-speaking world, however, the heavily oxidized tea is known as black tea while the fermented tea has recently been called dark tea.
At SÚ LIVING, we chose to use the original terminologies initiated in China because our focus is on tea produced in China, Taiwan and Japan for our practice of the classical art of tea. We think it is better for us to communicate with you in those terms to make it easy for you to pursue your own study or to source tea on your own in the future. In terms of execution, we understand it may be somewhat tricky because of the name discrepancies mentioned above due to cultural differences. As such, we have added a descriptor that specifies the processing method applied to the tea for clarification. Specifically, we refer to red tea as heavily oxidized red tea, and black tea as fermented black tea.
The purpose of the following information, therefore, is to provide historical context to help you understand how the term black tea made from fermentation, and red tea made from heavy oxidation came about in China, and how those terms evolved since tea was traded with Europe in the late 16th century.
The Fermented Black Teas
This category of tea has an ancient history, much longer than that of the heavily oxidized red teas. The fermented black tea category refers to tea leaves that are initially processed like green teas, which are heated to deactivate the enzymes found naturally in the leaf cells to prevent oxidation of the tea polyphenols. After heating, the tea leaves are rolled to rupture the tea leaf cells and then stacked in piles to enable heat and humidity to change their chemical composition and flavour profile. Although this part of the process is similar to yellow tea, the processing time for fermented black tea is much longer which takes at least a few months to facilitate microbial metabolism to develop new (microbial) enzymes required to oxidize the tea polyphenols. Depending on the shape of the final product, the fermented black tea leaves may be steamed and pressed before they are finally dried to complete the process.
Fermented black teas evolved from steamed green teas produced in China and transported along the Silk Road as one of the luxury products that were traded to Tibet since the second century. Amid lengthy periods of transportation across hot and humid regions to their destination, green teas gradually transformed by microbial activities into darker-coloured tea leaves that produced a milder and smoother but darker infusion when they arrived in Tibet. As the trading between China and Tibet prospered and expanded overtime, a unique processing method was developed using green tea processing as a base, and an additional but critical step of fermenting tea leaves stacked in piles over long periods of time to transform the colour and flavour of the tea leaves.
After various terminologies used over three dynasties in China, the term 黑茶, pronounced as hēi chá and translated to black tea in English, was first documented in 1524 and continues to be used today in China and other Asian countries that incorporates Chinese characters in their languages.
In addition to Yunnan province where 熟普洱茶shú pǔ ěr chá are produced, Anhui province, Hunan province, Hubei province, Guangxi province and Sichuan province also produces 黑茶 or fermented black tea in China.
Before we leave this section, it is important to mention that this category of tea generally has a higher oxidation level than the heavily oxidized red tea category that is discussed below. The enzymes required to oxidize the tea polyphenols found in fermented black teas are created by microbial metabolism rather than the natural enzymes inherent in tea leaf cells. The colour of the processed tea leaves and the tea infusion tends to be darker than the heavily oxidized red tea. Their flavour is generally woody and earthy rather than the fruity flavour found among the heavily oxidized red tea.
The heavily oxidized red teas
This category of tea leaves has a relatively short history of about 400 years. Harvested tea leaves are first withered to reduce inherent water content, then rolled thoroughly to rupture the leaf cells allowing the leaf enzymes to be in full contact with the tea polyphenols to facilitate oxidation. Once the desired level of oxidation has been attained, tea leaves are then roasted to dry and stop oxidation. Afterwards, the processed tea leaves are refined through sorting and grading before they are sold.
The first heavily oxidized red tea was produced by mistake in the late 16th century at a place called 桐木關Tóng Mù Guān located in Wuyi Mountain, Fujian province, China. Harvested tea leaves, which were supposed to be processed into green tea, changed from green to a brownish colour due to oxidation caused by an accident that bruised the leaf cells. Locals, who realized the change could not be reversed, rolled the tea leaves into a twisted shape and then fired branches of pine tree, commonly found around the area, to dry the bruised or oxidized tea leaves. The finished tea leaves were brownish black in colour which was deemed aesthetically unpleasing to Chinese people who were accustomed to green teas. Dutch traders, however, bought the tea because they were intrigued by its colour and the pinewood scent.
This heavily oxidized tea with a pinewood scent was included in the first shipment of tea to the Netherlands in 1610. As the popularity of this tea grew in Europe, increased demand from not only the Netherlands but also Britain stimulated the growth of production of the authentic tea from Tóng Mù Guān, as well as counterfeit made from outside of Tóng Mù Guān.
Locals at Tóng Mù Guān originally named the tea 烏茶 (烏 means light black) but changed to Lapsang Souchong probably in the mid-1800s to emphasize its authenticity and to differentiate from the counterfeits.
The term 紅茶, which is pronounced as hóng chá and translated to red tea in English, was first used in 1640 by Ming Dynasty officials to document this heavily oxidized tea that produced a reddish colour infusion.
As the demand from Europe and the United States continued to expand, different styles of heavily oxidized tea were introduced during the 19th century as more tea producing regions in China competed for their export business. Near the same time in 1835, Britain also started to produce tea in Upper Assam of India.
It’s red. It’s black.
In the first Chinese-English dictionary named A dictionary of the Chinese Language compiled by the Anglo-Scottish missionary Robert Morrison, we found the following English explanation of the word 茶Cha in Part II. - Vol.I. published by The East India Company’s Press in 1819.
“Tea. The Chinese commonly understand by the single term Cha, The infusion. The sorts commonly known to Europeans are these, Bohea, 武彝茶 Woo-e-cha, now called 大茶 Ta-cha,; 2nd, Campoi, 揀焙 Këen-pei; 3d, Congo, 工夫, Kung-foo; 4th, Pekoe, 白毫 Pih-haou; 5th, Pouchong, or Padre tea, 包種 Paou chung; 6th, Souchong, 小種 Seaou-chung 7th, Caper or Sonchi tea, 雙製 Shwang-che, or 珠蘭 Choo-lan – The seven sorts of Black Tea are understood generally by the term 彝茶 E-cha, or by contraction 夷 E, from 武夷山 Woo-e shan, The Woo-e (Bohea) hills in Fuh-këen Province where they grow. The Green Teas are, 1st, Sung-lo 松蘿 Sung-lo; 2nd, Hyson, 熙春 He-chun; 3d, Hyson skin 皮茶 Pe-cha; 4th, Twan-kay, 屯溪 Tun-ke; 5th, Gun-powder tea, or 珠茶 Choo-cha, (Pearl tea); 6th Ouchain, or Young Hyson, 雨前 Yu-tsëen, (before the rains). The six sorts of Green Tea are denominated generally by the term, 松茶 Sung-cha. They grow in the Province of 安徽 Gan hwuy.”
Although we are unsure as to exactly when the term black tea was first used by Europeans to describe the heavily oxidized red tea produced in China, we guess it may be around the early 19th century when more varieties and different grades of teas were produced from Wuyi Mountain as evidenced in the above definition. Prior to the 19th century, “bohea” was initially used to refer to the teas produced from the Wuyi Mountain, and later used to refer to the lower grade tea leaves from the region. Bohea is a word created by Europeans to mimic the pronunciation of bu-yi in Fukien, which is the dialect used in Wuyi Mountain to refer to wu-yi.
In addition to Wuyi Mountain located in Fujian province, we can learn from the above definition that Europeans also purchased green teas from Anhui province during the early 1800s. Both provinces were in close proximity to the ports in Guangzhou and Ningbo, where foreign trade was permitted in China. Since the fermented black teas were produced further inland and traded primarily to Tibet, it is reasonable to assume that European traders were unaware of their existence. They were also unaware of red tea, the official term used by Ming Dynasty officials to describe the heavily oxidized teas from Tóng Mù Guān that produced a reddish infusion. Their choice of using black tea to describe the teas from Wuyi Mountain is probably as simple as the appearance of the dried tea leaves, the same attribute which led locals to name their tea 烏茶 before it was renamed Lapsang Souchong during the mid-1800s.
It’s black. It’s dark.
The fermented black teas from China were introduced to Europe and North America much later in history. There were claims that Britain and France started to export puer teas from Simao (now known as Szemao) in Yunnan in the late 1800s. Even if that was true, their short presence of under five years in Simao deemed their influence insignificant. Nevertheless, puer teas were probably the first kind of fermented black teas introduced to the Western markets. While we will not discuss here the two categories of puer teas or speculate which kind of puer tea entered the Western markets first, what we will say, however, is only 熟普洱茶 shú pǔ ěr chá qualifies as fermented black tea based on its processing method.
Puer teas were introduced to the Western market according to their names, or as aged teas to highlight their characteristic of tasting smoother and rounder with age. As the demand for specialty teas from tea connoisseurs around the world increased, other types of fermented black teas produced from China were also introduced to the Western markets. Dark tea, which is a recent term used to describe the fermented black teas, seems to have gained traction among tea promoters in the West. After all, aged teas is a broad term that can literally apply to vintage teas from any of the six major tea categories.
Since black tea was used by the West to refer to the heavily oxidized tea category known as red tea to the East, an alternative term dark tea was used instead to represent the fermented tea category known as black tea in the East. Stemmed from the difference in the history of tea development in both cultures, the two name discrepancies will undoubtedly continue as people from one generation to the next are already used to them. We hope that the above discussion will help you understand the set of terminologies we have adopted in our materials as well as those that are circulating elsewhere in the world.