For most people in the west, tea drinking started with black tea. But what we view black tea, is completely different from how the Chinese view it and they don’t even share the same name.
What we know as black tea the Chinese have always called red tea (Hong Cha). Red tea is the tea leaf after all the enzymes have been metabolized. The process of making red tea relies on rolling the leaf after it has been withered and then letting in rest in small piles, allowing the enzymes to break down and convert. The tea is then baked dry to remove the excess moisture and improve the aroma. The breakdown of these enzymes is they key to red teas flavor.
If we remember from the green tea post, the tea leaf is naturally bitter and astringent. Green tea keeps a lot of this bitterness since it is heated right away before any real metabolism process can begin. Since red tea on the other hand is not exposed to high heat and all the enzymes are allowed to convert, the flavor produced is as a result very smooth and sweet, the farthest away from the initial bitterness. So then why do we think of red teas as astringent and bitter?
By Chinese tea standards, the red teas we are use to are flawed and very low quality. A lot of the problems come from the usual issues with cheap tea such as a bad terroir leading to a bad quality lea and also poor making style. The most common step red tea is ruined at is the baking tea.The baking step for red tea is called ti xiang. This is when the leaf is baked in intervals at temperatures ranging from 85c to 110c. (www.tea-drunk.com) The main reason for this step is to drive out the residual moisture and also to heighten the aroma and fixed flaws in the tea. This as you can imagine is a very crucial step to red tea making and one of the most delicate. Flaws such as dryness, bitterness come from this step being ruined. The chocolate note sometimes found in red teas is also created in this step. And while many in the west enjoy that chocolate note, for red tea connoisseurs it is considered a flaw. A good red tea should be smooth, sweet, and light sometimes containing fruit and honey flavors.