Come Over to the Dark Side… An Introduction to the Mysteries of Dark Tea
When you hear the word tea, what usually comes to mind? Black, green, White? Perhaps Oolong? Or do you think of a specific tea blend like Earl Grey or English Breakfast? I think it’s probably safe to say that one type of tea that doesn’t pop into your brain is Dark Tea.
“What in the world is Dark Tea?” you ask. Dark Teas originated in the southern provinces of China many hundreds of years ago. These mysterious and tantalizing teas are now becoming more popular in the west because of their complex flavors and unique health benefits.
It all started during the Song Dynasty with the emergence of “The Tea Horse Road” which was a trade link from the southern provinces of China to the country’s perimeters – in particular, to the very remote regions of Tibet and Mongolia which depended on tea for nutrition.
Tibetan ponies were traded for the tea to fight the warring nomads from the north. Now who could ever say tea is boring?
Before we go any further let me just clarify that all teas (Black, Green, Oolong, White) come from the same plant or subspecies of the plant Camellia Sinensis. What differentiates them are the processes applied to the leaves.
Herbal teas (tisanes), on the other hand, come from entirely different plants and have their own special health benefits and characteristics.
What Makes Dark Teas Unique?
Dark teas go through a post-production fermentation step that no other teas undergo. This intentional extra step triggers a chemical reaction in the tea that not only improves its character as it ages, but also gives it probiotic attributes.
This is the exact opposite of all other tea types which lose their freshness and fragrance over time and although packed with powerful antioxidants, they are lacking the probiotic traits.
Back in the day, tea was compressed into bricks for easier transport and the fermentation step was an accidental discovery. These tea journeys, made by men carrying the tea bricks on their backs, were extremely slow and long in ever-changing weather conditions.
Moisture combined with the microbes in the tea and led to a natural fermentation. Today this process has been duplicated on a more modern level, but many of the traditional methods are still in use.
Introducing the Best Known Dark Teas
The most famous dark teas are pu-ehr and heicha. Pu-erh teas come from the Yunnan province of China and are named after the town of Pu-erh.
Heicha teas come from other southern provinces such as Hunan. The manufacturing process for heicha is a bit more complicated than pu-erh but both go through the required fermentation.
Pu-erh teas are definitely the more commonly known dark teas and are typically easier to find. When properly made, these fragrant teas can evoke many aromas such as earth, stoned fruits, wood an even humidity.
Pu-erhs can be divided into two categories: raw (which in Chinese is ‘sheng’) and cooked (which in Chinese is ‘shou’).
Raw puerhs are manufactured in a more traditional fashion and can be loose or compressed into cakes of various shapes.
These cakes are aged anywhere from 5 to 70 years and sold just as you would sell a fine aged wine. With each year that passes, the flavor profile becomes more rounded, mellow and subtle.
Cooked pu-erhs are made by a more modern method and take less time. They too can be compressed into cakes or come in loose leaves. Due to the speedier processing, these dark teas tend to be darker in color and more robust in flavor.
Five Things to Know About Captivating Dark Teas
- Dark teas are packed with antioxidants which fight the free radicals in our bodies that lead to disease.
- Because of the unique fermentation step that dark teas undergo, they possess probiotic qualities that help to keep your digestive tract healthy and aid in stomach upset.
- Dark teas are the only teas that improve with age, much like a fine wine.
- The two main types of dark teas are pu-erh and heicha.
- Dark teas can be blended with other ingredients for a multitude of flavor and aroma profiles.
Don’t be afraid of the dark. A whole new world of delicious teas awaits.
Do you enjoy dark teas like pu-erh teas? If not, what is your favorite tea? Please share your preferences below.
Shawn Geitner is the founder and owner of Beleave Teas. She is a certified tea sommelier and a tea educator. Shawn is passionate about tea and aspires to share all that it has to offer the mind, body and soul.