As any English person will tell you, sometimes, what you really need in life is a nice cuppa: a decent mug of black tea with a splash of milk and maybe a little sugar to sweeten it.
A 2019 survey found that a third of English people drink four to five cups of tea every day at home, and another 18% of people drink six or more cups per day! No wonder the UK gets through more than 60 billion cups of tea every year — enough to fill two bathtubs for every person in the country.
Americans are not far behind. According to the Tea Association of the USA, Americans drank nearly 85 billion cups of tea in 2021 (but there are four times as many Americans as there are British people), amounting to over 3.9 billion gallons.
While sales of fruit and green teas are on the rise in both countries, the vast majority of tea drunk is still classic black tea.
What is Black Tea?
Like green, white, yellow and oolong teas, black tea is made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis shrub, which is grown throughout Asia and Africa. It’s said that black tea came about in the 1500s when the Jianxi army entered the Fujian province and camped next to a tea factory, delaying production. The leaves oxidized during the wait, and when the factory owner returned, he attempted to fast-dry the leaves by placing them over a pine wood fire, giving the tea a smoky taste. And so the first black tea, Lapsang Souchong was created.
What’s certain is that black tea gets its distinctive color and taste from allowing the leaves to fully oxide after picking, which turns them a dark brown. They are then processed and dried to create the tea we know and love. When served, the liquid is a deep red-brown in color, far darker than the other teas made from Camellia sinensis. However, due to its reddish color, in China, black tea is known as red tea.
There are a number of varieties of black tea, the best known of which are Assam tea, named for the region of India in which it’s grown; English breakfast, which is a blend of teas from Assam, Ceylon and Kenya, and Earl Grey, which gets its distinctive flavor from the addition of bergamot.
What is the Best Way to Serve Black Tea?
Traditionally an afternoon drink, black tea is now drunk at all hours, from breakfast through to bed time. It can be drunk both hot and cold, with and without milk, or even used as a basis for chai, iced tea, or even tea bombs.
However you like your tea, there’s sure to be a black tea for you. So let’s jump in and look at the best of the best black teas out there.
Best Black Tea to Start Your Day
If you know tea, you know Twinings of London. Tea was introduced to England in 1662 by the young Portuguese wife of Charles II, Catherine of Braganza, who served it to her aristocratic friends. A few years later, in 1706, a man named Thomas Twining bought a coffee shop on The Strand in London, and set about marketing tea to give himself a competitive advantage over other coffee shops in the area. And so, Twinings of London was born, serving tea in-house for the gentleman of London, and loose-leaf tea in boxes for their wives to serve in the most fashionable drawing rooms all over town.
Twinings still have their flagship store on London’s Strand, but you don’t have to travel that far to enjoy their signature English Breakfast Tea. A blend of rich Assam, fresh-tasting African tea, and Ceylon grown only on the highest slopes of Sri Lanka, Twinings of London’s English Breakfast is a full-flavored yet lively cup of tea, perfect to start your day. As one happy customer said: “I have tried other teas but still come back to Twinings”.
- Available in bags or loose leaf
- Classic ‘English breakfast’ taste – light yet richly flavored
- Perfect with a splash of milk
Best Assam Tea
As morning turns to afternoon, you may prefer a more rounded, full bodied flavor. Look no further than Art of Tea’s Assam Gold, a rich, earthy, yet smooth and bright tea that’s sure to put a spring in your step.
As the name suggests, Assam tea is sourced from Assam in India, one of the world’s premier tea-producing regions. Assam tea is known for its malty tasting tones, and Art of Tea’s Assam Gold exemplifies this, giving a good, well rounded cup.
Steep the loose leaves for three minutes at 93⁰C for a fresh taste, or leave for another two minutes for a fuller-bodied cup.
- Available as loose leaf in two sizes, 4oz or 1lb
- Earthy, malty tones and punchy flavor
- Carries milk well
Best Black Tea for Hard Water
Real tea aficionados know that it’s not just the tea that makes the cup, the quality of the water that goes into it matters too. That’s why a number of brands have developed tea blends perfect for areas that have hard water – that is, water with a high mineral content due to filtering through limestone, chalk or gypsum in the soil. The minerals can make tea taste heavier and stronger than it otherwise would.
Taylors of Harrogate have thought about this, and tweaked their popular Yorkshire Tea blend to balance out the minerals in hard water. In fact, Taylors of Harrogate test all new tea crops with both soft and hard water, and, as Harrogate in Yorkshire is a soft water area, they even ship in hard water to taste test the final blends.
The result is a sublimely well balanced tea, smooth and flavorful, with the lack of bitterness that fans have come to expect from Yorkshire Tea. Brew for just a minute or two for a light yet satisfying cup, or steep for as long as you dare for a stronger, deeper flavor.
- Widely available, including in the US
- Smooth flavor with no bitter aftertaste
- Ideal for hard water areas
Best Black Tea for Pure Indulgence
What’s better than a cup of tea? A cup of tea with chocolate! Tea Drops’ Chocolate Earl Grey marries the classic Earl Grey flavor – black tea tempered with bergamot to give it a kick of warmth – with the sweetness of chocolate, creating a truly indulgent tea that’s perfect for sipping on a cold winter’s day. Better still, they’re fully organic so you don’t have to worry about any nasty stuff hidden in the drops.
In case you’re wondering, tea drops are made from pressed tea, which dissolves in the cup. Simply drop into a mug of hot water, savoring the aroma of chocolate as it wafts from the cup, add a dabble of milk to taste, and enjoy.
- Available in a recyclable cylinder of 10, or a burlap bag of 25
- Rich Earl Grey taste with chocolate overtones
- Perfect as a pick-me-up, or for an indulgent break in a busy day.
Best Black Tea for Real Tea Aficionados
The ‘sherry’ of teas, Pu Er Shou Pa is true Chinese black tea (in China, Western black tea is known as red tea), and is made using a microbial fermentation process that partly decomposes the leaves, giving the tea a deep, earthy taste.
Shou Pu, sometimes called ‘cooked Pu Er’, is a black tea blend popular in China, which uses Sheng Pu as its basis. Tea Drunk’s Shou Pu, a sophisticated blend made from mostly ancient tea trees from the Jing Mai tea mountain, has a sweetly earthy taste and is full bodied yet smooth and sublimely drinkable.
Tea Drunk, which sources all of its tea from the best traditional growers in the highest terroirs in China, recommends brewing Shou Pu in the classic way: in a Gai Wan, a lidded bowl that traps in the heat and filters the leaves as the tea is poured.
- Available in a taster pack, or 30g pouches
- A true black tea, rich and earthy
- Enjoy on its own, or pair with game dishes or coconut desserts.
Best Black Tea for Iced Tea
Think of long hot summers in the South, and you think of a long, cool, glass of iced tea, ice cubes clinking in the sun. To get a really great iced tea, you have to have just the right tea for it – and Young Mountain’s Nilgiri Gold is one of the very best.
Hailing from the Nilgiris region of South India, known for teas which don’t cloud as they cool, Nilgiri Gold is bursting with the fresh, sweet flavors of cranberry and vanilla, making for a sunny, refreshing drink.
While you can brew the tea hot and let it cool, the better option is to let it slowly cold-brew, slowly infusing the water over four to six hours with floral notes, perfect for sipping in the sun.
- Available loose leaf in pouches of 1.5oz, 5oz or 1lb.
- Summer-sweet with notes of cranberry and vanilla.
- Enjoy while the sun is shining, poured over ice
Best Black Tea Bomb
Looking for something a bit different? Why not try the London Fog tea bomb by Poseidn? This cute little fella consists of Earl Grey Tea, vanilla, and a touch of sugar to sweeten the taste, 3D printed into the shape of a British Bulldog, perfect for dreaming of London as you sip your tea.
The combination of fruity Earl Grey with vanilla and sugar gives a sumptuously sophisticated bitter-sweet flavor profile. Add the dog to hot water, or better yet, a mug of ⅔ hot milk and ⅓ hot water for an extra creamy bomb, to enjoy an indulgent afternoon treat.
- Available in a pack of 6 tea bombs
- Sweet with bergamot notes
- Make it with milk for a creamy treat.