Let's Have a Cup of Black Tea

As I began to write a piece on the tea manufacturing process, the idea of writing an uncomplicated piece about tea—how to choose, what to buy, how to make, and so on—was brought to my attention by a friend. Thanks to him and here it goes…

I am not a tea sommelier. My preference for tea is uncomplicated. In fact, it is reasonably simple—good tea, rolling boil water, and steep. However, I am particular about storing my tea.

Tea in a traditional Assamese bell metal bowl served with jaggery

Tea in a traditional Assamese bell metal bowl served with jaggery.

Enjoying a cup of black tea shouldn't be complicated. My goal here is to try to help you narrow down a wide range of teas and tease your palete. To accomplish this goal, I will focus on the two types of Assam tea: 1) Orthodox, and 2) CTC [crush, tear, curl—a method for processing black tea].

Tea cultivation today covers approximately 771,000 acres of land in Assam. Climate and soil play a critical role in the yield and quality of a tea, similar to how a bush contributes to quality. Length of a day contributes to dormancy and growth of a tea bush, which means tea bushes are dormant during the winter months in Assam. Due to the unique environmental conditions, quality, and origin of the tea, Orthodox Assam Tea qualifies as a Geographical Indication. Think champagne from the province of Champagne, France, or Radicchio Rosso di Treviso from Treviso, Italy.

Tea estate in Assam

Tea estate in Assam

Tea estates in Assam are owned by private companies or individuals. Depending on the location of these estates, tea is grown on flat land or on slopes. 

Tea estates vary in size. Some tea estates grow, harvest and sell their leaves, while others have a tea factory within their premises to process their leaves. Not all estates with a factory purchase tea leaves from other estates because it is difficult to maintain the quality of tea.

Tea leaves are harvested by hand. Hand-picking allows the quality of the leaves to be preserved. Since tea leaves begin oxidation as soon as they are plucked, having a tea processing factory on site allows to manage this oxidation process that is critical for the quality of tea that will be manufactured.

Harvests occur twice a year, during spring and summer. The first harvest in March-April is called the “first flush” and the second harvest in June-July is called “second flush.” Flush refers to the profile of flavor rather than plucking time.

Some tea estates may harvest tea for 7-8 months primarily for quantity, not quality tea.

Illustration of a tea bush stem

Two leaves and a tip

My illustrative attempt, albeit a disproportionate sketch of a tea shoot, depicts young leaves at the end of a stem that are usually picked [harvested], along with a portion of the stem, the tip. These few leaves, a portion of the stem, and the tip are called “flush.” A flush with two leaves and a tip is called a “golden flush.” Flushes can also contain 3-5 leaves. The fewer the leaves plucked from a shoot, the better the grade of the tea.

Tea leaves are harvested by hand, as stated earlier, but not all leaves are picked from the tea bush. The composition of a tea leaf is dependent on several factors—soil, weather, type of plant, horticultural practices, and type of tea leaf harvest.

Sample of Orthodox Assam and CTC tea

Orthodox and CTC 

There are usually two types of tea manufactured at a factory in Assam: 1) Orthodox and 2) CTC. To know which is which, the simplest way to discern is if the tea leaves appear twisted and curled it is orthodox tea. If the tea leaves appear to be granulated it is CTC tea.

Tea is divided into four grades: whole leaf, broken, fannings, and dust. 

All these types of tea have various grade names and nomenclatures.

It is important to note that every step of the tea manufacturing process is designed to manually optimize and thereby improve the final product. In a similar manner, the quality of tea can mean different things to different individuals—color or briskness or body or strength. Good tea comes from good leaves. Good leaves are in turn dependent on the manufacturing process to produce a quality product. However, what is a good leaf? Does having substantial polyphenol content suffice? Do all leaves behave biochemically alike during the rolling fermentation process? Therefore, quality becomes a subjective term when it comes to tea. Let’s keep things simple for our purposes and for now.

Tepidophobia poster frame

How to select a tea

Buy your tea in small quantities. Buy high-quality loose leaf tea from a reputable seller. This decision will make or mar your tea experience. I fear a badly made cup of tea. As you will read in the “How I brew my tea” section, it isn’t difficult to brew a good cup of tea if you begin with good tea leaves.

My preference for tea is Orthodox Assam. The tea leaves and a tip are harvested by hand in a tea estate in Upper Assam and processed at a factory on site. The tea leaves undergo a machine rolling process that mimics hand rolling.

There are different grades of Orthodox Assam tea:

The main difference between “GFOP” and “GBOP” is the second letter in each—Full and Broken. Full leaf and broken leaf tea makes a difference. The latter releases more tannin into the liquid and therefore is likely to be slightly bitter. Please note that brewing tea for too long also contributes to bitterness.

Tea storage container

How I store my tea

Do not store your tea next to coffee or strong spices. I use airtight containers to store my tea which I keep in a dark area of a kitchen cabinet. Please note that airtight doesn’t mean free of air. Empty space in a container contains air which in turn continues to oxidize the tea over time. Oxidation is the process in which air or oxygen breaks down the integrity of the tea and the tea begins to lose its quality. Teas naturally oxidize over time, which makes the tea drier, thereby affecting taste.

Tea pot

Image source: Bodum

How I brew my tea

There is no wrong or right way to enjoy a cup of tea. I drink my tea from a mug and don’t add milk or sugar. Why? I believe milk and sugar masks the aroma and flavor of tea.

For every teaspoon of tea I use a cup of filtered or bottled water that is brought to a rolling boil. The tea is then steeped in an infuser for 2.5 minutes. 

Here is a simple way to make a cup of Orthodox Assam black tea:

Here is a simple way to make a cup of CTC black tea:

Tea in a cup

Foam or bubbles in tea

Depending on the tea I brew, the tea will have a few bubbles or foam that align along the glass edge of a cup. Several factors contribute to this phenomenon.

Foam in a freshly brewed cup of tea is caused by amphiphilic compounds contained in the tea leaves, which is extracted into the water during the brewing process. Longer steeping time can also cause foam to form.

If you overheat a cup of water in a microwave, the water often boils without forming rolling bubbles. When an object like loose tea [or a tea bag] is added, it creates nucleation points that allow gas pockets to form.

Bubbles in your freshly brewed black tea can be due to the presence of tannins [a plant compound] in the tea. Tannins in tea provide a characteristic taste and color. High quality tea contains saponin [glycoside that protects plants from disease] that also contributes to the bitter taste of tea and forms a few bubbles. Pectin is also a common foaming agent in brewed tea.

Bubbles and foam in tea are generally not a cause for concern and it is not unusual in brewed black tea.

Tea bags in a box

How to understand tea notes and texture

The International Tea Masters Association has a Tea Aroma Wheel but we are keeping it simple. 

No two teas taste quite the same. For example, you may have a full-bodied Assam tea with chocolate notes that is low on maltiness or you may have Assam tea with strong maltiness, light smokiness, and an absence of chocolate notes. Taste depends on soil, quality of tea bushes, manner of harvesting, processing, packaging, and more.

Smell the loose tea before you brew. Use a clear cup for your tea. Does the color of the brewed tea remind you of anything? What would you call the color of your tea? Take a sip of your freshly brewed tea and pay attention to the flavor. Does it remind you of any other food or flavor? After your first sip of the tea, how does your mouth feel? This will describe the texture of the tea. Is there a dryness, or astringency [not bitterness], or a creamy texture, or does the tea seem to disappear completely? 

As for the notes, is your tea earthy, floral, fruity, nutty, smoky, and so on? Black teas are often robust and full-bodied, which means their notes are usually earthy, malty, and smoky.

Certain businesses sell an assortment of black tea in a box with a brief description of the texture or notes of each tea. This is a good way to explore black tea if you don’t know where to begin.

Battistero Panettone

What to add as a snack with your tea

I prefer an unflavored or lightly flavored biscuit or cookie with my loose leaf black tea. However, I love panettone and tea!

On occasion I have plain almonds or cashews with my tea. With CTC black tea, I might add honey or ginger. 

My family and friends prefer something sweet with their tea while others prefer salty snacks. My parents and grandparents had tea with gur [jaggery], which is also one of my favorite ways to drink tea, especially from a kahor bati, a traditional Assamese bell metal bowl.

My recommendation for a snack to munch along with your tea is something that doesn’t overpower and mask the taste of the tea you are sipping. However, remember that there is no right or wrong way to enjoy your cup of tea.

Brewed tea leaves in floweing bed

How to reuse brewed tea leaves

I am not encouraging you to re-infuse your brewed loose leaf tea but you can if the quality of the tea is high. I am attempting to share that leftover brewed tea leaves can be used in several ways.

For example, re-brewing used tea leaves in a bucket of water for your plants can protect them from fungal infections. The used tea helps to increase the nutrients in your garden soil. The tannins increase acidity of the soil, which lowers the pH and is good for acid-loving plants. Used tea leaves around your plants also help to keep pesky pets at bay. 

I mix used tea leaves with mulch on my flowering beds. I believe that keeps weeds from sprouting but my friends don’t believe me. I put low grade tea in a bowl inside my fridge that helps to neutralize odors. My hardwood floors shine when I add used tea leaves in my mop bucket. I put dry tea leaves wrapped in muslin cloth inside my shoes to keep them dry.


A few individuals asked about my preference for the type of black tea. I always buy loose leaf tea. There are several orthodox black teas. My preference is Assam Orthodox. Currently, here is what I am sipping:

Manohari Tea

Note: If you drink infused tea, such as peppermint tea, apple spice tea, or chamomile tea, you are drinking flavored seasoning or herbal tea. In its natural state, tea is made from plants called Camellia Sinensis.

Plants on a verandah

Tea plants can survive 40 years. Uprooted plants are sometimes used as firewood. Decades ago I stripped the bark off a tea stump after trimming some branches. I wasn't solely responsible for building a side table out of a tree stump. However, my contribution is still visible on our ancestral home's front verandah.