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BLACK TEA

Black tea was undoubtedly born in China, likely during the latter stages of the 16th century. The area around Mount Wuyi in the Fujian province of southeast China is commonly credited as the geographical origin. Exactly how black tea was discovered is unknown. Legends speak of, as they often do, a fortunate mistake. Someone accidentally forgot to heat up the tea leaves which then began to oxidise. This development was likely linked to that of oolong tea as well in the beginning. Something that has been of assistance both in the past and today when it comes to the spread of black teas, is their export-friendly qualities. Black teas are far more durable than green teas and hence better for long transport. Surprisingly, black teas have never been particularly popular in China or Japan. At the start of the 17th century, Dutch merchants brought the first modest quantities of black tea to Europe. Black teas got their breakthrough as a Western attraction that quickly spread across the West, most notably with the aid of the East India Company.

The first black tea enthusiasts were largely Englishmen. They began by importing vast quantities from China, until they by the mid to late 19th century started their own plantations in colonised India and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). Up until that point, China was actually the only country in the world that was producing black tea.

Besides discovering and cultivating the Indian tea plant species, Camellia sinensis assamica, the English also managed to collect (or perhaps steal) Chinese tea plants to start the first production of tea outside of China and Japan. British botanist and adventurer, Robert Fortune, managed to enter a rather secluded inland China and, under seemingly daring circumstances, got his hands on tea plants that he cultivated in India with the aid of the British government. Experiments with the plants and production were often quite challenging, but after several failed attempts, a professional operation was established that grew to a global market around the 1880s thanks to industrialisation.

The English developed both the production and trade of black teas. In 1886, England imported a massive 77.000 tons of tea from China, but once their own production in India and Sri Lanka took off, importation from China dwindled dramatically and, by the 20th century, nearly dropped to zero. Due to its export advantages and the fact that Westerners had established a taste for it, black tea became all the rage and remains the most popular kind of tea in the West.

Black tea is also coveted in Russia and its neighbours, including Mongolia, and, naturally, the former British colonies of India and Sri Lanka, where black teas are practically the only ones consumed. Despite producing much of it, the Chinese population drinks very little black tea, instead shipping most of it abroad. Black tea is also produced in Russia, Turkey, and Iran (mostly for domestic consumption), and during the 20th century a handful of African countries, led by Kenya, started producing substantial amounts as well. The qualities are yet to reach those of the original producers, but it is likely only a matter of time until they do.