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Harvest of black tea on a tea testate.

Black tea was introduced to Europe some 400 years ago by Portuguese and Dutch sea merchants trading with China. Initially regarded as a medicinal tonic, by the late 17th century black tea had become a fashionable, if expensive, beverage among high society in England, France and Germany, leading a prominent Parisian doctor to denounce the precious stimulant as “the impertinent novelty of the century” and an English scholar to declare it “a drink of moral hazard.

Historic picture of a black tea trader.

Despite – or perhaps because of – such accolades, black tea consumption spread rapidly, particularly in England, where by the late 19th century it had advanced to become the nation’s favorite drink.

Were it not for geographical circumstance, European tea traditions could have turned out very differently. While the tea drunk at origin in China was primarily of the green kind, by the time it reached the European continent by sea and Russia by land caravan, it had gone stale and lost most of its aroma. The fully oxidized, more robust black teas, on the other hand, proved much more suitable for transportation, reaching their destinations with aromas undiminished by their long and arduous journey.

Since those early days, the cultivation of black tea has spread far and wide, leaving us with a wealth of varieties from the malty Assams of India to the bright Ceylons of Sri Lanka to the golden tips of southwest China.

image credits:leniners