Red Tea vs Black Tea – More Tea Nomenclature Debacles

Assam black tea
Assam black tea

Red tea versus black tea is a tricky matter when it comes to tea nomenclature. Various tea sellers and bloggers have cautioned people to know the difference when using these terms. I second that statement. The online search for a clear distinction, though, did not get me much closer to a definitive answer.

There seem to be three prongs to this dilemma:

  1. What tea is called in different parts of the globe
  2. Differences in how teas are categorized (or classified)
  3. Non-tea being called “red tea”

Black tea called “red tea” in other countries

Many sources address the issue of black tea versus red tea by stating simply that they are the same thing, that the name difference has to do with what part of the world you are in. I’ve even passed this along to people myself through Twitter and Facebook. Here in the U.S. and in other parts of the world we use the term “black tea,” referring to the color of the dry tea leaves. They are fully oxidized and are therefore dark brown to black in color. However, in a lot of Asian countries this type of tea is called “red tea” based on the reddish color of the liquid. In Mandarin Chinese it’s hóngchá; in Japanese it’s kōcha; and in Korean it’s hongcha.

Differences in how teas are categorized (or classified)

Rooibos - in the cup it looks like that Assam tea
Rooibos – in the cup it looks like that Assam tea

Actually, there is dissension on just how many categories or classes of tea there are. Some say there are as many as eight, including a red tea and a black tea.

The black tea is described as: a fully fermented everyday tea that is good for digestion since it is supposed to emulsify fat and cholesterol. An example is pu-erh.

The red is described as: traditional Chinese teas (also called congou tea) whose robust flavors and aromas ignited the original love of tea among the English and that are best when consumed straight without flavorings or milk and sugar added. Originating in Fujian Province, the tea is now the most widely produced and drunk tea in the world. It has remained unchanged for centuries and is starting to gain a following by connoisseurs who seek a more traditional taste. In the Fujian province of China, three “Famous Fujian Reds” are produced: Tanyang Gongfu, Zhenghe Gongfu, and Bailin Gongfu. There are three subcategories of Chinese Red Tea: “Kung Fu Red Tea,” “Ted Tea Bits,” and “Small Species Red Tea.” The leaves have soil-like color and a very strong and distinguished fragrance, while the taste is bold and consistent.

In short, Chinese red tea is the original version of what Westerners call “black tea,” and what we now know as “black tea” is quite different and not nearly as fine.

Confused yet? Hang in there. We’re not quite at the finish line.

Red Tea vs Rooibos

Let’s add more muddle to the mix with Rooibos, also called “red bush” and “red tea” (although, some are now making a distinction here by calling this “African red tea”). People have asked me why I make such a fuss about not calling these non-tea things “tea” and this illustrates my point beautifully. In addition, some folks are including honeybush in this category and calling it “red tea.” All I can say is read the vendor’s description carefully.

Bottom Line

The world of tea is fraught with mix-ups like this, but it’s no worse than any other field of knowledge. And such misinformation spreads easily, especially in this online era. Someone asks a question. Someone else pops up with a simplistic answer that is taken as the absolute golden word of a long-standing expert, and there you go. The best thing to do is to look into more detail on whatever subject you are asking about. Happy hunting!

© 2015 A.C. Cargill photos and text

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