A week ago, newspapers published new research on dark tea and its role in reducing the risk of diabetes. I am a proponent of drinking tea for pleasure, and dark tea, its potential benefits notwithstanding, is a tea worth exploring.
The dark tea, or Hei Cha—of which the shu (ripe) pu’erh is probably the most famous—is a separate category from the tea groups of black, white, green and oolong. Unlike black tea, which is an oxidised tea, dark tea is required to undergo microbial fermentation during production. But that’s simplifying an old (some say 1,000 years), complex tea style. Dark tea, like many craft teas, is said to have originated in Sichuan, China. And it is made in six provinces—Hubei, Hunan, Guangxi, Sichuan, Anhui and Yunnan.
Two styles of dark tea, which is available from different regions and in different forms, have caught the tea world’s attention over the last 20 years—the pu’erh from Yunnan, and, more recently, the Anhua dark tea from Hunan.
The pu’erh is made from large tea leaves from tea trees—the assamica variety. To be described as a pu’erh, it must originate in Yunnan. It’s fermented and often aged, and the older it is, the more valuable it becomes. The art of compressing the tea leaves into bricks too is an old one, designed for easy transport. This process seems to have lent heft to the tea. But this is barely scratching the surface—the world of pu’erh is complex and filled with a variety of teas.
In Anhua, dark tea production dates back to the early 16th century, when tea makers developed the know-how to ferment tea. The Chinese tea writer Liang Xiao says on the Tea Journey website that “in 1595, Anhua dark tea was formally designated as the ‘Official Tea of the Ming dynasty government making it a regulated form of currency”. In 2010, it acquired Geographical Indication protection.
With numerous techniques—several handed down generations as family recipes—to make these teas, the Anhua dark tea is not a single tea. It holds within it several options, including loose leaf, tea bricks and tea rolls.
Mind you, dark tea is not limited to China; Japan, Korea and Thailand have their own styles. At home, the falap, produced by the Singpho community in Assam, Arunachal and Nagaland, would come under this category.
Why try a dark tea? Simply because it’s such an unusual tea, perhaps one of the tea world’s best-kept secrets. I find one in my cupboard, the compressed Tibetan tea, from my recent trip to McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh. I try to decipher the characters on it with Google’s help. It’s a pu’erh, is all I can tell. I rinse it once in hot water and then steep for five minutes in boiling water. It gives a cup that’s dark, deeply earthy and mellow. Some say it’s an acquired taste but it can delight Indian milk-tea drinkers, with our palates primed by black tea. Also, it’s a tea that can be boiled with milk-like chai—it is, after all, the base used for making Tibetan butter tea.
MyTeaPal, which has a subscription service, has a Dark Tea box of four teas for $39.90, or around ₹3,300 (including shipping); Yunnan Sourcing offers pu’erh. Teasenz has a Dark Tea sampler pack.
Tea Nanny is a fortnightly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. She posts @AravindaAnanth1 on Twitter.