What is Dark Tea? Are Dark Teas the Same as Pu-Erh Teas?

One of the amazing things about the world of tea is there is always something new to learn. Just when we think we’ve heard of everything, we discover a new origin, style, or blend, and the learning process begins anew! During Arbor Teas’ recent trip to NYC to participate in the Specialty Tea Institute’s tea curriculum, we were introduced to a “new” category of tea. I put quotation marks around the word “new” because this category of tea is actually not new at all. I (Aubrey) was taught and have always understood the five main types of tea as: white, green, oolong, black and pu-erh. These five main types of tea were touted by the Specialty Tea Institute way back when I took their Foundations of Tea classes, and in many famous and well respected tea history books. In fact, on www.ArborTeas.com we divide our navigation menu into these five types of tea, plus “rooibos” and the catch-all category of “herbal“.

However, what Sarah and Peggy learned in their Foundations of Tea class this time around was that Pu-erh teas are actually a sub-set of a larger category of Chinese teas called “Dark Teas”. Because Pu-Erhs are really the only Dark Teas known to the western world, they are often mistakenly described as their own category (like white, green, oolong, and black). But technically speaking, the fifth category of tea should not be “Pu-erh” but “Dark”. (As an aside, kudos to Sarah and Peggy for completing and passing Foundations of Tea Levels One & Two – congrats!)

So what are Dark Teas? The Specialty Tea Institute defines Dark Teas as: “a category of teas produced historically in China that are allowed or encouraged to ferment (in the true sense of the word) after some measure of processing. The exact details of this process can vary from province to province, and are often kept as a trade secret. In China these fermented teas are collectively called heicha which means ‘dark tea’ or ‘black tea.’ This name describes the dark brown liquors infused from the fermented tea leaves. Confusingly, the teas that Western cultures call black tea are what China calls hongcha or ‘red tea.’ Dark Teas are produced in Yunnan, Hubei, Hunan, Anhui, and Guangxi provinces of China. Pu-erh is one type of Dark Tea, the most well-known Dark Tea in the west.”

With this new found knowledge, Arbor Teas is looking forward to potentially sourcing some non-Pu-erh Heicha or Dark Teas. Currently, our collection of Dark Teas consists only of Pu-erhs including: classic Pu-erh, Special Grade Pu-erh, Wild Tree Mini Tuo Cha Pu-erh, and Ancient Green Tuo Cha Pu-erh. These Pu-erhs are known for their distinctive musty smell, deep and mellow flavor, and live enzymatic properties. Non-Pu-erh Dark Teas retain the live enzymatic properties, but differ in flavor and often (but not always) lose the musty smell.

For customers who recently transitioned from coffee to tea, we often recommend trying our Pu-erh Teas. These dark-colored teas brew to (almost) the same color as coffee and have a similar mouth feel. Many coffee lovers find their thicker, mellower brew to be the most akin to coffee, despite their obvious difference in taste.

March 05 2012 02:10 pm | Miscellaneous and Products and Tea Facts and Tea Terms

3 Responses to “What is Dark Tea? Are Dark Teas the Same as Pu-Erh Teas?”

  1. Rachel Franich on 05 Mar 2012 at 8:25 pm #

    I always like to learn new things, especially about something I love as much as tea, so thanks for this article. As ignorant as I am of China, I always instinctively called “black” tea “red tea.” Me and tea are just destiny, I guess! Just wanted to comment how delicious your Viet Nam Lanh estate tea is, and how easily it takes the place of morning coffee. Even better, really! I stopped being able to drink coffee, as it gave me migraine headaches, and was looking for a morning substitute tea. I don’t suppose it could count as a “dark tea,” although it isn’t very red in the cup? No, didn’t think so! If you ever source out some non-Pu-Erh dark teas, I will definitely try them! But please, never stop selling Lanh estate tea! I can’t live without it!

  2. Alex Zorach on 07 May 2012 at 1:55 pm #

    I really appreciate you getting out the word on dark teas / hei cha.

    I also think it would be exciting if, at some point, you started carrying some dark teas other than Pu-erh, so I’m glad you’re considering this. These teas are very hard to find in the West (I have yet to list a single one of them on RateTea), yet I suspect that because they are not well-known, there may be some ones available for reasonable prices.

    I know that I would be interested in this sort of thing purely for the novelty, but also because I do like Pu-erh, especially the sheng (raw or green) type.

  3. Kimble Perry on 24 Jan 2013 at 5:58 am #

    Wow! As you say, always something new to learn…. I am posting the link to this article on my Facebook site. I will even be posting it in my notes because I am sure I will want to consult it later. I have found it difficult to locate and buy the Junshan Tuocha bird’s nest tea here in England. One store in London has it once in a while.

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