When choosing black teas, there are a number of factors to consider: aroma, taste, compatibility with milk and spices, and whether you should serve it hot or iced. On top of that, with so many brands like Harney & Sons, Vahdam, Pure Leaf, Twinings, and Stash, it can be tricky to determine which tea you will like best.
Today, we are going to teach you tips and tricks to find the right black tea for you. With product reviews, prices, and comparisons, we’ll make it easy for you to pick just the tea you’re looking for.
How to Choose Black Tea Bags – Buying Guide
Selecting the right black tea seems easy, but the hidden truth is that each tea differs greatly in taste and fragrance. By knowing the main characteristics of each type of tea, you can pick the right tea for you in each moment. So, how to best tell the difference between each type of black tea? We asked Lu Ann, a tea enthusiast, to walk us through all the different black tea bags.
The Cup of Life Blogger
Lu Ann Pannunzio is a tea enthusiast and writer based in Ontario, Canada. She is the blogger behind the tea blog, The Cup of Life, where she shares her steeps, tea infused recipes and crafts to show the world how versatile and inspirational the beverage of tea truly is. She is also the author of Tea-spiration: Inspirational Words for Tea Lovers.
Her blog is well recognized and has been nominated for the World Tea Awards’ Best Tea Blog three years in a row. Lu Ann’s written pieces have also been published in various publications including Fresh Cup Magazine and Health + Wellbeing Magazine. Steep yourself a cup and check out her blog.
・The Cup of Life Site: https://theteacupoflife.com
Choose Based on the Aromas of Different Regions
What makes each tea different is how it was processed, its growing conditions, and geography. Some tea is fermented more than others–black tea is completely fermented, oolong tea is semi-fermented, and green tea is barely fermented or not fermented at all.
Geography also has a huge impact. One key element of tea is called tannin, which impacts the tea’s taste and aroma. Geography–including altitude, sunshine hours, and amount of rainfall–influences the amount of tannin in tea leaves, creating different flavor profiles among tea leaves produced in different areas.
Geography affects not just the taste and aroma, but the names of teas, as well. Did you know that “Darjeeling” and “Assam” teas were named after the regions in which they’re produced? Let’s look quickly at the major characteristics of these and other types of teas.
[India] Darjeeling: Light with a Warm, Subtle Fruitiness
Darjeeling is a tea produced in the Darjeeling region of northeastern India, at the foot of the eastern Himalayas. Called the “champagne of tea,” Darjeeling is one of the world’s three most popular teas. Darjeeling’s unique scent–somewhat floral, light and refreshing–comes from its home. Since it’s cultivated at such high altitudes, the extra mist, the pounding sunshine, and the lower oxygen make Darjeeling a subtle, soft treat.
The taste of Darjeeling varies based on when it is harvested. Early harvests, also called first flush teas (March/April), present a light taste with lower catechin (a type of antioxidant) properties.
Second flush tea leaves are said to be of the highest quality. Rather astringent but sweet and full of flavor, leaves picked during this time frame are the most beloved. They contain the strongest floral (or fruity) scent. It’s called muscatel and, while, like any heavenly aroma, is difficult to put down into words, it’s like the smell of tropical fruits in summer.
The last harvest–from October to November, also called autumn flush–produces leaves with a more mellow flavor. You’ve got less muscatel, but the tea’s more rounded, with hints of sweetness playing beneath.
I personally love first flush with dark chocolate and second flush with milk chocolate. I also find Darjeeling goes wonderfully with custard-based desserts and fresh fruits.
[India] Assam: Malty, Sweet, and Strong
Assam tea comes from the Assam Plain, the world’s largest tea production area spanning northeastern India. Darjeeling and Assam both grow very well in this part of India due to the heavy rainfall. Assam tea has a very rich aroma and taste, as well as a strong sweet flavor.
Assam tea drunk by itself is typically a deep red. Like Darjeeling, the taste and aroma change depending on the harvest season, although differences among Darjeeling harvests are greater than those among the various Assam harvests.
First flush leaves (March/April) produce tea with a fresh, sweet flavor and scent. Second flush teas (April to June) are of high quality, with mellow sweetness and a taste resembling malt. The high tannin content of second flush leaves can make the tea taste slightly more bitter, which some say best represents Assam’s true characteristics.
The last Assam harvest (September to November) produces teas with a stronger, more astringent taste. When brewed, this tea is more of a dark reddish-purple color.
In some cases, I find an Assam black tea to have a slight bitterness, which is probably why I typically like to enjoy my Assam in the morning, as it takes to milk well.
I do still enjoy Assam straight, but the quality of the tea makes a difference. For example, if the Assam is whole leaves, there is a slight sweetness to it and I don’t mind it on its own. But if it is Assam CTC (cut tear curl), then I will prefer a dash of milk and sweetener to balance out the morning cuppa.
[India] Nilgiri: Balanced with Wide Appeal
An underrated wallflower, Nilgiri isn’t as glamorous as its cousins, Darjeeling and Assam. It’s produced in the south of India, where the Nilgiri, or Blue Mountains, lie, near Sri Lanka.
You get the body and tropical sweetness of Indian teas and the light freshness of Sri Lankan teas. The fragrance is intense–forests, flowers, and muscat–but maybe because Nilgiri is so near the border of two countries, the tea it produces is balanced and appeals to many palates. It comes out to a vibrant orange.
[Sri Lanka] Ceylon: Light and Citrusy
Tea produced in Sri Lanka is collectively known as Ceylon tea because Ceylon is the former name of Sri Lanka. These types of teas are generally characterized by a faint citric scent.
High-grown ceylon teas are typically characterized by a floral aroma and taste. They’re refreshing and have a balanced flavor and scent to them. Some popular ones are Dimbula, Nuwara Eliya, and Uva. These all have slightly different characteristics and properties, native to the region they’re produced in.
Medium-grown ceylon teas have a slight astringent taste, but a rich aroma. The most famous of these are called Kandy, named after Kandy district in Sri Lanka. This region is in the central part of Sri Lanka, which is said to be the birthplace of Ceylon teas. Kandy teas are often said to have a caramel aroma, with grainy and twisted leaves and a bright amber color.
Ruhuna, the Ceylon tea leaves grown at the lowest altitudes in Sri Lanka, generally have a lighter aroma but a strong, sometimes bitter, taste. These leaves are dried at a high temperature, adding a smoky flavor to the tea. But don’t worry–a slight sweetness like brown sugar balances out the smoky tones, and the light aftertaste unique to Ceylon tea makes Ruhuna most enjoyable.
My surroundings always affect my tea preferences. For instance, in the morning I always like a bold cup of tea and will usually reach for Assam or Ceylon, followed by matcha for a later morning pick me up.
[China] Keemun Teas: The Sweetness of Orchids, the Smokiness of Dusk
One of the world’s most famous teas is Keemun, produced in China. Produced exclusively in Qimen County of China’s Anhui Province, this tea features a unique smoky flavor and a sweet smell similar to orchids or roses. Keemun is also less bitter than other teas and has a pleasant light color.
I think Keemun might be strong for those who aren’t used to drinking tea. It can have a slight smoky taste which may not be a flavour profile for everyone.
Choose Single or Blended Teas
Up until now, we have discussed only one type of tea: that made from a single kind of tea leaf. There are also blended teas with leaves from various production areas or picked during different harvest seasons. As with coffee, the different leaves combine to give you a unique taste and aroma.
Perhaps the most popular blend in the U.S. is English Breakfast tea. This tea, traditionally enjoyed in the U.K. as well, comes from blending tea leaves from Kenya with Assam and Ceylon leaves.
Although not as popular as English Breakfast, you may also find a couple of Royal Blends. One, a mix of Assam and Ceylon, was created in 1902 to celebrate the crowning of King Edward VII. Another, titled “The Prince of Wales” after King Edward VIII, combines Keemun and Assam and gives off the fragrances of China and India.
Tea blend varieties differ depending on the manufacturer; you may be enjoying blends without even knowing it. Even teas named after a certain production area, such as Darjeeling, may contain a small amount of other tea leaves in them, so check the country of origin to know if you’re drinking a single tea or a blend.
I would recommend single at the start of your tea journey so you can get to know a certain tea better on it’s own first and then one day you’ll be able to distinguish the two easier.
Choose Based on How You Drink Your Tea
Do you prefer your tea plain, or with additions like flavors, cream, or sugar? Do you prefer it hot or iced? Whichever way you prefer will dictate which tea you should buy.
Plain Tea: Enjoy the Musk, Sweetness, and Fragrance Alone
If you drink your tea by itself, pick teas with a mild taste and high aroma. The best teas for drinking plain are Darjeeling and Ceylon. Other teas that work well plain are Nilgiri, the refreshing Nuwara Eliya, or the smoky-scented Keemun.
With their sweet smokiness and medium flavor, you can enjoy these teas by themselves, or add a tad of cream and sugar if you really must.
Lemon Tea: Veer Away from Tannin
If you enjoy tea with a bit of fresh lemon, be sure to select teas with low tannin levels. When tannin meets with the acids in lemon, they don’t harmonize–rather, they turn sour and bitter. Also, get a tea with body, which won’t be overpowered by the strong, fresh scent of lemon.
Leaves from Kandy or Nilgiri make for good lemon tea (these don’t have much tannin), as does Earl Grey, whose bergamot scent pairs very well with lemon.
Milk Tea: Go For Dark Tea Leaves with a Pleasant Scent
Milk tea combines the best of both worlds: you get the rich aroma of tea leaves and the smooth, creamy consistency of milk. Choose a tea with body and deep flavor–like Assam CTC– so it’s not overpowered by the milk.
What is CTC, you ask? It’s a way to process black tea. The letters stand for crush, tear, and curl; basically, the leaves are run through this special machine, where they’re crushed and torn into little pieces, then pressed back together into balls. Since these pellets are so concentrated, the flavor comes out strong and kicking. And that’s why, in general, CTC teas work well with milk.
Teas that have got this deep sweetness, such as Ceylon (Dimbula and Uva especially!), are heavenly with milk. Keemun or Nilgiri teas also work well to this end.
I usually enjoy milk in a bold breakfast style tea for the morning. The kind of black tea that I think pairs best with milk is a black tea that is strong and may offer slight bitter notes. For instance, I would go for an Assam but not a first flush Darjeeling, as that is a much lighter tea.
I would recommend this for a coffee lover who is trying to get into tea, as this might best replicate the flavours they are already used to (especially if they take coffee with milk).
Iced Tea: Go for Sweet and Mellow
For the most refreshing iced tea, you want to select teas with less astringent or bitter tastes. Darjeeling is the ideal tea to enjoy iced, as its pleasant aroma and flavor will still come through, but not quite as strongly as when served hot. Darjeeling teas grown at medium to lower altitudes are especially ideal.
Then you’ve got the wallflower, Nilgiri, and the Sri Lankan Kandy; both, because they haven’t got much tannin, are mellow and don’t cloud when chilled. They come out to this clear amber. Or, if you prefer, Earl Grey works well for iced tea also.
I also find that if I don’t like a tea hot, I will usually prefer it cold. For instance, I don’t like hot teas that include hibiscus or tea blends that are mainly dried fruit, but those are some of my favourite iced.
Usually, I will cold brew tea though, which is the process of steeping the tea for a few hours in just cold water. The extraction process is longer, but it makes for a naturally sweet steep! You don’t have to worry about a bitter tea. If you want to know more about cold steeping, check out my blog!
Chai: Get Something Light to Compliment the Spices
Chai, a word that simply means “tea” in languages such as Urdu and Farsi, in the U.S. is a tea made with spices such as cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom. Many people enjoy drinking chai with milk. For a flavorful cup of chai, get teas that are light, so they don’t clash with the intensity of the spices, and go well with milk.
For the best chai, we recommend Ceylon and Darjeeling as their taste profiles are not too strong and will compliment the spice. If you like chai with milk, we recommend Assam.
When the weather is colder, I’m always up for a good cup of masala chai or other bold black teas (Darjeeling second flush, keemun, etc).
Envelope-Style for Speed; Pyramids for Strength
Browsing the tea aisle, you’ll notice that even the same kind of tea is priced differently. This is because different companies charge different prices, and often the quality of tea leaves varies.
Another factor affecting pricing is if the tea comes in pyramid bags or filterbags. Leaves in filterbags will be very broken and refined, leading to a weaker taste and fragrance. Because of this, the tea is cheaper, but also lower quality. If you must buy the cheapest tea, we recommend adding lemon or milk to improve the flavor.
I don't have a specific favourite when it comes to tea bags, but I do like to look for any that has whole tea leaves inside (not dust like most teabags), and bags made with 100% biodegradable materials.
Top 10 Black Tea Bags to Buy Online
To aid you in your quest for that perfect cup of tea, we present our list of the top 10 black tea bags you can find online.
10. Pure Leaf Chai
Bright, Warm Spices Renergize the Spirit
Pure Leaf, a company with sustainable practices, brings together a fine blend of Kenyan and Ceylon leaves. The bold taste of the tea and the fragrance of ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, and other spices are great plain or with milk.
The biggest downside to this tea is the intensity of these spices–it’s pretty overwhelming if you’re sensitive. And stay away if you prefer iced teas, as chai is best served hot. Keep in mind also that if you like very sweet tea, you might want to sample this one before buying, as too much sweetness can clash with the intense spices.
9. Teabox Assam
Nitrogen-Flushed Tea Bags Seal in Taste
This tea has one of the best scents of any we know–red roses and nuts brighten up even the coldest winter morning. Slightly astringent, this tea also presents what some call a “tarty fruit” smell that pairs well with milk and sugar. We prefer this tea hot, although since it’s not that bitter, it makes for a good iced tea too.
Since the nitrogen-flushed tea bags do seal in a lot of flavor, the more intense taste can take some getting used to. If you’re new to tea, you may want to ease yourself in with something like #2 or #7 below.
8. Harney & Sons Earl Grey Supreme
Blend of Four Black Teas with Hints of Lemon
Earl Grey Supreme from Harney & Sons is unique in that it has hints not only of bergamot, but also of lemon–absolutely perfect for lemon tea! Earl Grey Supreme makes for a very refreshing cup of tea in either the early morning or the afternoon. A smooth tea low on tannin, this blend is a perfect primer for those looking to lessen their coffee drinking.
When you get this tea, be sure to either drink it all in a short amount of time or transfer the tea bags to an airtight container, as the bags at the bottom of the tin can lose their flavor quickly if left in there too long.
7. Davidson’s Organic Keemun Tea
“Woodsy” Flavor With Hints of Cinnamon
Like most Keemun teas, Davidson’s organic Keemun tea has a pleasantly light flavor that makes for a great plain or iced tea. Davidson’s also comes at a fraction of the cost of other brands, meaning you get more value for what you spend. And there’s health benefits as part of the deal, too: many report increased energy levels and easier digestion after brewing themselves a few cups.
Biggest con of this tea: the leaves are very, very broken, meaning that a lot of the flavor and aroma got lost in the preparation process. Because of that, you won’t get as satisfying a cup of tea as you would with full, unbroken leaves, so stick with this tea only if you prefer something light and breezy.
6. Brahmin’s Choice
Assam, Ceylon, and Keemun: Best of All Worlds
No tea list would be complete without Keemun tea. Keemun is good by itself, but the Brahmin’s Choice blend is incomparable with its strong bergamot scent and its slightly smoky flavor. And afternoon tea drinkers, rejoice–unlike the options below, Brahmin’s Choice is great for a late pick-me-up, since it’s not strong enough to keep you tossing and turning at night.
It’s, however, not the most robust of teas. Note also that the tea bags can be fragile, so be careful when brewing this tea so the bags don’t come apart. Since this tea isn’t too strong or weak, it makes for a great milk tea.
5. Numi Aged Earl Grey
The Brightness of Orange, the Strength of the Earl
For those seeking the perfect cup of Earl Grey. Numi is a great company that produces organic, fair trade, non-GMO tea from the best leaves they can find. This tea was aged with Italian Bergamot, meaning it has hints of orange aroma.
What’s bad about this tea? As far as tea bags go, nothing, really. Yes, the leaves are broken, but, as Earl Grey fans know, these teas can get quite strong. If you like the sweet and light, you may actually need to add a generous amount of milk and sugar.
4. Vahdam Darjeeling Spring
First Flush Leaves Wake You Up Extra Quickly
If you got excited reading about Darjeeling first flush teas above, you absolutely have to try this one. Picked from high-grown Darjeeling tea plants, these leaves have a pleasing flowery aroma. Darjeeling Spring is also ideal for iced tea, hot plain tea, or milk tea.
Vahdam is an awesome company that sources tea leaves directly from plantations and follows fair trade practices, meaning that with each cup you’re supporting farmers and getting some of the best-quality tea around. But like with the Irish Breakfast tea, beware–this tea is very strong, so don’t drink it too late in the day.
3. Twinings Irish Breakfast
Leaves from Four Regions Make This One Strong Tea
If you know anything about the Irish, you know they appreciate stronger teas. Twining’s take is rather full-bodied–not bitter, just robust–since it contains strong, bright leaves from Kenya and India, and sweeter, more mild picks from Indonesia and China.
Make sure to follow the instructions when making this tea: pouring over-boiled water over the tea will result in a flat taste. Be careful also when you drink this tea: since it’s so strong, it’s great before heading into a 8- to 12-hour workday, but it’s too much for an afternoon pick-me-up.
2. Revolution English Breakfast (30 Count)
Ceylon and Assam Combine to Perk You Up
Made from the best Ceylon and Assam teas around, Revolution English Breakfast is the perfect wake-up call (you get a whole 40 mg of caffeine per cup!) Even skeptics love this tea, as the pyramid-shaped filterbags allow the full, fresh taste of the leaves to come through.
Still, it’s not bitter–it is full-bodied, yes, but also smooth, light, and refreshing. It’s great plain, or with a bit of lemon and sugar. It’s a bit pricier than most teas, but, this time around, you are paying for quality.
1. Stash Breakfast in Paris
Lavender Meets Bergamot in a Full-Bodied Tea
If you want a tea that’ll wake you up quickly (but not too quickly!) and make you feel like you’re on vacation in the City of Lights, here’s the tea for you. Breakfast in Paris has got this mellow, clean taste that pairs well with a classy breakfast like a baguette or pastry, and the lavender scent adds a comforting smell to your morning routine.
If you’re sensitive to lavender, you might want to stay away from this tea, as some say the lavender overpowers the other flavors. It’s also not for you if you’re looking for a tea with an incredibly strong and more bitter flavor profile, as the vanilla and lavender in this tea can make it a little sweet.
Different Classes of Tea
When shopping for tea, you may have noticed the letters “OP” or “BOP” printed on the container. These abbreviations represent the shape and size of the finished tea leaves.
As a grade, Orange Pekoe (OP) teas consist of large leaves twisted into long strips (anywhere between 7 and 11 mm), usually originating in Sri Lanka or India. To get the leaves to unfurl, give the tea time to sit after pouring in the water. Flowery Orange Pekoe (FOP) is the same size as OP. The only difference is that FOP contains many flower buds and young leaves.
Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP) leaves are finely crushed to allow for a stronger, fuller fragrance and taste. The fragments are about 2 to 3 mm long. Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings were even more finely ground than your BOP leaves, reaching a mere 1 or 2 mm. Doesn’t matter whether it’s in a tea bag, or if you pour hot water right over it–the flavor will seep into the tea.
Dust comes in the form of very fine powder and is mostly used in filterbags. Dust is not necessarily low quality tea, although some will say that since it has been ground so much, it’s harder for the leaves’ true flavor and aroma to come out.
You can also get more tea out of whole loose leaf than tea bags. The same leaves can be steeped multiple times for several cups. With a teabag, sometimes one steep is all you can get. If you’re someone who drinks tea for health benefits, more will come from loose leaf than tea bags.
As you can see, buying the right tea is more complex than most people think. But if you take your time researching and finding the right one, you won’t regret your choices later. We hope this list puts you on your way to finding that perfect morning or afternoon pick-me-up tea!
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