heicha sanjian and zhuan

What is Dark Tea - Hei Cha 黑茶

Dark Tea? You mean Black Tea?

No, I meant Dark Tea, and that is not Black Tea.

When the first Black Tea, Lapsang Souchong ( Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong 正山小种 ) was first exported to England in the 17th century, the English named it “Black Tea” because the color of the tea leaves was black due to the process of smoking from pine wood.  However, the Chinese classified the English’s Black Tea as Red Tea ( Hong Cha 红茶 ) since the color of the tea liquor is amber. And, on the other side, Black Tea for Chinese ( Hei Cha 黑茶 )is translated to Dark Tea in English, because the color of tea leaves and tea liquor can be more black than Red Tea for Chinese or Black Tea for English.

While the terms “Dark” and “Black” are similar, Dark Tea and Black Tea are quite different from each other. They come from different types of tea bushes, from different regions, have different processes, as well as having different brewing methods.

Mature fresh tea leaves are plucked for Dark Tea. Fixation/Kill-Green (Sha’qing 殺青), Rolling/Sharping (Rou’nian 揉捻), Pile-Fermenting (Wo’dui 渥堆)and Drying (Gan’zao 乾燥)process are the major steps of making Dark Tea. The choice of fresh tea leaves forms the quality of Dark Tea, and the process of wo’dui is the key to develop the character of Dark Tea, it activates a series of complex chemicals from tea leaves, and forms the uniqueness of the color, aroma, and taste of the Dark Tea.

  • Black Tea is “100%” oxidized
  • Dark Tea is 80% oxidized and fermented.
  • Dark Tea is also called post-fermented tea because it has undergone microbial fermentation both from the production and storage.
Hunan Dark Teas
Hunan Dark Teas
Credit: 小百姓养生网

According to the region, Dark Tea is classified as:

  • Hunan Dark Tea – 湖南黑茶 – (Fu Tea, Qianliang Tea, Hei Zhuan Tea, Three Jian, etc. – 茯茶、千兩茶、黑磚茶、三尖等)
  • Yunnan Puer Tea – 雲南黑茶 – (普洱茶)
  • Guangxi Liubao Tea – 廣西六堡茶
  • Shanxi Dark Tea – 陝西黑茶 – (茯茶)
  • Hubei Green Brick Tea – 湖北北青磚茶
  • Sichuan Tibet Tea – 四川藏茶 – (邊茶)
  • Anhui Gu Yi Dark Tea – 安徽古黟黑茶 -(安茶)

Yunnan Puer was the most well known Dark Tea in China, as well as outside of China. However, because of the hype of market promotion, the price of Puer in the market and at auction was extremely overpriced. Soon the stock and popularity of Puer crashed.  In the past 5-10 years because of the reasonable price and quality of Hunan Dark Tea, it has been replacing the popularity of Puer in China but still rarely can be purchased in the USA.

Tea being dried and roasted before transport, in Yangloudong village, Hubei province, in 1874
Tea being dried and roasted before transport, in Yangloudong village, Hubei province, in 1874
Credit: South China Morning Post

Dark Tea was first mentioned in writing in 1524, even though some people argue Dark Tea has an even longer history, it may have been invented in the 14th century. Most people declare the history of Dark Tea started in the early 16th century.

Dark Teas are typically compressed into different shapes, such as round, square or even a more artist look with the shape of a tree trunk, mushroom, pumpkin, chocolate, coin, etc. Some of them are compressed with a classic painting or calligraphy as the pattern of the compressed tea so that it can also be displayed as a beautiful drinkable antique art piece.

Many investors collect large quantities of high-quality Dark Teas as their business. Generally speaking, the value of Dark Tea improves over time. The longer Dark Tea ages, the higher its value becomes. However, this is not absolute because it also depends on the quality of aging, whether or not the environment is conducive to preserving the tea. If the way of aging is not proper, the quality of tea will be ruined. Just as in life itself, if we don’t live and age well, we will waste the value of living.

Hunan Dark Tea - Qianlliang Packing Process
Hunan Dark Tea – Qianlliang Packing Process
Credit: 中国传统文化门户网站

To store Dark Tea requires the condition of fluent air circulation, a dry and clean environment without any odors.  Moisture is necessary for tea to ferment, but if the amount of moisture is not controlled, too long or too much, the tea will become moldy. Tea should not be under any direct sunlight, because the heat of the sun will accelerate the oxidization, producing a permanent unpleasant sun or bleached flavor, which is not considered to be a good flavor of a fine tea. Proper air circulation is very important: the tea needs to absorb the right amount of moisture and bacteria from the air, that’s what cultivates the quality of tea and naturally ferments it with a vibrant character. The process of selecting tea leaves and the density of compressing also directly affects the development of the tea. It is important to never use any plastic bags or containers to seal the tea when storing Dark Tea, the tea will absorb the smell of the plastic. Since the quality of Dark Tea develops with time and in a natural environment, different countries, states, cities, and rooms create different flavors. Some professionals can tell exactly where a tea was aged simply by tasting it.


Hunan Fu Brick Tea (Fu Zhuan 茯磚)with Golden Flowers Fungus
Hunan Fu Brick Tea (Fu Zhuan 茯磚)with Golden Flowers Fungus
Credit: Eric Glass

As tea ages, the caffeine and other chemicals become gentler; so, as it ages, tea becomes more balanced with a perfect Yin and Yang energy. As it ages, new bacteria grow and give more physical health benefits. Chinese consider Dark Tea as a medicinal tea or old people’s tea for long-living because of the wide range of health benefits. Many health benefits have been confirmed by medical research; the caffeine, vitamin, amino acid and phospholipids in Dark Tea are great for digestion, regulating fat metabolism and stimulating gastric juice secretion. Japanese scientific research shows Dark Tea has strong functions in decreasing grease and aiding digestion, that is why Dark Tea has been used as a natural method for weight loss.  Dark Tea also softens vessels preventing CVD, as well as containing anti-oxidant, anti-aging, anti-mutation.  Dark Tea also reduces blood pressure, blood sugar, inflammation, preventing and curing diabetes, improving saccharomyces, sterilization, diuresis, detoxication and reducing the harm made by tobacco and liquor.


As a lover of tea for more than 3 decades, Dark Tea became my daily companion. I was passionate about Green Tea, and then in love with Oolong Tea. After the long journey of tea, I found Hunan Dark Tea truly is the state I strive to be, the character of the tea grants me the right energy I feel I should have. It is gentle, mellow, and yet masculine and exciting, It soothes my body, especially my stomach and stimulates my mind… Perfect balance.

Red-Square 红四方 - 李桂田 is from Hunan China and currently lives in New York. She is an internationally renowned Neoillusionist Tea Master, Calligrapher, Performance Artist, and Poet.