Dark Tea: The Tea You Didn't Know About

Photo: Kimi Harris.

I first discovered tea at home when a can of high-quality black tea flavored with a vanilla made its way into our cupboard when I was 14. I loved that tea and I still remember it fondly. It was a smooth tea perfect for sipping with a bit of sweetener and cream. It was that first-love experience with tea that inspired me to try many other teas in the upcoming years. I’ve tried the simple teas, like oolong or peppermint. I’ve tried the herbal mixes of varying quality. I love rooibos and honeybush. A long time favorite is jasmine green tea. I’ve visited several tea stores in the area and enjoyed sniffing the different teas while reading glorious descriptions of each one.

I like tea.

So I was surprised when I heard of a whole group of tea that was completely unknown to me. I was listening to one of my favorite radio shows, "The Splendid Table," when a tea expert and merchant, Bill Waddington, shared information about a tea from China commonly called dark tea.

While all tea goes through some oxidation process, dark tea goes through a second fermentation process. Instead of being dried, it is sprinkled with water and placed in huge covered piles to ferment. This process makes very dark tea leaves (hence the name). Natural, good bacteria (much like you’d see in yogurt or homemade sauerkraut) develop on the tea. While most tea will lose its flavor as it ages, dark tea improves in flavor. This is an advantage for tea collectors and investors! In fact, when buying dark tea, buying older tea is a good idea.

I was so intrigued by this tea that I decided I had to try it. I found out that a local teahouse and store sold dark tea. I soon had both of my kids, including one very squirmy toddler, in the delicate setting of a tea testing room. I was introduced to several types of dark tea, one made with green leaves, and the other two much darker.

With my first sip, I finally discovered the type of tea that I used to get as a child at a local Chinese restaurant. You know how these traditional Chinese restaurants bring you a pot of tea when you order? I loved this one place and the tea they served. It was so mild and rich and delicious. I was told it was green tea, but I found I didn’t enjoy most green teas, and none I tried ever tasted even close to their tea. Dark tea was the answer. They served a dark green tea.

When “The Splendid Table” host, Lynne Rossetto Kasper, tried dark tea with Waddington on the show, she exclaimed that it was the type of tea you could drink all day. I agree. There is something about it that would make it easy to drink for long periods of time. It has very little to no bitterness to it. It is very mild, yet dark and flavorful too. You will be glad to know that you can rebrew the tea leaves several times, allowing you to drink this tea for half the day, if desired.

Some of the versions I sniffed or tasted had a bit of a musty taste (in a good way, like a well-aged cheese). Others were a little lighter in flavor and color. Dark teas are high in caffeine, so this is definitely not a bedtime tea.

I am definitely glad I located and tried dark tea and I plan on trying other versions soon. If you'd like to try it too, I found out that the most common dark tea to be sold in America is puer. Many tea places have puer tea, and know it by that name, but don't know that it is a subcategory of dark tea. You will also find more results for "puer" tea on certain websites selling tea, than searching for "dark teas."