Hongcha – All You Need to Know about Chinese Black Tea

What is Hongcha?

Hongcha, also known as Chinese black tea, is a type of tea that holds a significant place in the rich heritage and culture of China. Statistically, black tea accounts for 75% of the globe’s tea. I had only tasted one type of Hongcha before I was a grown-up which is Red Plum Tea(九曲红梅), as Red Plum tea is a Hangzhou local Hongcha made from the very same leaves of Longjing tea. But as I grew more interested in tea, I started to check out other Hongcha like Dianhong from Yunnan, Yihong from Yichang, Keemum Hongcha from Anhui etc.

keemun hongcha

The origin of hongcha can be traced back to ancient China, where tea consumption dates back thousands of years. Chinese tea farmers have perfected the art of cultivating and processing tea leaves over centuries, leading to the creation of various types and flavors.

Hongcha is a fully oxidized tea, which is made from fresh leaves through withering, kneading, oxidation, drying, and other processes. The chemical reaction centered on enzymatic oxidation of tea polyphenols occurs during the processing of black tea, resulting in a large change in the composition of fresh leaves, which makes black tea form a red soup, red leaves, sweet and mellow flavor, and hence the name.

Its deep-rooted history intertwined with meticulous craftsmanship has resulted in an exquisite black tea that captivates all who indulge in its richness. Whether sipped alone or paired with food, hongcha promises a truly indulgent experience that showcases the magnificence of Chinese black tea.

Frequent Asked Questions about Hongcha

  • What is Hongcha in Chinese?

“Hongcha” (红茶) in Chinese refers to what is commonly known in English as “black tea.” The term “Hongcha” translates directly to “red tea” in English, but it’s important to note that it doesn’t refer to what Westerners typically categorize as “red tea”. Instead, “Hongcha” denotes a specific type of tea that has undergone oxidation during processing, resulting in its characteristic dark color and robust flavor profile.

  • Why is Hongcha called black tea?

The designation of “black tea” can be somewhat misleading to English speakers because the tea itself is not black in color. Rather, the term “black” refers to the color of the oxidized tea leaves. During the processing of black tea, the leaves undergo oxidation, which causes them to turn darker in color, ranging from dark brown to black. Therefore, the term “black tea” accurately describes the color of the processed leaves rather than the brewed beverage.

  • Why is black tea called “red tea” in Chinese?

In Chinese, black tea is called “red tea” (红茶), which can be confusing for English speakers. This distinction arises from the translation of the Chinese term “Hongcha” (红茶), where “Hong” (红) means “red.” The naming convention stems from the color of the infused liquor rather than the color of the processed leaves. When brewed, black tea typically produces a reddish-brown liquor, which led to its classification as “red tea” in Chinese. This distinction helps to differentiate it from other types of tea, such as green tea (lu cha, 绿茶) and oolong tea (wulong cha, 乌龙茶), which have different processing methods and flavor profiles.

The History of Hongcha

The origins of hongcha, also known as Chinese black tea, can be traced back to ancient China.

Tea cultivation in China dates back thousands of years, with the legendary Emperor Shennong being credited with its discovery in 2737 BCE. However, it wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that hongcha gained popularity as a distinct category within Chinese tea culture.

During this period, tea production and consumption underwent significant advancements. The development of new processing techniques allowed for the oxidation and fermentation of tea leaves, resulting in the creation of what we now know as black tea.

These techniques involved withering the leaves to reduce moisture content, rolling them to promote oxidation, and eventually fully drying them to lock in the flavors. Hongcha became especially popular during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

It was during this time that trade routes were established between China and Europe, leading to an increased demand for black tea in Western markets. The British East India Company played a crucial role in introducing hongcha to Europe and establishing its status as a global commodity.

In addition to its growing international popularity, hongcha gained significant recognition within China itself. It became a common beverage consumed by people from all walks of life.

With an increasing number of regional variations emerging across different provinces, Chinese black tea became deeply intertwined with local cultural traditions and ceremonies. Despite facing challenges during periods such as the Opium Wars and subsequent political upheavals in China’s history, hongcha has managed to retain its prominence as one of China’s most beloved teas.

Its rich history reflects not only centuries-old cultivation practices but also the enduring passion for this distinctive type of tea both locally and globally – making it an integral part of Chinese culture that continues to captivate enthusiasts worldwide.

How Hongcha is made?

Plucking: To begin with, the process starts in the tea gardens where experienced tea farmers carefully select the appropriate tea leaves. Typically, Black Teas are harvested a bit later than Green Teas, two leaves and a bud are plucked together to ensure optimal taste and texture. These tender leaves are usually harvested in spring or early summer when they have reached their peak quality.

Withering: The delicate art of handpicking ensures that only the finest leaves are chosen for further processing. After being collected, the freshly plucked tea leaves undergo a crucial step called withering. This step involves spreading them out on bamboo trays or clean floors where they are exposed to air for several hours. During this period, moisture evaporates from the leaves, causing them to wilt and become more malleable for subsequent processing stages. Withering also enhances certain chemical transformations within the leaf, ultimately influencing its flavor profile.

Kneading: Traditionally done by hand but now increasingly mechanized, kneading or rolling breaks down cell walls within the tea leaves while releasing enzymes through oxidation. This enzymatic oxidation plays a key role in turning green tea leaves into black ones by catalyzing chemical reactions that result in complex flavor compounds and darkened color.

Kneading also helps shape individual leaf particles into twisted or curled forms that contribute to hongcha’s visual appeal.

Oxidation: Oxidation is a pivotal step that defines hongcha as a black tea variety rather than green or oolong teas with different oxidation levels. The rolled tea is spread out on trays or bamboo mats under controlled conditions such as temperature and humidity levels to allow oxygen exposure. During this stage, enzymes present in the tea leaves interact with oxygen, allowing chemical changes to occur.

Over time, hongcha’s characteristic flavor compounds develop, resulting in a rich and robust taste that sets it apart from other teas. Through the intricate process of plucking, withering, kneading, and oxidation, the raw tea leaves are transformed into the final product known as hongcha.

Drying: Before hongcha reaches its full potential in terms of aroma and taste, it goes through one last critical stage: drying. Drying is essential for reducing moisture content in the tea leaves to prevent spoilage and extend their shelf life.

Traditionally achieved by placing the tea on bamboo trays or firing them over heated woks or ovens, this process halts further enzymatic activity while preserving hongcha’s unique flavors and aromas. Crafting Chinese black tea or hongcha demands meticulous attention to detail and an understanding of how each processing step influences the final product’s characteristics.

From handpicking tender leaves to carefully rolling and oxidizing them before undergoing meticulous drying procedures – every phase contributes to unlocking the distinct flavors that make hongcha a beloved beverage worldwide. Understanding this intricate process sheds light on why hongcha stands out among other black teas for its rich taste profile and captivating aroma.

Different types of Hongcha

There are many types of Hongcha in China, which can be categorized by region into Dian Hong(Yunnan Black Tea), Chuang Hong (Sichuan Black Tea), Yue Hong(Zhejiang Black Tea), Hu Hong (Hunan Black Tea), Min Hong (Fujian Black Tea), Su Hong(Jiangsu Black Tea) etc.,

And Among them, there are several out-standing Black Tea types with Good fame and wonderful taste:

1. Keemun (祁门红茶):

Renowned for its floral and fruity notes, Keemun is a highly regarded variety of Chinese black tea. Grown in Anhui province, it exudes a complex flavor profile with hints of orchid, pine smoke, and dried fruit.

The infusion yields a reddish-brown liquor that carries a rich aroma and a smooth texture on the palate. Keemun is often enjoyed plain or with a touch of milk and sugar.

Qi Men Hong Cha(Keemun Black Tea) 祁门红茶


Features of this Keemun Black Tea Cultivar: Qi Men Zhu Ye Zhong (祁门槠叶种) Origin: Qi Men County, Huangshan, Anhui Harvest Season: Spring   Appearance: Keemun black tea is visually striking with tightly twisted dark leaves that exhibit a hint of coppery red, resulting in a vibrant brewed liquor. Aroma:  This tea boasts an exquisite fragrance…


2. Yunnan Dian Hong (滇红):

Originating from Yunnan province in southwestern China, Dian Hong black tea boasts robust flavors that captivate enthusiasts worldwide. Its leaves are composed mainly of golden buds, resulting in an infusion with a striking golden-reddish hue.
Dian Hong exhibits malty undertones with hints of chocolate and caramel sweetness, providing an indulgent experience appreciated by many connoisseurs.

Yunnan Dianhong Black Tea


Features of this Yunnan Dianhong Black Tea Cultivar: Feng Qing Big Leaf Origin: Fengqing Yunnan, China. Harvest Season: Autumn   Appearance:  The golden tips shimmer like nuggets of sunshine amidst the deep black backdrop. This loose-leaf tea is tight and integrated, showcasing the fine craftsmanship and leaf selection that goes into its production. Aroma: This…


3. Lapsang Souchong (正山小种):

For those seeking an intense smoky flavor profile, Lapsang Souchong stands as an excellent choice among Chinese black teas.

This unique variety is crafted by smoking the leaves over pinewood fires before processing them further. As a result, Lapsang Souchong has a distinctive aroma reminiscent of campfires or smoked meats. The flavor carries robust earthy notes intertwined with hints of pine resin and dried fruits.

Lapsang Souchong Black Tea (正山小种)


Features of this Lapsang Souchong Black Tea Cultivar: Small Leaf (小叶种) Origin:  Wuyi Mountains, Fujian Province, China Harvest Season: Late Spring   Appearance: Lapsang Souchong is characterized by long, dark, wiry tea leaves, often accompanied by elegant golden tips. These leaves range in color from deep brown to black, creating a visually striking presentation. When…


4. Red Plum Tea / Jiu Qu Hong Mei(九曲红梅):

Red Plum Tea, or Black Dragon Tea, is a tea that origins from a type of oolong tea from Wuyi Mountain, Fujian. It is introduced to Hangzhou in the late Qing Dynasty. By generations of tea farmers’ cultivation, it was eventually reformed into a type of black tea.
The name Red Plum comes from the special Plum Flower-like tea scent, and the name Black Dragon comes from the tea appearance that the tea leaves are black in color and shaped like small dragons.

Red Plum is the only famous Black tea in Zhejiang Province, it is made from the same tea leaves as Longjing No.43 and Longjing Qunti.
The tea was awarded the gold medal at the Panama International Food Fair in 1886. And in 1929’s West Lake Tea Expo it was nominated as one of the ten most famous Chinese teas.

Red Plum Tea(Black Dragon)

(1 customer review)

Features of this Red Plum (Black Dragon Tea) Cultivar: Longjing Qunti (Old Tree) What is Longjing Qunti? Origin: Hangzhou, China. Harvest Season: Pre-Ming   Appearance: Made from Pre-ming Longjing Qunti Leaves, This high-grade black tea is slim in shape and is twisted after tea-rolling, each leaf is of high integrity and measures between 2-3cm in length. The leaves are…



In the vast world of tea, where traditions and flavors intertwine, black teas emerge as a diverse and captivating category. From the bold and robust Keemun black tea to the smoky and aromatic Lapsang Souchong, from the nuanced richness of Dianhong to the refined elegance of Red Plum tea, there are countless black teas waiting to be discovered and savored.

However, the true essence of tea lies not in listing them all but in the spirit of exploration. Each cup tells a unique story, and the journey of tasting and exploring these diverse black teas is where the true tea spirit resides. So, embark on this flavorful adventure, embrace the variety, and savor the rich tapestry of black teas that the world has to offer. Let your taste buds be your guide as you journey through the endless possibilities of the tea world.

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