Which black tea you should buy depends on how you take it—plain or with milk and sugar.
Published Apr. 1, 2016. Appears in Cook's Country TV Season 11: Holiday Roast and Potatoes
Coffee may get all the buzz, but tea is hot: Americans consumed 3.6 billion gallons in 2014, 84 percent of which was black tea, according to the Tea Association of the United States. Sales of bagged and loose tea have increased by 17 percent in the past five years.
But which affordable, everyday black tea is best? We surveyed the market and chose seven of the most popular and widely available black teas from each of the top-selling national brands, priced from $0.05 to $0.25 per tea bag. Among these teas were English breakfast, British blends, English teatime teas, and black teas. Why the mix? Our tea experts told us that while the names on the packaging might differ, it’s mostly just marketing. Unless otherwise noted, supermarket black teas are blends, made by manufacturers who combine leaves grown in different regions to create their desired flavor.
Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staffers tasted the teas both plain and with milk and sugar, evaluating them for flavor, astringency, complexity, and overall appeal. Once we’d crunched the numbers, we looked at the results and saw an interesting trend: In general, the brands that scored high when tasted plain performed poorly when tasted with milk and sugar; likewise, teas we loved with milk and sugar were at or near the bottom of our plain tasting. Why would we love a tea plain but not like it with milk and sugar?
Astringency and bitterness in tea are linked to tannins, compounds found in many plants. Tannins are often discussed in relation to red wine; they affect a wine’s flavor and tend to dry the mouth as you sip. We had an independent laboratory make tea with one tea bag from each product in our lineup and then measure the tannins in each of the brewed teas; they reported a range of 789 to 1,265 milligrams per liter, which tracked with tasters’ preferences: Teas we liked with milk generally had more tannins, and those we liked plain generally had fewer. There were exceptions to this trend, most notably with Lipton, which is high in tannins but came in second in the plain tasting. According to one expert, a huge corporation like Lipton sources and blends teas from dozens of places, meaning that its familiar tea is formulated for balance and consistency—the high tannins are tempered by other flavors for mass appeal.
Black, green, and white teas all come from the same plant, a shrub or small tree called Camellia sinensis (herbal “teas” do not come from the tea plant). The teas taste, look, and smell different based on where and when they’re grown, as well how they’re picked and processed.
For black tea, processors harvest the green, almond-shap...
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