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The Best Supermarket Black Tea
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 Illustrated July/August 2007, Cook's Country TV Season 11: Holiday Roast and Potatoes
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What You Need To Know
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.
One plant, a world of tea
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...
Everything We Tested
Recommended - Taken Plain
Our tasters crowned this black tea the plain tasting winner because it was “mellow” and “well-balanced” with “honey and floral” notes. It was “a bit sharp but pleasantly so,” marked by its straightforward, clean flavors.
Our tasters liked the “floral smell” and “nutty,” “toasted” flavors in this black tea blend. While the measured tannins were high, tasters nonetheless found this tea to be “warm” and “pleasant” when tasted plain.
This black tea fell neatly in the middle of the pack, with “good base flavors” that were not particularly distinctive but had “a hint of bitterness” and a “citrus finish” that made for a pleasant drinking experience.
Our tasters called this reliable tea an “acceptable” blend that “sneaks up on you.” It “didn’t have much personality,” but most agreed that the tea didn’t offend the palate either. Summarized one taster: “Your regular ol’ tea.”
Recommended with reservations
This black tea blend was categorized as woody in flavor with a “natural scent.” It was the only tea that left a significant “leafy” aftertaste, but our tasters mostly complained that it lacked complexity.
Tetley’s blend was labeled “thin” and “peppery,” with bitter notes reigning supreme in the flavor department. It boasted a “strong black tea scent and flavor,” but with the most tannins of any brand we tasted, the astringent aftertaste was too aggressive for most of our tasters when it was served plain.
Starbucks stocked this black tea for several years, so many of our tasters recognized the flavors immediately. Some complained that this tannic tea made for “dry mouth” and “paper tongue,” but most appreciated its tart flavor. Many also noted its “perfume-y, soapy, floral” flavor and astringent properties.
This black tea tasted “nutty” and “woodsy” when we added milk and sugar. While the tea “wasn’t thrilling,” it did deliver a pleasant aftertaste that tasters preferred to other brands.
This tea lost some complexity when we added milk and sugar, but it was still “pleasant” and “clean.” “My British father-in-law wouldn’t approve,” one taster noted.
Some tasters liked the mildness of this tea, but most thought it was too milky, noting that they found it difficult to detect any flavor at all when we added milk and sugar. It smelled “rosy and sweet,” with a “lemony” flavor and “dried fruit” notes.
Milk and sugar muted the flavors of this black tea blend, turning it “creamy,” “mild,” and “earthy.” Tasters did like the “slightly astringent finish” and “vanilla notes,” but they missed the complexity.
Recommended - Taken with Milk & Sugar
With milk and sugar, our tasters preferred this blend’s “caramel notes,” “pleasant bitterness,” and “full, deep, smoky flavors.” They also praised its boldness and fruity flavor.
When milk and sugar were added, tasters also loved this brand’s “strong, true tea taste.” It had “appropriate tannins” that made it “interesting” and “balanced” in flavor.
Not Recommended - Taken with Milk and Sugar
While this blend ranked highest when we tasted it plain, our tasters called it “watery” and “stale” when we added milk and sugar. It had a “sour finish.” “It could be any tea,” one taster concluded.
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