Organic Tea Farm

What is the Difference Between Red and Black Tea?

Clearing the air on Red Tea, Black Tea, and Dark Tea

Over the years I’ve found a shorthand for letting people know the type of tea we specialize in is to say. “The teas named after colors, like black, green, white…” Its true there is a pattern of giving each tea style a color in English. This is also true for the Chinese names for tea. Unfortunately they don’t line up very well together which opens the door for misunderstandings and mistranslations of Chinese tea names.

Red Tea

You can clealry see the “red” in “hong cha”

Western Black Tea

“Black tea” in English is named for its dark dried leaves. To European consumers in the 1700’s this made perfect sense. The Chinese merchants who sold the tea would have referred to it as “紅茶” (Mandarin hong cha)- red tea. If you look at black tea in a glass cup it’s easy to see the striking red color that inspired its Chinese name. No European sailor or merchant would know from looking at those characters how to pronounce them or understand they mean red. There is a temptation that specialty Chinese tea vendors may have to market their black tea as red tea under the banner of correcting this four hundred year old mistake. If only it were so simple. Using the Chinese names consistently raises another problem.

Black Tea

The Other Black Tea

This linguistic mixup folds into a knot when we introduce “黑茶” (Mandarin hei cha), literally translated as black tea. To not add to any further confusion we’ll call this dark tea. Dark tea is fermented with controlled humidity. For most of history tea was compressed into brick shaped molds and traveled along land routes into nearby Tibet and Russia. Tea spent months in hot, cold, humid, dry, and rainy environments. The journey exposed it to microorganisms and it arrived fermented at its destination. Modern tea makers in Western China intentionally ferment tea to reproduce this effect. A well made pot of dark tea will be so dark barely any light passes through, thus its name.

The Other Red Tea

The Other Red Tea

This web of confusion isn’t limited to just the Chinese tea world. The South African herbal tea rooibos has been buoyed to prominence along with Chinese teas. Aspalathus linearis, or the Afrikance rooibos is a native plant that is oxidized and prepared just like Western black tea. The finished product is dusty red along with the brewed liquid. A few tea vendors who specialize in herbal tea have been known to refer to rooibos tea as red tea. This was in response to Burke International filing for a trademark on the word “Rooibos”. This prevented other tea vendors from using “Rooibos” until 2005. You could see how easily the casual tea drinker could be tripped up by one of these overlapping terms. If you’re still a little lost, check out our chart to save yourself any Who’s on First style circular conversations at your next tea shop.

The Other Black Tea

Now you see why they call it dark tea.


Native Name

Direct Translation

English Name

Alternative Names

Hong Cha 紅茶

Red Tea

Black Tea

Red Tea

Hei Cha     黑茶

Black Tea

Dark Tea

Heicha, Basket Tea, Liubao, Shou Cha


Red Bush

Rooibos Tea

Red Tea, Red Bush Tea

If you are looking for some authentic Hong Cha:

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Barry Donnelly, Mad Monk Tea

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Gong Fu TeaCha video on brewing dark tea. I highly reccomend this series