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Over the last few weeks we have been taking an in-depth look into Black teas, their history, sources and types. Last week we looked into Darjeeling teas and this week we are continuing along the same vein by exploring the topic of Assam teas. The Assam region is intrinsically linked with the history and supply of teas throughout the UK and so it provides a fascinating history lesson on both tea and British Colonialism.
Assam is located in the North-East of India incorporating some of the lesser Himalayas forming a high-altitude and rich tea growing environment. Assam is a huge areas of land, especially when compared to areas such as Darjeeling and forms one of the world's largest tea growing regions. Also unlike Darjeeling, where the Chinese Camelia Sinensis Sinensis variant of the tea plant is preferred, Assam specialises in its own specialised wild variant called Cameila Sinensis Assamica, which, as you can tell from the name, is named after the region it was first discovered.
The Assamica variant is said to have been discovered by a trader named Robert Bruce who was trading in the Assam region and stumbled upon the plant. He recognised its similarity to the familiar Sinsenis plant and decided to send samples back to the UK for testing. Robert died before testing could be completed, but his brother Charles was able to complete Robert’s work in which Assamica was successfully determined as a tea type.
The timing of this discovery came at an excellent time for the British Empire. Up until this time (around the middle 19th Century), all tea sold in the UK had been grown in China. This was becoming increasingly problematic because although the UK loved tea, the Empire was on increasingly hostile terms with China due to participation in the opium trade (which was illegal in China at the time). This came to a head with a Chinese crack down on the trade and supply of opium, seizing British “goods” and setting off a period of history known as the Opium Wars (a fascinating history in its own right).
Of course, this breakdown in the relationship between the British Empire and China had severe implications on the supply of tea to the West – a situation that deserved immediate remedy! Luckily, since the discovery of Assamica, small-scale commercial cultivation had been taking place in Assam with excellent results. This new tea variety, huge area to be cultivated and British access to Indian lands quickly resulted in settling and planting the region and for it to become the largest growing area outside of China and the primary source of tea supply to the UK.
Since that time, even though access to Chinese teas has opened up and other countries have become much more active in the tea market, Assam remains a staple on Western tea menus. A key component of many (if not most) Breakfast teas, it seems that Assam is as popular as ever.
The Assamica varietal is specially cultivated for malty, smooth, full-bodied flavours and a dark liquor. Some may find Assam bitter, and so it is popular to mix with milk and sweetened for a strong, robust “cuppa”.
Read Behind the Blend next week for more information on Assam as we explore its fascinating history, cultivation and uses which make it interesting and popular.
Darejeeling teas can only come from the Himalayan Assam region in the far north-east of India. Teas grown outside this region may well share characteristics with Assam but cannot be named so.
Assam has been cultivated in this region since the mid-19th century on discovery of the Camelia Assamica growing in the region. This was the only discovery of the wild tea plant growing outside of China without being introduced.
On establishing Assamica's classification as a tea type, it was hybridised with the Sinensis varietal from China to further refine the flavour of the processed leaves. Therefore the hybrid is most common in Assam and known as Cameila Sinensis Assamica.
Assam is most commonly known for black tea, but is diversifying into green, white and oolong teas as new cultivars and production techniques take advantage of their popularity.
Assams are grown and harvested throughout the growing season and does not offer seasonal or "flush" types like Darjeeling. This is because climate and precipitation is very different to that of Darjeeling
Assam is usually processed in the usual manner for black teas: picking, fixing to start drying the leaves, bruising or rolling to start the oxidisation process and then heating to stop oxidisation and complete the drying of the leaves.
Assam is a popular breakfast blend so often undergoes and additional process of cutting or milling to cut the leaves into small pieces and increase their surface area and strength. these leaves tend to be lower quality and are usually used for tea bags.
Assam should be full-bodied, smooth and malty at a minimum. Finer quality Assams tend to incorporate more spicy and aromatic flavours for a more complex cup.
Most often found as black teas, green, oolong and white processing methods are becoming more prevalent and these are specifically designed to exemplify the fresh qualities whilst moving away from heavy oxidisation.
For single estate teas, one would expect to find a lot of tippy, golden buds which can add a spicy finish to the tea. Less tippy varieties are often more suited to blending, particularly of the popular and famous "breakfast" blends.
In general, black Assam is expected to be full-bodied, complex and aromatic; include whole, unbroken leaves and for the finer types, include a significant amount of tip.
At Tea Palace, we are extremely rigorous about product testing and sourcing only the finest quality loose leaf black teas. Our extensive sampling and testing process ensures that our range includes teas deemed to be of the highest possible quality.
Tea Palace does not source broken leaf teas. We are committed to promoting the luxury, quality and flavour of whole leaf and therefore we only accept whole leaf teas classified at the highest end of the grading scale. This applies throughout our range from single estate teas to those used in our blends.
Our Assam are selected to include key characteristics depending on the quality of the leaves required. We use FOP leaves at a minimum for our blends such as breakfast - so you can be sure that our blends are of excellent quality. For our speciality types such as Assam Harmutty we require a significant amount of bud and tip so wouldn't usually consider types below GTFOP grade.
We specifically look for aromatic and full-bodied Assams with a distinct spiciness as we think this produced the most delicious and complex cup and is the standard for single estate Assam.