Posted in Kafevend Blog
Following last week's blog about Darjeeling tea
, today we return once more to India to consider another of the nation's best known and well loved teas; we're talking about Assam, the tea that often finds itself in breakfast blends. Although there's far more to it than that as we're about to discover!
Sub tropical growing conditions are ideal
Assam tea is named for the Indian state in which it's cultivated. Situated up in the north eastern corner of India, not so very far from Darjeeling in the state of West Bengal, it would be reasonable to expect that both types of tea enjoy similar growing conditions. However, while Darjeeling is grown at altitude in the foothills of the Himalayas, Assam is cultivated in the lowlands of the Brahmaputra River valley. After a cold, dry winter during which the tea bushes lie dormant, a sub tropical hot and humid rainy season follows, providing ideal conditions for several harvests.
Wait for that second flush!
Whereas it's the first flush of Darjeeling that causes the greatest excitement in the world of tea, by contrast it's the second flush of Assam which produces the best results. The first flush which is generally ready for harvest in March results in a more delicate flavoured tea, while the second flush is full bodied with the strong malty tones that define a good quality Assam tea. If you want to make sure that it's second flush Assam you're buying it's worth knowing that it's often badged as 'Tippy Assam'.
Camellia sinensis assamica
An even more fundamental difference between Assam and Darjeeling teas concerns the variety of tea plant they're produced from. All true teas, as opposed to fruit or herbal teas, are derived from a single species- Camellia sinensis
. However, while Darjeeling tea is grown from the variety native to south west China- Camellia sinensis sinensis, Assam is grown from Camellia sinensis assamica. The clue is in the word 'assamica'- yes, tea was already indigenous to the Assam region and there was no need to import seedlings from China. However, just because there was no need doesn't mean it didn't happen!
The British East India Company steps in
The people of Assam had been making use of their tea plants as both food and drink since time immemorial, but when, in 1834, the British East India Company were relieved of their monopoly over the Chinese tea trade, the company sought to expand Assam's tea cultivation for their own financial gain instead. They already knew about the region's indigenous tea, but decided to conduct experiments with the Chinese variety anyway. Seedlings were carefully cultivated in Calcutta's Botanical Gardens and then transferred to Assam, where it was soon discovered that the Chinese variety was unable to withstand the sub tropical heat and humidity. Thus, they fell back on the more hardy assamica variety which flourished in the newly cleared tea gardens and was well received back in London.
Finally, here's an interesting fact for anyone who gets fed up with Britain's yearly shift back and forth from British summertime to Greenwich meantime; despite India's large size, it has only one time zone which might sound useful but can make life difficult for regions like Assam, situated right out to the east of the main bulk of the nation. Fortunately, the tea gardens are able to run an hour ahead of everyone else due to provision made by the government for industries to set their own local time. This special time zone is known as Bagaan Time- literally tea garden time! Now it's time we were off for a cup of tea. Join us next week for a look at another of India's iconic teas.
References:Origins of India teaIndian tea cultureAssam and the British East India CompanyTime zones