Our Definitive Guide to Assam Teas

This guide is a compilation of the articles we have written over the past 7.5 years about these wonderful teas.

Assam state in India is a source of teas but often does not get that recognition. Our guide is meant to bring them some well-deserved attention and to show how prevalent those teas are. You may be drinking some right now and not know it!

Why Choose Assam Tea

There is nothing quite as satisfying as a full-bodied cup of rich Assam tea, especially as the days get chillier. The flavor complements a wide variety of foods, from hamburgers to lasagna, from morel mushrooms to Mexican foods, from pecan pie to crème brûlée, and much more. For those of us who like the spicy cuisine of India, it’s especially good with a tasty lamb vindaloo (a spicy Indian stew with Portuguese origins) and pepper Naan (an Indian flatbread with coarse ground black pepper baked in).

Assam tea, which comes from the Assam state of India. It is made from a tea plant subspecies called Camellia sinensis var. assamica, a version that was better acclimated to the Assam region. The tea “liquor” has more bitterness that Darjeeling but takes milk and sweetener all the better for it. Milk is great for helping your tongue recover from a dose of spices, especially chiles and cayenne pepper. So, a nice cup of Assam with an ounce or two of milk and a spoonful of sweetener really puts out the fire in Indian curries, Korean kimchi, and even tongue-blistering chili from Texas.

A great form of Assam tea is the “nuggets” (CTC) that are perfect for spooning loosely into a teapot. The brewing time is about five minutes in water that has been brought to a full boil. The flavor will be quite strong, so you might want to play with the length of time to get the tea liquid to the strength that’s right for you. As a general rule, if you put milk in the tea, you will want to brew it stronger.

Some information has come out saying that milk in tea negates some of its health benefits. This has yet to be proved definitively and seems to be more of an attempt to get some people to drink tea the way others think they should. Milk can help your stomach handle the bitterness and astringency in the tea, and it will help cool the fiery effects of those spicy foods.

The Basics of Assam Tea

Assam teas come from one of the wettest areas on this wonderful planet we call home: a region of India, which has a number of climate regions. A large river, the Brahmaputra, fed by snow melt off the Himalayas, accounts for some of the moisture. Monsoon rains that fall from May through June account for the majority. We’re talking “sauna” for two months out of the year, during which tea grows like crazy, is harvested, and then processed as fast as possible. This is Assam tea.

Coming from a subspecies of the original tea bush (Camellia sinensis) called Camellia sinensis var. assamica, Assam tea is in a class of its own. Rich in color (dark reddish brown) and aroma, with a biscuity/malty flavor that’s well-suited to adding milk and sweetener, this tea satisfies both as a breakfast tea and throughout the day. For many, it is love at first gulp.

Processing the tea leaves can be a challenge. Withering the leaves (letting a lot of the moisture go out of them) has to be done fast in this most humid area. Fans and other modern innovations help tremendously. Then it’s a rush to roll and oxidize the withered tea leaves. The rolling is actually a crushing. Some of the tea is formed into nuggets (CTC, that is, Crush Tear Curl) that steep quickly and darkly. There are other styles of teas produced in Assam such as “golden tip” (because it’s made from the tea leaf tips) which is slightly lighter in flavor and aroma than the usual Assam teas.

Assam is available both loose and bagged. It is also available as a generic Assam (plantation not specified) from many well-known tea vendors or from particular plantations such as Hattiali, Tarajulie, and Borengajulie. Assam is used in many breakfast blends, adding its signature taste to the brew. Assam tea was actually “designed” with milk in mind and is enjoyed that way both in India and elsewhere.

Assam Tippy Teas

Just as with Darjeelings, Chinese greens and blacks, and others, how an Assam tea tastes, dry and steeped, can be affected by a number of factors. Growers and processors try new things, too. A recent innovation (around 1978) was Golden Tips Assam tea. Various forms have followed, some simply called “tippy.”

“Golden” often signifies the best. Gold medals in sports, gold stars on homework to show it’s well-done, the “golden years” as the best time of our lives, and so on. “Tips” is the tip of the leaf from the tea bush (species: Camellia sinensis). That tip has the natural sweetness prized in teas. Golden Tips Assam means the best tips (also called “buds”), bringing you the most pleasant tea experience.

Overall, Assam is known for its malty, roasty flavor. Golden Tips, though, takes this Assam experience to a new level. The secret is in the processing of the leaves where, as with most teas, the final flavor is often determined. Assam tea is processed quickly, but with Golden Tips Assam tea, the rolling portion of the process (after the tea leaves are withered) is done very lightly, preserving those precious tips.

This tea is so well-liked that many tea vendors have to place their orders ahead of the harvest to be sure of getting a sufficient supply. In fact, getting a Golden Tips Assam that is pure “golden tips” is rare. The tea is so in demand that most growers blend it with regular Assam teas, thus spreading around the “golden tips” name along with their ability to charge a higher price.

When steeping, follow these guidelines to get the best taste experience:

  • Use water that has not quite reached a boil or that has boiled and been allowed to cool for 30 to 60 seconds.
  • Steep for 4 to 5 minutes (you might want to try your own steeping experiment and taste the tea “liquor” after 2 or 3 minutes).

The liquid should have these qualities:

  • Full-bodied (tastes very rich)
  • Caramelly (also called buttery)
  • Retains a slight maltiness due to the quick withering of the tea leaves
  • Possibly some fruitiness, sort of like tropical fruits like mango and papaya

A few good “go-withs” are: chicken (fried or roasted), baked ham, mushrooms, foods made with cinnamon or nutmeg, bacon, hamburgers, baked beans, lasagna, pecan pie, and Mexican dishes. Oh, yeah, for you chocoholics, try Golden Tips Assam with some dark chocolate on the side. (Any excuse to eat chocolate!)

Some Assam Breakfast Blends

Assam is truly a “stealth tea,” one that is often not in the forefront but definitely tasted as part of a blend, sort of like a bass violin that you hear almost subliminally. Many breakfast blends start with Assam, then build up from that malty taste to give you a rich symphony of flavor with subtleties that come through even if you load up the tea with milk and sweetener. Just like you can always pick out the various instruments in an orchestra as the violin section plays the melody line.

Of course, you can always go with a breakfast tea that is pure Assam, such as Harney & Sons Irish Breakfast. It’s 100% Assam (most Irish teas are) and is a good way to start your morning, especially with milk and sweetener. (Theirs is a little more refined than most.) You’ll get the wonderful characteristics of Assam, which are fine, but a bit like a couple of flutists playing: limited in range.

Add in a couple of violins, maybe an oboe, bassoon, and even a trumpet. The variations in harmony and melody expand. Going from pure Assam tea (that flute duet) into blends (those other instruments added in) gives you more variations in the aromas and flavors. For example, adding a bit of Keemun will shift the flavor in a particular direction, while a dash of Darjeeling will add its own aroma and taste notes. Other blends use Yunnan black, Kenyan, and Ceylon teas, each having its own flavor characteristics to add to the mix (like adding percussion instruments, more strings, a saxophone, and maybe even a clarinet or two). Just as musically you start to get richer sound, so does your tea experience.

Definitely, an Assam blend for breakfast can be an enriching experience. A number of these are available.

Some of the better known blends include:

  • East Frisian Tea Blend — Start off your foray into Assam blends with this amazing composition of selected Assam Teas (some East Frisians include Indonesian black teas that have a flavor that melds with the Assam). Sort of like a couple of classical guitar players performing Issaac Albéniz’s “Granada,” very easy on the ears. (East Frisian is an area in the northern part of Germany.)
  • English Breakfast Tea — There are various versions. One consists of Ceylon (adds flavor), strong Assam, and Kenya (gives a bit of color). The color is wonderful, and the taste is deliciously strong, rich, and fresh, taking milk well. You can drink it all day long. Sort of like listening to a string quintet playing a series of Romantic compositions.
  • Mount Everest Blend — Scale new heights of tea taste (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) as the maltiness of the Assam tea plays a contrapuntal dance with the peppery Yunnan black teas. This is one you could drink with or without milk, as you prefer.

Assam Teas “On Their Own”

Although Assam teas are one of the basic teas in most black tea blends, mixing in with Keemun and other black teas, you can buy Assam tea on its own, too. There is a wider variety of Assam types than you might think.

Some teas where Assam is on its own:

  • Assam Harmony — Black tea that brews up burgundy-red and has a rich aroma with a strong, malty taste, making this a great breakfast tea. An outstanding second-flush (Summer) tea from the Mangalam estate.
  • Assam Melody — Black tea that brews up burgundy-red and has a rich aroma with a strong, malty taste, making this a great breakfast tea. A second-flush (Summer) tea from the Meleng estate.
  • Kama Black — A sought-after tea that’s clean, soft, and malty, and has a great aftertaste.
  • Cream of Assam — This smallest leaf style Assam tea produces a noticeable sweetish maltiness in a fragrant, amber red “liquor” with complex fruity and honey notes to start, changing to a creamy, silky feel in your You could enjoy it with milk but might miss some of the subtle flavors. The best of Spring harvest (First Flush).
  • Royal Rongit — A brisk brew with a good malty aroma, this Assam goes well with milk and has a smooth, balanced taste that fills you whole mouth with pleasure.
  • Large Namsang — A sweetish, citrusy, malty tea with a brick red tea “liquor” that goes well with milk, leaving a brisk, malty aftertaste.
  • Pekoe Dust — A blackish-brown, very small granular cut leaf (not dust, despite the name) that steeps up malty and thick with a deep amber red color that’s great with milk. Want a flavorful cuppa for breakfast that’s fresh and substantial? This is it.
  • Assam Silver Needle — An unusual Assam with a soft green-apple aroma and a hint of freshly baked bread in a pale greenish-white liquid that’s fruity and nutty. Definitely skip the milk for this one.

The time of harvest is important in how the tea tastes. This is as true of Assam as of other teas:

  • Spring Harvest —First harvest season of the year, also called “First Flush,” offers the most delicate teas with lighter body, incredible flowery aroma, and the widest range of flavors within the malty Assams. They have the shortest shelf life, losing flavor over time.
  • Summer Harvest — Second harvest season of the year, between the end of April through mid-July, and the most coveted one. They have the most complex flavors, a thick liquorish body, and incredible vigor with a much better shelf life than Spring and Monsoon harvest teas.
  • Monsoon Harvest — Takes place during the monsoons. Produces teas similar to Summer Harvest.
  • Autumn Harvest — Last harvest season of the year (between late September through late November) is the best. The teas have the best of the seasons; good aroma and flavor with the best shelf-life.

The growing climate is another factor, such as:

  • Rani Tea Estate — At an average elevation of 157 feet in an arid area of western (Lower) Assam with dry Winter and Spring seasons and moderately wet Summer and Monsoon seasons. Offers teas that are light bodied with balanced malty, earthy flavors and spice and herb notes.
  • Satrupa Tea Factory — At an average elevation of 590 feet in a tropical rainforest area of eastern (Upper) Assam with moderately wet Winter and Spring seasons, and heavy rainfall in Summer and Monsoon seasons. Offers teas that are light bodied with balanced malty, earthy flavors and spice and herb notes.

There are hundreds of small tea gardens in Assam, many of which are owned by larger companies.

CTC Assam

All teas from the Assam region of India are not made alike. More correctly, they are not processed alike. They all grow in this wonderful region where the Brahmaputra River flows, but how they end up after that is like a tale of reaching a fork in the road and deciding which to take.

The plant varietal for teas from Assam is the Camellia sinensis var. assamica, known to the natives there for hundreds of years. It was cultivated in plantations by the British after they came across it while seeking an alternative to tea grown in China. Harvesting is mainly by hand, since the tea is grown in hilly terrain. Then, the leaves follow either the Orthodox or the “CTC” road to your teacup.

Basically, CTC is machine processed tea. There is some conflict, though, on what “CTC” stands for.

Some definitions used by various tea sites:

  • Cut, Tear, Curl
  • Cut, Tear, Crush
  • Curl, Tear, Crush
  • Crush, Tear, Curl (Harney & Sons Guide to Tea)
  • Crush, Curl, Twined – yes, the words are in a different order than the acronym

None seems to be standard, but the Harney & Sons version seems most common. Crushing is part of the processing of this type of Assam tea, as are cutting and tearing. These teas tend to look like tiny nuggets, similar to Grape Nuts (which contains no grapes and no nuts, just double-toasted bread crumbs).

Regardless, CTC Assam tends to be less expensive and lesser quality than what is called “orthodox” Assam. It’s not only machine processed but is usually fully oxidized (black). It steeps up an amber-colored liquid with a rich malty flavor tending toward the bitter side. It takes milk well and can usually use a bit of sugar or other sweetener, too, serving as a great tea to use in chai (spiced tea).

CTC Assams tend to be blends of tea leaves harvested from more than one plantation during the first “flush” (harvest). This makes their flavor fairly consistent from one batch to another. Generally, they are consumed by the local populations in India, where they are prepared a traditional way (boiled in a combination of milk, water, and sugar) since they are considered lower quality tea. However, if the tea at the start of the process is good quality, the CTC tea at the end of the process will be good quality.

You can find pure CTC Assam tea in local markets that carry foods from India. It’s also in teas called “Irish Breakfast” and available from a variety of sources.

If you’re the kind of tea drinker that doesn’t like milk in your tea, and possibly no sweetener either, this type of Assam may not be a good choice. Steeped to a good, strong liquid, CTC Assam can really make you pucker. Of course, you can always try to steep up a weak version by reducing the amount of tea used and/or shortening the steeping time. In tea drinking, there are no hard and fast rules except one: your tastebuds rule. Make the tea the way it tastes good to you.

Orthodox Assam

Generally, Orthodox Assams are higher quality, less likely to be bitter, and contain more subtle and multi-layered flavors than CTC Assams. But that’s not the whole story. For one thing, they are usually harvested by hand to get intact, whole leaves — small, young tea leaves plucked from the tips of the tea bush. For another, contrary to what many say, Orthodox Assams are not processed entirely by hand. Once harvested, they go through several processes which may be done by hand or machine.

Processing of Orthodox Assams:

  • Withering — Done on long metal troughs in a shaded area for about 14-20 hours. The tea leaves are spread out, and as moisture evaporates from them, they become limp and pliable, allowing them to be rolled without damage.
  • Rolling — Done by hand for the highest grades and machine for the lower grades (usually, large-scale production). The wilted leaves are pressed by rollers while being rotated around each other to release chemicals stored in the leaf cells and beginning the oxidation process by exposing them to the air.
  • Oxidation — The tea leaves are laid out for about 2-4 hours in a humidity- and temperature-controlled room, where the air reacts with the chemicals released during rolling and turns the leaves from green to reddish-brown and then black. If the leaves are oxidized too long, the tea will be strong and lose its subtlety. If too short, the complex flavors will not fully develop.
  • Firing — This step halts oxidation and completes the drying of the tea leaves. They move on a conveyor belt through a charcoal fire heater at around 220-250˚ F for 20-40 minutes and then are sorted by leaf grade by a machine that shakes them over varying gauges of mesh that sifts by size. The largest pieces may be hand-sorted to assure consistent size and therefore steeping time. Young, whole leaf teas are generally higher priced than the broken leaf grade.

Grades of Orthodox Assams:

  • Golden Tip — Highest grade comprised of mainly the best quality tips from the stems of the tea bush (Camellia sinensis).
  • FTGFOP1 (Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe First Grade) — The finest top-grade production with an abundance of tips.
  • TGFOP1 (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe First Grade) and TGFOP (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) — The main grades of fine quality Assam teas.
  • FTGBOP (Fancy Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe) — A step down from the above grades.

The main part of the above grades is the “GFOP” and “GBOP” where the second letter in each is the key. Full leaf versus broken leaf can make a difference, with the latter releasing more tannin into the liquid and therefore more likely to be bitter. If you are sensitive to tannin, spend a bit extra for the GFOP Orthodox Assam.

By the way, you won’t always see the word “Orthodox” on the tea label. But if you see one of the above grade labels, it will most likely be an Orthodox Assam. Enjoy!

More on Grading Assam Teas

The term “orange pekoe,” often accompanying a tea name, is a mystery to many. Some say “orange” refers to the Dutch family that brought tea to Europe. Whether that is true or not, understanding the term helps you understand Assam teas (and many others) that use the pekoe grading system.

“Pekoe” is a common grading of Indian and Ceylonian teas that has several finer gradings (each indicated by an additional letter added to the left of the others).

Here is one description of these gradings:

  • Pekoe – P – not a quality designation, just means a whole leaf tea mostly from India and Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon)
  • Orange Pekoe – OP – a slightly larger and possibly thinner tea leaf, but the “orange” doesn’t mean the color (legend says it’s the Dutch royal Family Orange Nassau)
  • Flowery Orange Pekoe – FOP – the minimum grade for hand-plucked tea, the “flower” is the unopened bud of a tea leaf
  • Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe – GFOP – means that certain leaves in the mix have a golden tip, which indicates higher quality
  • Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe – TGFOP – most experts say this should be used when all tips are golden, unfortunately not always the case
  • Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe – FTGFOP – designates a super-premium specialty tea
  • Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe – SFTGFOP – another step up the grade scale

You will also see numbers after some of the above (example: SFTGFOP-1) or even further grading terms (example: SFTGFOP-Extra Fancy or SFTGFOP-Extra Special). There are also broken leaf grades, since this tea is usually a black tea and is often chopped into smaller pieces. Take the above grade designations and add a “B” (example: GFBOP for Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe).

Another definition (paraphrased):

A 7-tier grading system for black tea that relates to the size and physical condition of the leaf rather than a particular kind of tea, flavor, or quality. Often, Orange Pekoe teas are blends, with “orange pekoe” indicating that the tea is the second highest grade in the system. “Pekoe” is from the Chinese word meaning “white” as in the 2-leaves-and-a-bud combo plucked from the branch tip. When applied to Indian and Ceylonian teas, it indicates whole leaves that are uniform in size, even those from lower on the branch of the tea bush (species: Camellia sinensis). “Orange” could either mean the Dutch House of Orange Nassau or the Chinese practice from ages past of adding orange blossoms to the tea leaves for flavor.

There are other definitions being bandied back and forth, but the main thing is these grades are a general guide. The more letters, the higher grade the tea is supposed to be. Of course, it’s not an exact system. While I have confidence in the honesty of tea growers to take care to label their teas accurately, the process involves some subjectivity on their part. In short, buyer beware. And have a bit of understanding. The people labeling these teas are working with large batches of tea leaves. Your pouch or tin is a small part of that batch and is not necessarily representative of the overall quality, so don’t downgrade the rest if you happen to get a bit that is “off.”

Major Assam Tea Estates

When Robert Bruce first brought tea plants smuggled out of China to India, he discovered that the inhabitants of the Assam area were already enjoying tea made from a tea bush varietal growing wild (Camellia sinensis var. assamica). He set about cultivating the plant and in a few years tea was being exported to London. Today, the area boasts a production level of over 360 million kg of tea per year. Several estates contribute the lion’s share to that total.

The elephant in the room is Williamson, inarguable the big gun when it comes to Assam teas. When you see their Breakfast Blend, you can rest assured that it came from one of their estates. However, you can also get some of their estate teas unblended, such as Tarajulie estate tea. Williamson has about 29 tea estates in all.

The 3 Top Producing Williamson Tea Estates:

  1. Monabarie — Over 1100 hectares growing tea, producing almost 2.8 million kg of CTC Assam. They have a reputation for a pleasant working environment for their employees and verdant scenery.
  2. Pertabghur — Producing over 2 million kg of CTC Assam tea a year on over 938 hectares. This large, luxurious tea garden is the capital of the Williamson Magor Tea Empire.
  3. Bogapani — About 840 hectares growing over 2 million kg of CTC and Orthodox Assam. The garden was established in 1917 by W.R. Noble.

There are lots of other tea estates in the Assam area. Some of the top producers:

  • Hattigor — Started in 1893, this tea estate now has almost 1000 hectares planted with tea, over 1900 workers, and produces both the CTC and Orthodox types of Assam teas. They boast yields of about 2000 kg of tea per hectare per year, or around 2 million kg per year. Their tea is usually combined with teas from 26 other tea estates owned by their parent company, Tata Tea.
  • Tengpani — The estate has about 522 hectares planted in tea and yield about 1,000,000 kg per year. They have their own factory and produce both CTC and Orthodox Assams.
  • Mornai — A tea estate owned by a church — the Northern Evangelical Lutheran Church.

One thing that doesn’t come up a lot when discussing tea estates in China, India, and elsewhere is the wildlife they have to deal with. In India, they deal with elephants, tigers, pythons, and a lot more. If the species happens to be one that is protected, such as elephants, the tea estate can have another issue on its hands: getting the animal off the estate without injuring it. The Dilli estate had an even bigger dilemma when a dead elephant was discovered there. They had to prove they did not cause the death (proving a negative is virtually impossible).

Workers deal with a lot of the same issues there that we do here, such as labor laws, working conditions, and health. For example, an outbreak of meningitis took the lives of several workers at the Govindabari estate one Winter.

Some More Tea Gardens of Assam

One of the chief areas in India for growing tea is the state of Assam in the northeastern part of the country. There are hundreds of tea gardens (Chah-Buwas or tea plantations) with names that can be real tongue twisters. Two to note are Borengajuli and Tarajulie (simple to say if you pronounce them a syllable at a time). Many of them are not known outside the tea auction houses. Others are part of larger companies such as McLeod Russel/Williamson and Tata. But with so many, a full list is a bit tricky.

The exact number of tea gardens varies, but one thing is for sure: they produce a lot of tea – and that amount varies per source, with one claiming it’s 400 million kilograms and another claiming it’s a mere 1.5 million pounds (about 680,400 kilograms, a lot less). The tea gardens stretch out on either side of roads as you drive through Assam Valley where the Brahmaputra river flows. They are more level than gardens in more mountainous areas of India, China, Taiwan, and other tea growing nations. And the bushes are low-growing (about waist height or lower).

Some tea gardens of note:

  • Achabam Tea Estate – the name literally means “it has good soil”; founded in 1921 by the manager of the Borhat Tea Estate (Mr. Knoll); between the Desam River and neighboring villages; the garden is quite productive, producing as much as 2,836 kgs per hectare.
  • Borengajuli Tea Estate – part of McLeod Russel (a member of the Williamson Magor Group); a smaller garden near the village of Bamonjuli where most of the older residents help in the tea garden and keep it safe from wild elephants and their children go off to larger towns to seek work (usually as domestics); the tea has a very high reputation (including with me and hubby).
  • Dikom Tea Estate – named after the high quality of the water there; dates back to the Medieval era of the state of Assam when it was ruled by kings; teas from here are tippy, bright and malty in flavor, famous the world over; in the heart of the tea growing region of Assam; very well maintained fields with an aggressive uprooting and replanting program using high quality clones with high yields; their teas tend to have a natural sweetness, said to be from the water in the area.
  • Dhunseri Tea Estate – managed by the Dhunseri Group; their tea has won the trust of traders and consumers, due to its superior quality.
  • Glenburn Tea Estate – on a hillock above the banks of the River Rungeet, high in the Himalayas, overlooked by the Kanchenjunga mountain range; started by a Scottish tea company in 1859 and then passed into the hands of one of India’s pioneering tea planting families – The Prakashes.
  • Harmutty Tea Estate – founded in 1870 by Major Gibb; named after Queen Hiramati; Dikrong River is along one side and their northern border extends into the thickly forested hills of Arunachal Pradesh; fertile soil is perfect for growing the carefully selected clonal plants there; the leaves get processed into a range of teas that are full-bodied and flavorful.
  • Keyhung Tea Estate – at 1,500 feet above sea level; produces Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP) Cut, Torn, and Curled (CTC) tea that is strong, full-bodied with excellent maltiness and rich color – perfect for an early morning pick-me-up; garden is in the state’s northeast corner, between the state of Arunachal Pradesh and the country of Myanmar (Burma); it covers nearly 3 square miles, 2 of which are under tea; over 3,000 people are employed in the harvesting and processing of the tea, and a total of 10,000 people call the estate (more like a small town) their home.
  • Mangalam Tea Estate – has a unique style of bush planting; it is managed by Jayshree Tea Industries who uprooted original plantings and replanted with 100% clonal bushes with greater yield potential; the plantings are arranged so that employees can drive from place to place; teas produced are very high quality Assams processed as CTC and Orthodox styles.
  • Mokalbari Tea Estate – founded in 1917, produces premium 2nd flush Assam tea as CTC and Orthodox styles; not to be confused with Makaibari, a Darjeeling tea garden.
  • Satrupa Tea Estate – in Upper Assam, at the eastern-most part of the Assam region; rich red loom soil, year-round tropical wet climate, and old-growth forest all around; on the periphery of the last contiguous rainforest tracts in the Eastern Himalayas.

There are many more, but this will give you an idea of the tea-growing prowess of this part of India. This is also my favorite class of teas. They can be infused milder or stronger, served over ice or piping hot, stand up to milk and sugar or please your palate as they are, add a lively appeal to a bland tea blend or stand on it’s own. You can’t go wrong.

Is Snobbery Ruining Assam Tea?

As people learn more about tea and consequently seek better and more exotic teas, are some perfectly good teas getting pushed out of the market? It’s often called snobbery — or just a strong personal preference.

A favorite tea is CTC Assam, a lower quality, machine processed tea from the Assam area of India that is usually consumed by the locals, not exported, but that can be purchased locally in Indian markets here in the U.S. It is the basis of Indian masala chai (spiced tea) that is served hot with lots of milk. For many tea lovers, though, this tea is considered a bit below their tastes. They want a higher quality Assam that has been processed by hand (usually called “orthodox”) and/or that’s “tippy” with some gold color evident on the leaves.

A higher quality tea means hand-harvesting, too, and from better tea bushes to assure better quality tea leaves picked at the right moment in their growth. More demand for these orthodox boutique Assams means more of the crop goes toward their production. Which means less goes to producing the CTC Assam.

Online, there are a lot of Assams claiming that they are made of only “the finest Assam tea” which means they are not CTC Assam. More and more of the true CTC Assam teas seem to “disappear” into blends, such as Harney & Sons’ East Friesian and Indian Spice, but are presented straight in their Irish Breakfast tea.

Don’t panic yet, though. Well, maybe just a little. Perhaps a bit of stocking up is needed. There is so much “tippy” Assam out there even in that local Indian market that it makes some tea lovers slightly nervous. Not that the better Assams aren’t great, too. They’re just not, well, suitable for spicing up — they taste too good. Sometimes, the lower quality has its purpose.

Of course, that goes for other things, too. The lesser cuts of meat get ground up for sausages and hotdogs, or at least they used to until someone said “Let’s use better cuts of meat and make the sausages and hotdogs more ‘gourmet’.” Quilts used to be made from scraps of cloth that remained from a shirt too worn to qualify as a shirt or a dress that was no longer serving its purpose, but now quilts are made of new cloth bought purposely for them.

It’s not bad. It’s just progress. Meanwhile, what happens to those lesser cuts of meat or the worn out clothing? The former becomes pet food, and the latter goes in the trash bin or becomes a dust rag.

As for that CTC Assam, hopefully there will always be enough around for those of us who recognize its real worth and whose tastebuds embrace what others may consider to be inferior tea.

Countries Where Assam Teas Are Grown

We think of Camellia sinensis var. assamica teas as those grown in the state of Assam in northern India. But this varietal of the tea plant is also grown elsewhere and, due to that alternate growing environment, can taste rather different from those grown in Assam.

The assamica varietal is raised in these locations (and others):

Unlike the Chinese varietal Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, typically ranging in size from a shrub to small tree, the Indian varietal Camellia sinensis var. assamica, while usually kept trimmed to a more easily harvested shrub, can grow into a large tree. The flowers are mostly single in leaf axils and can bloom from late Autumn to early Spring. Assamica leaf sizes can be as large as 20 centimeters and tend to be tougher than the sinensis varietal.

There is a Cambodian plant (sometimes called C. sinensis parvifolia) that is in-between the Assam and Chinese varieties; it is a small tree with several stems and is considered a hybrid of the assamica and sinensis varietals.

A few blends featuring assamica teas (click on photos for tea name and details):

McLeod Russel – The Elephant in the Tea Room

McLeod Russel India Ltd. is a huge tea company operating primarily in India. They are the proverbial “elephant in the room” and not to be ignored. So, let’s not.

The story of McLeod Russel starts with two men — Captain J.H. Williamson and Richard Boycott Magor — originally from England but in Calcutta at the time they met. The year they formed Williamson Magor & Company was 1869. Lots of company growth followed. In 1954 (15 years shy of their 100th anniversary), the name was changed to Williamson Magor & Co Limited, adding the status of being a limited company. Around 1994, the company was renamed McLeod Russel.

Chairman of the Board Brij Mohan Khaitan rose from being an East India merchant, supplying tea estates with fertilizers and tea chests, to joining the Board of the tea company in 1963, to taking on the role of Managing Director in 1964, to heading the company, which has grown through various acquisitions and mergers and through building a reputation for good tea. While India remains a focus, McLeod Russel is spreading out to Vietnam, Dubai, Uganda, and elsewhere.

The company manages 47 tea estates in the Assam Valley of northern India, six in the Dooars region of West Bengal in India, three factories in Vietnam, and six estates in Uganda. They employ almost 100,000 workers in the tea gardens as well as factories that they are committed to keeping updated. In some areas, they are the entire economy.

One of the names McLeod Russel sells tea under is “Williamson Tea,” a brand they acquired when they took over Borelli Tea Holdings Ltd., owned by the Magor family in England. The deal included the subsidiary Williamson Tea Assam Ltd. with 17 tea estates in India. This tea has an elephant on the label. In fact, all tea that McLeod Russel sells is marketed under the registered elephant trademark.

Some of McLeod Russel’s teas are sold through tea brokers and under estate names. Tarajulie Estate Assam is one of these. This estate, established in 1884 and sitting between the Gabharu river on the west and the Dipota river on the east, has plentiful natural beauty. The estate name is a combination of the names of two lakes, “Tara” and “Julie.” They are used for irrigation but also remain a wonderful part of the landscape — a balancing act between meeting man’s needs and preserving nature.

See the Williamson site for more options to try. (We get no commission on sales.)

Comparing Some Assam Estate Teas

With over 300 tea estates in the Assam Province in northeastern India, this tea is certainly plentiful. Time for a battle of the Assam Estate Teas (no, not all of them — just a select few). How else do hubby and I decide which we like best? Don’t worry, no blood was spilt, just a bit of tea here and there.

Step one in any battle is lining up the troops, so we lined up our subject teas as follows:

  1. Borengajuli Estate
  2. Tarajulie Estate
  3. Scottish Breakfast

The dry tea comparison

Visually, all three teas are Orthodox Assams, not CTC Assams, and are quite similar in their dry, pre-steeped form.

Aromatically, the three teas in their dry, pre-steeped form are quite different. Though they all tend to have a maltiness to their fragrance, they differ in the strength of that characteristic as well as what additional aromas they have. Assam 1 is lighter and a bit earthy. Assam 2 is mushroomy, earthy, and richer smelling. Assam 3 is woodsy/fruity.

The steeped tea comparison

Done in two stages, first plain and then with milk and sweetener. All three were steeped in boiling water for 5 minutes. Then, each was strained into another container.

The tea liquid comparison, plain:

Assam 1 was dark reddish brown with a malty, rich fragrance. Assam 2 was a lighter reddish brown with a very typical Orange Pekoe fragrance that many of us raised on grocery store bagged black tea have come to associate with tea. Assam 3 is a shade of reddish brown in-between the two others and smelled malty but also a bit fruity and faintly smoky.

The tea liquid comparison, with milk and sweetener:

Assam 1 had a flavor that was rich and caramelly as well as malty. Assam 2 was too mild, the milk overwhelmed it, even though we had been careful to use only a minimal amount. Assam 3 had a taste that was in-between the first two, a taste that was sprightly and lighter in quality and held up through the milk.

The battle is done

So, which Assam tea is the winner? Well, once the smoke cleared and the last drop was drunk, they all proved good in their own ways. Assam 1 and Assam 3 are great milk-and-sweetener teas and, as such, are very fulfilling. However, for a lighter Assam that can be drunk plain, Assam 2 is a fabulous choice. It seems that of these three, there is no winner, just differences that makes each great in its own way. Pick whichever satisfies your preferences and enjoy!

About Tarajulie Estate — The estate lies on the Bramaputra River plain in the shadows of the Himalayan mountains and was purchased by the George Williamson Group of companies in the mid 1980’s. The deep and sandy soil is kept moist with a very hot and steamy monsoon season and has a chance to dry out and go dormant during a relatively dry and cool winter. These are perfect conditions for the Assam tea bush (Camellia sinensis var. assamica). The estate produces only orthodox manufactured tea.

About Borengajuli Estate — This estate, fabled for it near perfect teas, is deep in the jungles along the banks of the Brahmaputra River. The air is wonderful, and you get a clear view of the Himalayas. No wonder those teas have such a reputation for excellence among tea merchants and tea drinkers alike.

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