What are the Different Types of Assam Tea?
Assam tea is a type of tea that is harvested in a region in northeastern India that has the same name — Assam. There aren't too many different types per se, but assam tea leaves are often used in English breakfast teas, Irish breakfast teas and other Indian black tea varieties. Types of assam tea can also be distinguished based on when the tea leaves are harvested — in the spring, summer or winter. English and Irish breakfast teas are the most commonly marketed types of Assam tea, but one can find many other varieties as well. Breakfast teas are often made mostly, if not completely, of Assam tea.
When choosing tea that contains Assam leaves, one should consider where it was grown, how it was processed, its quality rating and whether it is blended with another tea. The leaves and buds from this shrub are used to produce a black tea that is described as having a robust, malty and full-bodied flavor.
The closer to sea level that Assam tea is grown, the bolder and more malty in taste it will be. Despite the fact that these teas are largely grown in the flood plains, they are also commonly grown at higher elevations in the semi-tropical forest. If one chooses tea grown at greater altitudes, it will have less of the distinctly malty taste and will not be as strong as those produced in the basin.
Teas are also sold based on the intactness of the leaf after processing. Whole leaf Assam tea is considered to be of a higher quality than broken leaf, tailings or tea dust. Tea dust, because of its fine granularity, can degrade more quickly and is often used for tea bags. The more intact the leaf is, the longer its shelf life and richer its flavor. Although most teas can be dried early in the production cycle, which in part creates green tea, most Assam tea is allowed to fully oxidize, thus becoming black tea.
When one is choosing a type of tea, one should consider when the leaves were harvested. The spring harvest, or first flush, produces a tea that has a bold, spring-fresh taste. The summer harvest, or second flush, also includes tea that is harvested during the monsoon harvest period. There is a great degree of moisture during the monsoon season, so summer harvest tea typically has a stronger, more robust flavor. Winter harvest teas generally are considered the poorest of the three harvests.
There is no standardized tea grading system. A person looking to purchase tea might encounter acronyms such as SFTGFOP, which stands for "special finest totally golden-tipped flowery orange Pekoe." Golden tip teas are considered to be higher in quality and are mostly produced during the second flush. Companies might use this type of grading criteria, modify it or develop a grading method of their own.
A group of friends and I visited the Williamson Tea Estate in Assam while we traveled through Northeast India. The region is lush green with hills and flowing rivers. A local Indian came with us as a guide to the estate. He told us that there are about one hundred Assam tea gardens and that the region produces at least 1.5 million pounds of tea per year. I think that places Assam second in line after China for the amount of tea produced.
The most interesting part about our visit was when we found out that tea gardens of Assam work on a different time zone than the rest of India. Because the sun rises earlier in Assam, they wake up and start working an hour earlier to get more work done. It's one of the legacies the British left behind because they wanted more production and more efficiency in the tea industry in India. It still continues in Assam.
The tea estate workers served us some Assam hot tea as well. It was very touching to see how much effort went into that cup of tea.
I had no idea that Orange Pekoe uses Assam tea leaves. I use Red Label Orange Pekoe tea to make chai with spices and milk, it's delicious. What's so great is that I am able to find this tea even though I am so far away from India. I didn't realize that Indian Assam teas were exported so widely. I saw an article in the newspaper though that reported a decline in Assam tea production due to bad weather conditions in Northern India. I think it rained so much last year that the tea suffered from lack of sunlight and also from increase of pests. If it continues this way, it might result in less exports. I hope that doesn't happen, I can't live without my chai.
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