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Assam


About Assam Tea


Assam (broken leaf), 2nd Flush

If you desire a particularly fine example of Assam tea, this 'Tippy' variety of the 'second flush' is what you want. 

The elder statesman of Indian varieties, Assam tea is veritably the linchpin of British breakfast culture. From drawing rooms to 'greasy spoons', Assam, as both a staple leaf of the 'English Breakfast' blend and a tea in its own right, has been a morning herald since the mid-19th century.

The oldest of Indian teas, it was first cultivated in 1833 to replace, well, all the tea in China. This cultivation happened to follow the Chinese Government's sound assurance (to a decidedly over-keen East India Company) that Chinese tea belonged, in fact, to China.

  

Taste

Unlike more delicately flavoured leaves such as Darjeeling, Assam tea is characterised by its heavy, malty flavour and, as such, has become the breakfast brew of choice; a strong, no-nonsense tea to summon up the morning blood and stiffen the sleepiest of sinew.

Assam is picked twice, once in late March and again in late May, with the first harvest (or “flush”) being the leaf generally used in breakfast blends. The leaves of the second flush develop golden tips, earning them the name “tippy tea.” These 'tippies' represent the more desirable (and valuable) variety, with a sweeter and more rounded taste which sets them apart from the clout of the first flush.


History and Origins

The Assam region of north-east India is nestled between the borders of China, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Burma. Tea grows in the splendidly scenic valley of the Brahmaputra River, which snakes down from its source in the Tibetan Himalayas, scoring the province in half. Camellia sinensis is indigenous to the valley's lowland areas where the silty, fertile soil imparts to these plants their powerful piquancy.

This part of British India was earmarked for its tea-growing potential as early as 1755 by the botanist, Joseph Banks. Whilst showing considerable foresight in noticing that the region's soil and climate would be a capital spot to grow tea, the fact that vast swathes of tea plants were already stretching out far into the horizon seems to have escaped his otherwise commendable botanic scrutiny. Rather, he proposed that tea seeds should sent from China to see if growth and cultivation would be possible, though nothing was done.

Later, in 1823, Major Robert Bruce, an explorer of conspicuous nationality, was picking his way through the lowlands of Assam when he noticed the indigenous tea plants. An introduction to a local Singhpo chief was hastily arranged and Bruce was shown how the natives cultivated, prepared and drank or chewed it for recreation. Realising the potential of his discovery, he expediently packaged a sample and, with mustachios bristling and a hearty smile, waved it off to the Botanic Gardens in Calcutta for formal identification.

There was, however, one obstacle. The tea, in its native form, tasted absolutely appalling. Like a chimney-sweep's loincloth; harsh, tangy, sooty and a sound distance from the fine leaves being produced in China at the time. On receiving the samples, scientists at the Botanic Gardens peered through horn-rimmed spectacles at the feeble foliage and outright refused to confirm that the samples were tea at all. To make matters worse, Bruce's tea-planting ambitions hit an even greater palisade when, soon afterwards, he suddenly died.

Somewhat conveniently for breakfasters everywhere however, the Major's brother, Commander Charles Alexander Bruce, just happened to be in command of a sizeable flotilla of His Majesty's gunships just up the river. Seemingly not a man who took his fraternal responsibilities lightly, in 1825 he steamed up the Brahmaputra to renew his brother's best botanic efforts.

Progress was slow and it was not until 1833, when the East India Company lost its monopoly on the Chinese tea trade, that C.A. Bruce was given the money and resources to cultivate a decent Indian variety as an alternative. On Christmas Eve, 1834, Calcutta's botanists, in a fit of festive cheer, finally acknowledged that the leaves which Bruce was growing in Assam were indeed tea. Thus, at last, the Indian tea trade was born.

 

Brewing Instructions

  • First things first, if you're after a particularly fine example of Assam tea, this 'Tippy' variety of the 'second flush' is what you want. Here at The Kettle shed however, we can see equally the merits of the less delicately flavoured 'first flush' in our English Breakfast blend. A responsible sprinkling of brutality can be just the ticket for a hazy morning, so don't feel ill-educated if you prefer them, the wee-wee hours are no time for snootiness.
  • With freshly boiled water, brew in a pot with one healthy teaspoon of leaves per person.
  • Experimentation is recommended to suit personal tastes, but 3-4 minutes is a pretty good rule of thumb.
  • Be careful not to over brew as the leaves already have a pretty hefty flavour and might well finish a chap off after a late evening!
  • Add milk and sugar to taste, or honey and lemon if you're feeling a little more sophisticated.