Served in a grand tea-pot, covered with tea-cozies in the ‘Tea Room’ in central Bristol at 20 Park Street of Kolkata was my first introduction to the amazing Assam Tea. This is a black tea named after the region of its production, Assam.
The beautiful state of Assam is the world's largest tea-growing region, lying on either side of the Brahmaputra River and this part of India experiences high precipitation during the monsoon season. Cultivating tea here has its own class & culture. After my visit to two of the tea estates in Assam, I was able to comprehend that fresh tea plants direct the fragrant steam from the tea to the nose and allow for better appreciation of the tea's flavour. Southern China and Assam are the only two regions in the world with native tea plants. Assam produces the largest quantity of tea in India, mostly of the CTC variety, and is one of the biggest suppliers for major international brands such as Lipton and Tetley (from the stable of Tatas).
As the story goes, Robert Bruce, a Scottish adventurer can be called the father of Assam tea. He noticed local tribesmen (known as the Singhpos) brewing tea from the leaves of the bush and arranged with the tribal chiefs to provide him with samples of the leaves and seeds, which he planned to have scientifically examined. His brother, Charles, arranged for a few leaves from the Assam tea bush to be sent to the botanical gardens in Calcutta for proper examination. There, the plant was finally identified as a variety of tea, or Camellia sinensis, but different from the Chinese version. In the course of time, a hybridised version of the Chinese and Assam tea plants proved to be more successful in the Assam climate and terrain and by the late 1830s, the tea was first sent to London. The positive feedback led the East India Company to embark on aggressive expansion of the tea industry in Assam.
That’s history but the legacy continued. During my visit to the tea plantations I witnessed a peculiar carry forward of legacy, which goes like this – the local time in Assam's tea gardens, known as Bagaan time (Garden Time), is an hour ahead of the Indian Standard Time. The system was introduced during the time of the British keeping in mind the early sunrise in this part of the country. By and large, the system has been successful in increasing the productivity of tea garden workers as they save on daylight by finishing the work during the daytime.
Let me end this article by giving you a clear cut distinction between Assam tea and Darjeeling or regular teas. The leaves of the Assam tea bush are dark green & glossy and fairly wide compared to those of the Chinese tea plant. Unlike any other tea cultivated in India, this tea, most of which is grown at or near sea level, is known for its body, briskness and malty flavour. The strength & bright colour of Assam tea make it awful if its brewed with milk and is over boiled. But when the basics are in place, its awesomely strong aroma makes it ideal as a breakfast tea. For instance, Irish breakfast tea (even Wal-Mart sells Assam tea as breakfast tea), a maltier and stronger breakfast tea, consists of small-sized Assam tea leaves. Indeed, the best time to enjoy Assam tea is the morning.