Assam tea (Camellia sinensis var. assamica) is a black tea grown in Assam, India. With a distinctive malty flavor and a bold and invigorating character, Assam tea is a particular favorite for use in breakfast teas. English Breakfast tea and Irish Breakfast tea are both types of teas that are often partially or completely composed of Assam tea leaves. Assam tea possesses a beautiful ruby-amber hue.
The Assam tea bush grows in a lowland region, in the valley of the Brahmaputra River, an area of sandy soil rich with the nutrients of the floodplain. The climate varies between a cool, arid winter and a hot, humid rainy season—conditions ideal for it. Because of its lengthy growing season and generous rainfall, Assam is one of the most prolific tea-producing regions in the world. Each year, the tea estates of Assam collectively yield approximately 1.5 million pounds (680,400 kg) of tea.
Assam tea is generally harvested twice, in a "first flush" and a "second flush." The first flush is picked sometime during late March. The second flush, harvested later, is the more prized "tippy tea," named thus for the gold tips that appear on the leaves. This second flush, tippy tea is sweeter and more full-bodied and is generally considered superior to the first flush tea. The leaves of the Assam tea bush are dark green and glossy and fairly wide compared to those of the Chinese tea plant. The bush produces delicate white blossoms.
Discovery of the Assam tea bush is attributed to Robert Bruce, a Scottish adventurer, in 1823. Bruce reportedly found the plant growing wild in Assam while trading in the region. He noticed local tribesman 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. Robert Bruce died shortly thereafter, without having seen the plant properly classified.
It was not until the early 1830s that Robert's 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 (Camellia sinensis var. sinensis).
Soon after, the British began to make inroads in tea cultivation in Assam. Originally, tea seeds were imported from China, believed to be superior to the local wild variety. After a period, however, a hybridized version of the Chinese and Indian tea plant developed that proved to be the most successful in the climate and terrain.
By the late 1830s, a market for the new Assam tea had become established in London, and pioneering tea planters, Charles Bruce among them, set to clearing swaths in the jungle and laying out their great tea plantations. Today, there are over six hundred tea estates, or gardens, producing tea in the Assam region.
To brew a perfect pot of Assam tea, start with cold water. Never use water that has already been boiled — the end result will be tea that tastes flat and lifeless. If using tap water, let run for a few seconds before filling the kettle. Bring the water to a boil. While the water is heating, fill a ceramic or china teapot with hot tap water and let sit for a few minutes to warm the pot.
As soon as water begins to boil, remove the kettle from the burner. Discard the warm water from the teapot and add tea leaves to the empty teapot. For Assam tea, figure on 1 teaspoon (1 g) of tea leaves per cup (240 ml) of hot water. Pack the leaves loosely into a tea ball if desired. Pour boiled water over tea leaves into teapot. Let steep 3 to 5 minutes, and pour through a strainer, for loose tea leaves, into individual cups.
Assam tea is full-bodied and merges well with cream, milk, or lemon. If sweetener is desired, honey or sugar may be added prior to adding milk. Stir until dissolved.