Tag Archives: Crush Tear Curl

The Tea of Assam, India

Assam tea plantation worker carrying a basket supported from her head.

Assam Tea Plantation Worker, by Flickr User Akarsh Simha, CC BY-SA-2.0

Teas from the three main growing regions of India, Nilgiri, Darjeeling, and Assam, have become highly regarded over the years, forming the base to many popular teas including English and Irish Breakfast teas as well as great stand-alone specialty teas.  Known for its black tea, the Assam region produces tea with a distinct malty taste, known for its briskness (which by the way is another way of simply saying that its taste makes you sit up and take note vs having a flat, dull, or otherwise non-memorable taste).  Tea is produced in this region comes from some 600+ tea gardens and is manufactured both as CTC (crush, tear, curl) as well as orthodox or specialty tea.  The sheer volume of tea produced in Assam contributes substantially to making India the second largest producer of tea after China.  While known almost exclusively for its black teas, it should be noted that the Assam region of India also produces some green and white orthodox teas.

Assam Tea and West Bengal (Darjeeling Tea) India along with its neighbors.

Map of India with Assam Tea and West Bengal (home of Darjeeling) Tea Growing Regions

Assam Tea History

The history of tea in India likely dates back thousands of years, as it does for its neighbors in Nepal and China.  However, most agree that commercial development of tea in Assam began with the British in the 1830’s when Britain, and in particular the East India Company, which wanted to find cheaper alternatives to Chinese tea, started looking for tea and suitable growing conditions in other corners of the empire.  Since it appeared the climate was similar to that of tea growing regions in China, the British imported seeds and plants of Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, the variety found in China.  This, unfortunately for the East India Company, turned out to be a failure, as the variety wouldn’t grow successfully in India.  Around the same time, beginning in 1815, Major Robert Bruce discovered a plant in Assam that he thought was likely the tea plant growing in the wild.  It wasn’t until nearly 30 years later, in 1834 that his brother Charles Alexander Bruce successfully got testing and recognition that the plant was indeed tea.  As it turns out it was simply another variation of C. sinensis, the assamica variety.  Much more recently, using DNA sequencing techniques, research is suggesting that C. sinensis var. assamica (Assam), along with C. sinensis var. sinensis (China) and many other varieties, are in fact all related to a single parent from Mongolia, which migrated over time to give us the varieties we see today.

Assam Tea Garden, India

Assam Tea Garden, by Flickr User Bidyut Gogoi, CC-BY-2.0

Terrior of Assam Tea

It is the terrior found in Assam, combined with the C. sinensis var. assamica variety, which produces the significantly different taste that has become so highly regarded.  The leaves are larger in Assam and the nutrients in the soil lead to different taste and flavor compounds in the leaves.  Whereas in China tea is often grown at higher elevations, in Assam it is grown at low elevations along floodplains with sandy, nutrient rich soils which are typical of floodplains.  Also unlike tea grown in other parts of the world, it is the second flush, not the first, which is preferred.  The second flush is considered to produce a sweeter liquor with a more robust full bodied taste.

Given the proximity to other great tea production regions like Darjeeling, Nepal, and China, along with the historical thirst for tea driven by colonialism, it is really little wonder that Assam has developed to play a major role in the global tea trade.  We are looking forward to further exploration of Assam and the specialty teas to be found from this great region.

Photo of Rolled Tea Pearls

Tea Bags vs Tea Leaves Part 2: Orthodox Tea

Last week we looked at CTC Tea manufacturing.  This week look at the other major method of tea production, Orthodox.  While the CTC manufacturing process is primarily focused on black tea production, the orthodox manufacturing process is used to produce a much wider variety of teas including white, yellow, and oolong as well as green and black teas. Orthodox tea production varies substantially in the actual steps used but generally features hand rolling of tea or use of a machine which mimics the hand rolling process. It does not seek to cut and tear the tea leaves into small particles used in teabags though smaller pieces can be a byproduct of orthodox production. Production by orthodox methods does not necessarily imply manufacturing by hand and many steps, including rolling can involve the use of machinery. Instead tea produced without a CTC machine is referred to as Orthodox.

After plucking and, depending on desired product, withering of the raw tea leaves, there is an initial firing to halt the oxidation. In the production of green tea one does not want oxidation so leaves are immediately steamed or fired. Black tea, on the other hand is fully oxidized so undergoes withering in order to start the oxidation process. The firing process may be accomplished in a variety of ways. Pan fried oxidation is traditional in China, while steaming is more traditional in Japan, however there are other methods of firing depending on region, and degree of industrialization of the tea manufacturing process.

Rolling Tea By Hand

Hand Rolling Tea by flickr user spinster cardigan, CC BY 2.0

The actual rolling process involves rolling the tea, breaking up the tea to separate the leaves, and rolling again. Very much like kneading dough for bread, this is repeated multiple times depending on the specific variety of tea being produced. Rolling tea causes the cells within the tea to rupture exposing them to air and allowing the liquids or sap within the leaves and stems to be released. This process helps to produce and enhance the flavor of the tea being produced and can take an hour or more when processed by hand.

Photo of Rolled Dragon Pearls

Dragon Pearls

The liquid within the tea tends to be sticky and as the tea is rolled the leaves will start to stick together. As a result a step often called roll-breaking is required to break up clumps of tea leaves before it is rolled again. Regional differences and qualities of the tea being manufactured will dictate how much the leaf is rolled and special steps necessary to form specific products like Dragon Pearls, Precious Eyebrows, or other shapes. Hand rolling tea is a specialized skill handed down within families and results in unique tea products not found in other parts of the world.

Mechanical Tea Rolling Machine

Tea Rolling Table by flickr user oldandsolo, CC BY 2.0

Hand rolling of tea is time consuming and labor intensive with the resulting product more of a work of art. Production of greater quantities of orthodox teas, at lower prices, is sought through the use of rolling machines. These machines consist of a round table with ribs over which the tea is pressed and rolled in an attempt to reproduce the hand rolling process. Factories can scale production of orthodox tea quickly by adding machines rather than relying on artisans who have spent years learning to roll tea.

Orthodox manufacturing can result in a tea product in a variety of grades. Indeed the processing of tea by orthodox methods can result in fine specialty teas of whole or near-whole leaf all the way down through broken leaves as well as fannings and dust. So, just as orthodox does not necessarily imply hand processed vs mechanically processed it also does not necessarily imply crafted artisan tea vs fine grades in tea bags.

At Dominion Tea we are always curious – Do you look at your brewed tea leaves? What do you see? I enjoy finding a bud and two leaves and thinking about how they can stay attached after being rolled.

Happy Holidays!
David & Hillary

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Tea Bags vs Tea Leaves Part 1: CTC Tea

There are two basic ways in which tea is manufactured for the global market, CTC and Orthodox. The process results in very different end products serving dramatically different needs. CTC tea manufacturing produces small bits of tea leaves that are typically found in tea bags while orthodox manufacturing provides a product with larger tea leaf parts on up to whole leaf. In Part 1 we will look in more detail at CTC tea manufacturing, the product derived from this method, and the consumer products that result. When we get to Part 2 we will examine Orthodox manufacturing methods and the resulting products.

CTC Tea Processing

Tea Processing – Flicker by Swaminthan – CC BY 2.0

CTC Tea Explained

CTC tea is defined as “Crush Tear Curl” and is a manufacturing method developed by William McKercher in 1931. By one account McKercher developed this method as a way of producing greater quantities of black tea using more mature, larger leaves which, when prepared with milk and sugar could appeal to a broader market (Srivastava, 2011). Regardless, CTC manufacturing spread widely between the 1950’s and 1970’s as teabags gained popularity.

CTC machines themselves are made up of large steel cylinders, manufactured with U or V shaped teeth in them, placed tightly together and turning at different rates of speed. After withering, tea is often pre-processed with a rotorvane, a machine that takes tea from a hopper and causes some initial tearing and crushing of the leaf before passing it along to the CTC machines. The tea is then crushed, torn, and twisted in passing between the steel cylinders of the CTC machine before falling onto a conveyor belt and moving along to another set of CTC rollers. This process can be repeated several times depending on the desired size of the finished product before finally moving along to be fired.



Finished product ranges in size substantially but is generally small pieces of tea leaf down to dust particles which are then rolled into small balls or pellets. The goal with CTC is generally a black tea product that oxidizes quickly and can be reliably produced with uniform size. CTC manufacturing really took off with the introduction of tea bags, thus it is not surprising today that the product of CTC manufacture is primarily for this market. Today CTC tea accounts for about 80% of the market for tea and is a significant part of production in most countries of the world. This probably should not be surprising since much of the word drinks black tea and CTC is synonymous with production of most black teas.

CTC Tea and Quality Tea

A quick word on quality. CTC tea is a very different product from that of Orthodox manufactured teas. The focus for CTC is much more on high volume, large scale tea production with faster oxidation of the product, and consistent taste and liquor appearance. The goal is normally consistent product such that buyers know what to expect with every purchase. The goal with Orthodox production is often very different where the aesthetics of the finished product is important, a wider variety of taste and aroma is desired, and in many cases it’s acceptable or desired to have product which varies from season to season. Therefore, it would really be unfair to hold Orthodox tea products up as “higher quality”. It’s more a question of what the buyer is looking for and if they wish to have greater opportunities to explore variations in tea or if they are just looking for a consistent cup of tea each and every day.

What is your preference, CTC, Orthodox, or does it matter as long as it tastes good?

Follow me @DominionTea or @DavidSColey

Works Cited

Srivastava, D. (2011, September 23). Methods of Basic Research: Issues of Ethics and Plagiarism, http://www.vecc.gov.in/colloquium/dks_lecture.pdf. Kolkata, India.