Tag Archives: Specialty Tea

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.

Specialty Tea is Not a Commodity

There are a number of definitions for commodity but one we like states that “a commodity is any homogeneous good traded in bulk on an exchange.” (InvestingAnswers, 2014)  This definition goes on to say that for an item to be considered a commodity it must meet three conditions.

  • It must be standardized (for agricultural and industrial commodities it must be in a “raw” state).
  • It must be usable (i.e., have a shelf life) upon delivery.
  • Its price must vary enough to justify creating a market for the item.
Fields of wheat.

Wheat is a Commodity Like Oil and Gold

This works well for things like oil, gold, wheat and other products which can be produced in bulk, measured against well-known and agreed upon standards, and are usable for long periods of time.  Even though there are some differences in grades for each of these examples, they are by and large, equal to each other no matter where they come from and meet a standard definition of quality.  They are fungible.  You can generally intermingle all of them together and the buyer doesn’t know or care what the initial source of the product was.

Specialty Tea or Commodity Tea?

So how about tea?  I’ll go out on a limb (admittedly not very far) and suggest that there are really two major kinds of tea; commodity tea and specialty tea.  Commodity tea is produced in bulk by one of a half dozen or fewer global corporations.  Their aim is to sell a consistent product in massive quantities as inexpensively as possible.  The commodity definition breaks down a bit with tea, in that the product really isn’t raw at this point, as the raw leaves have been oxidized and macerated into fine pieces.  Even if it were sold raw, it wouldn’t be fungible since different cultivars and terroir produce significantly different taste.  It’s at this point where the tea markets like the one in Mumbai, India and Mombasa, Kenya play a role in getting teas of various taste to the small number of global players. It has been standardized in terms of the leaf size (or particle size if you prefer) and buyers are looking for specific taste profiles to be blended to produce that consistent taste they are going for.  This blended tea is ultimately packed into sacks for global transport, and sold in massive quantities.  Finally commodity tea is used in applications where consistent taste and low cost is the primary driver; mass produced tea bags, many ready to drink products, and health and beauty products.

Different types of specialty tea.

Specialty Tea Features Variety in Shape, Aroma, and Liquor Color

Where commodity tea defines quality in terms of consistent taste profile and particle size, specialty tea defines quality in terms of aroma, shape of rolled leaf, liquor taste, and sheer variety.  Specialty tea does not seek to maintain the same taste profile year over year.  Instead, specialty tea takes advantage of the uniqueness of its manufacturing process and variety in terroir.  It celebrates the differences between teas from different regions, countries, and elevations.  Consistent taste and lowest price are not the for specialty tea.  Instead the drivers for specialty tea are the story behind the tea, the desire for variety in flavor and aroma, and the degree to which one can appreciate where it comes from.  While this makes a clear definition of “quality” somewhat elusive, it encourages curiosity, learning, and experimentation, all key ingredients to a better tea experience.


Works Cited

InvestingAnswers. (2014, April 30). Commodity Definition & Example. Retrieved from Investing Answers: http://www.investinganswers.com/financial-dictionary/commodities-precious-metals/commodity-1035