The Lab

Assam: Breakfast Tea and Chai

Camellia Sinensis Assamica is native to Northeast India and Yunnan, China. Assamica is a broader leafed variety first described in the West by a traveling Scotsman, Robert Bruce. Unfortunately, Bruce was unable to have the plant analyzed before his untimely death. His brother Charles sent samples to Calcutta where the plant was classified as not a separate species, only a separate variety. Most Chinese teas and Darjeeling are the smaller Camellia Sinensis Sinensis variety. Apart from varieties cultivated in Yunnan for pu’er (Chinese fermented tea) production, the majority of Assam cultivation occurs in Northeastern India on the Brahmaputra river plain. Heavy rainfall and high humidity year round allows the tea in this region to grow large quickly.

The first British tea gardens were opened in Assam in the late 1830s, and the market expanded rapidly through the end of the century. The temperance movement decreased consumption of alcohol, but well water around the world at this time was not necessarily safe to drink. The intensity of flavor of Indian tea became the preferred alternative.

Asssam Tea Consumption

CTC Assam in Masala Chai

There is small domestic market for orthodox teas in India. 80% of tea production in India is Cut, Tear, Curl or CTC. This replaces the rolling step of orthodox teas before drying. This production form yields small uniform tea pellets by passing the leaves through rollers with sharp metal teeth, accelerating the oxidation of the leaf. After the leaves have reached a desired level of oxidation, they are dried to halt the process. The resulting tea has more intense, rich flavor with dark cup liquor.

Tippy, full- leaf Assam is more labor intensive but will yield brews with more natural sweetness and less bitterness. The tips or buds of the leaf picked during the second flush, just before the summer monsoon rains, are smooth with malty sweetness. Teas produced from the summer and autumn flushes express more musky and tangy flavors.

Both CTC and Orthodox Assam teas are popular blend components in breakfast teas and chai. Chai in one form or another was consumed in India for well over 1,000 years. The drink was a mixture of spices believed to have healing or restorative properties. Slowly, tea made its way into local chai recipes and grew rapidly when CTC production drove costs down. Chai is experiencing another period of growth in the west in the form of concentrates and syrups.

Assam Tea Grading

Cupping Teas in India

Orthodox Assam Teas are graded using a system popularized by Sir Thomas Lipton of the Lipton Tea Company.

Orange Pekoe (OP) – Standard Grade Tea consisting of wirey rolled leaves
Flowery Orange Pekoe (FOP) – Better grade tea with a few buds
Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (GFOP) – Higher proportion of tips than FOP
Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (TGFOP) – Highest proportion of tips
Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (FTGFOP) – Highest quality of Assam tea

Broken Pekoe (BP)- Most common broken leaf grade
Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP) – Standard grade tea with larger leaf size than BP

This pattern continues the same as above for broken leaf grades. Flowery, Golden, Tippy, and Finest designations represent successively higher qualities of tea.

Royal Tea offers pure Assam as TGFOP or BOP. CTC Assam is the primary component of our Masala Chai blend along with cardamom, star anise, cinnamon, clove, ginger and black pepper.

Patrick McKeown

Patrick began his coffee journey on Long Island at a low volume coffee bar, and roasting at home. Since then he has been a barista, manager, and craft roaster in NYC.