Serious Eats: Drinks
Tea Time: All About Assam Tea
From the most tea-producing region in the most tea-producing country in the world comes Assam tea, a sultry, malty black tea among India's most famous. Discovered in the early 1800s growing wild in the tropically warm and wet Assam region at the edge of the eastern Himalayan mountains, this indigenous tea (the varietal name is Camellia sinensis var. assamica) is versatile enough to have been planted throughout Asia, proving extremely prolific, easy to grow, and able to be harvested frequently.
Assam tea was brought to the world beyond India by Scottish explorer-turned-tea-planter Robert Bruce (not to be confused with Robert The Bruce), who in the 1820s engendered friendship with Assam tea gardeners and exported seeds to the East India Company in Calcutta for their identification as a newly discovered varietal. Bruce's efforts would slowly launch a botanical shift of permanent significance to the tea trade, as India would eventually eclipse China in worldwide tea production in direct result of this discovery.
Though modern-day Assam tea largely ends up as mass-market, crush-tear-curl leaf style, "probably tastes better with milk in it" kind of teas, there are high grade Assams that are worth seeking out—the leaves from the second flush of harvest are most esteemed—and a cup from the hugely productive region is a necessary point in any tea exploration (though due to the political climate, you will likely wish to visit vicariously).
Plagued not only by political but environmental instability, Assam's tea production currently strains against recent rising temperatures and lowering rainfalls, which are slowly shifting the flavor profile of the teas iconic to the region. For now, the tea is still identified as a brisk and strong, bready and smooth tea that may err towards astringency in a lower quality, or poorly steeped, cup. Like some other black teas, many enjoy Assam as an alternative to coffee, citing its "bold", direct, malty flavors as just the kick of intensity they prefer. One will often find teas like English Breakfast or other morning-suggested teas to be comprised of Assam.
How to Steep Assam Tea
Select a high grade Assam tea for your first cup—look for whole leaves with golden tips—and dispense a tablespoon of tea per 8 ounces of water. Avoid constraining vessels, like tea balls or small infuser baskets, to allow the leaves to fully develop flavor during steeping.
Like other black teas, Assam prefers a higher brewing temperature to extract the best essences of the darkly fired leaves. Bring your good quality water to a boil and be ready to infuse your tea straight off the boil.
Overinfusing an Assam can lend your tea an unpleasant bitterness that eclipses its spectrum of malty, raisin-sweet flavors. Take care not to oversteep and begin with an experimental time of 3 minutes, increasing if you find you're not extracting enough character from the leaves.
Besides breakfast time, Assam teas are also an excellent base for chai, as its intense flavors are not drowned out by the milk and sweet spices characteristic of chai preparation. For these same reasons, Assam makes an ideal companion to milk and sugar, for those who take them. Experiment with your own taste preferences as you explore one of the tea world's most historically significant plants.
About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is bad at keeping up her coffee-world blog at .