The legendary origin of tea tells a story of how the tea culture began 5,000 years ago in ancient China. If this legend is be believed, the great Shen Nong, an emperor and skilled ruler, patron of art and a creative scientist was the one who discovered tea for the first time. It was his cautious diktats that said all water meant for drinking be boiled as hygienic precaution. Travelling to a distant region on a summer day, Shen Nong stopped for some rest with his court. His humble servants, in compliance with his rulings, soon began boiling water. It was then, that some dried leaves fell into this pot of boiling water from a nearby bush, giving rise to a brownish coloured liquid of leaves infused with hot water. The Emperor, known to be a scientist, was obviously intrigues by the sight of this ‘new’ liquid and so he drank some, only to find it extremely refreshing. According to the legend, this was how tea came into being. However, the teas of China were a green tea, a drink that is now world famous.
But for us Indians, tea is a quintessential milky drink that starts our day. And for most of us, tea is synonymous with Assam tea. Let us find out today where and how Assam tea, the most popular tea in India, came in to being. Its story is worth knowing, just as stimulating as the cup of morning tea you cannot seem to do without.
The Journey of Assam Tea
There is a recurring majestic myth that says Assam tea owes its discovery to Robert Bruce, a Scottish gentleman who noticed Assam tea plants growing wild near Rangpur, in the hills, way back in 1823 when he was on a trading mission. Bruce was reportedly directed by Maniram Dewan to Bessa Gam who was the local Singpho chief. He showed Bruce how local tribesmen (known as the Singhpos) brew tea from leaves of this bush. Bruce made an arrangement with the tribal chief to give him samples of these tea leaves with seeds, as he planned on having them scientifically examined. As luck would have it, Robert Bruce passed away a few years later, never having seen this plant being properly classified.
In early 1830, Robert Bruce’s brother, Charles, sent a few of these leaves to a botanical garden in Calcutta to be properly examination and it was then that this plant was officially classified as a tea variety. It is said that these leaves were classified as belonging to the same specie as china tea plants.
The first company that was set up for making and growing this tea was called the Assam Tea Company and started in the year 1839. In the coming years, Assam Tea kept spreading its realm and by 1862, the Assam Tea business comprised of over 160 gardens all owned by 5 public companies along with 57 private players. It was later that the government decided to appoint a special commission for enquiring about every aspect of this company. Today, Assam Tea generates huge revenue amounts and is one of the most favoured tea in the country.
Bristish East India Company’s intervention was recognised through ‘experts’ who constituted the 1834 Tea Committee and they assessed the commercial potential and scientific nature of the Assam tea. By late 1830s, market for the Assam Tea began to be evaluated in London and the East India Company’s positive feedback led to the inauguration of a lengthy process of withdrawal of agricultural lands and forests to allow significant shares of this province to be converted to tea plantations by the private capital.
Assam and its love for tea
Assam is famous all across the globe for its natural beauty, tea plantations and the quality of Assam tea. The mountain region, pleasant climate and greenery of this place make it a location to remember. In fact, Assam was the place where Indian Tea originated over 165 years ago. It is currently one of the most coveted Tea production spot in the world. The two sides of the famous Brahmaputra River are home to the world’s biggest Tea growing region. This area produces more than 400 million kilograms of Tea every year and the beautifully breath-taking tea estates in Assam cover over 2,16,200 hectare of land. Home to more than a hundred tea estates, Assam offers every tea lover malty flavoured and full bodied Assam Tea, the bright liquor which will surely be loved by a tea addict.
Production of Assam Tea
Production and cultivation of Assam tea was dominated by Assam Company for the 1st two decades (from 1840 to 1860), which operated from districts in Upper Assam using labour from local Kachari. The company’s success along with changes in the colonial policies of offering plots to tea planters (by the Fee simple rule) led to the expansion and boom in Assam tea’s industry during early 1860s.
Tea plants are grown in Assam lowlands, unlike Nilgiris and Darjeelings, which grow on the highlands. Assam tea bushes grow in lowland regions, like the Valley of Brahmaputra River where there is clay soil and rich nutrients from the floodplain. Climate in this region varies between hot/humid to cool/arid winter and rainy season—all conditions perfect for growing Assam tea.
Assam Tea As We Know It: Great taste with every sip
The Assam Tea is a malty and brisk tea, bright in colour and packed with that perfect punch of fruitiness. This tea is black and is manufactured specially from Camellia sinensis var. assamica plant. Famous for its briskness, body, bright colour and strong malty flavour, Assam Tea India and other blends containing this tea, are sold as a ‘breakfast’ tea. The Irish version of breakfast tea is a bit more malty and is a stronger tea, consisting of the best Assam tea in a small quantity.
Assam Tea owes its exclusive malty taste to the regions tropical climate, where temperatures rise to 40OC/103oF during the day, creating a greenhouse-like effect with extreme heat and humidity.
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Because of generous rainfall and the lengthy tea growing season, Assam is amongst the most fertile tea-generating regions across the globe. Each year, these tea estates in Assam jointly yield approximately 680,400 kilograms or 1.5 million pounds of tea.
The harvesting of Assam tea is generally done twice each year, known as the ‘first flush’, followed by the ‘second flush’. First flush picks up late March and goes on till late May, whereas second flush, which is harvested later, is plucked in June and has been considered as producing more esteemed “tippy tea”. The tippy tea from the second flush has a fuller body and is sweeter, therefore considered as superior to first flush generation.
Even though the Assam tea leaves may look black when packed, leaves of Assam tea bushes are glossy and have a dark green colour. These bushes produce delicate white coloured blossoms, adding to the beauty of a tea plantation. If all this talk of Assam tea has you longing for a cup brewed from the freshest, finest and aromatic of leaves.
Nowhere around the globe has tea been grown as much as it is grown in Assam, the major tea estates being Ambika, Amguri, Gogaidubi, Jamirah, Wiliamson Tea Estate, Tata Group of Companies tea estates and Talap.
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