No matter where I travel in India, the common cup of hospitality is tea. In the workplace or train station, you’ll find inexpensive chai steeped with spices, milk, and sugar. In hotels, your teacup might hold a single estate Darjeeling, Nilgiri, or Assam tea.
It was in the Assam region of India where the native Camellia sinensis assamica, cousin of the Camellia sinensis plants found throughout China, was discovered. This local cultivar was first commercially grown in Assam and offered for sale at the London auction in 1839. It brought a high price because of its rarity, but it took 20 years for English-owned companies to show a profit and transplant their agricultural model to other areas of India such as Darjeeling and Nilgiri. Once the steam power and industrialization of the late nineteenth century entered the vast tea gardens of this former British colony, an incredible tea making environment was created that moved the focus of the English tea empire away from China.
A good student of tea should be able to identify the three main tea growing regions of India and their signature teas. Here is a simple guide to get you started on your adventure into the classic black teas of India.
Assam tea picker
Assam is located in the upper right corner of India near China’s vast tea-growing province of Yunnan. Assam teas are noted for the rich malty flavor that blenders look for when creating an Irish Blend or an English Breakfast. With over 800 gardens, it is the largest tea growing region in the world. Much of the tea has traditionally been inexpensive CTC grade manufactured mainly for tea bags. Now the demand for orthodox (full-leaf) teas seen a variety of exceptional single-estate offerings valued by savvy tea drinkers. But, a well-made CTC can still be a great comfort tea with a bit of milk on a cold day. I refer to it as the macaroni and cheese of teas.
A First (early spring) or Second Flush (late spring) Assam tea from a reputable estate would be an excellent choice for your morning cup. These teas are mellow and less astringent than the teas made only to be consumed with milk. A good Tippy Assam or GFOP Assam is perfect when brewed four to five minutes, or it can be infused for six minutes if you want to add milk. Always look for an unblended offering from a named estate.
Nilgiri is home to the Blue Mountains of southern India and teas grown there are among the finest produced anywhere. It’s proximity to the equator and the moisture-laden Indian Ocean winds make for perfect tea growing conditions. Like neighboring Sri Lanka, these medium body teas are easily drunk, hard to over brew, and perfect for blending. Look for Orange Pekoe grades from estates such as Burnside, Dunsandle or Wellbeck. For a rare tea experience, try a Frost Tea from one of the high mountain gardens. These teas are made from leaves lightly kissed by early morning frost. The wiry longleaf teas yield slightly nutty overtones with characteristics of a fine oolong.
Steep terrain of a Darjeeling Garden
Darjeelings are theperfect compliment for an elegant afternoon tea meal. No other tea in the world carries the distinctive muscatel overtones and bright coppery color of these prized teas from these Himalayan foothills. The appearance, liquor, and aroma of Darjeeling teas are instantly recognizable by tea drinkers worldwide. These teas owe their distinctive flavor partly to the type of bush (Camellia sinensis) and partly to the climate and altitude.
The term “Darjeeling” is a registered trademark and only teas from the 86 gardens in the region are permitted to carry the distinctive title. The best examples are manufactured and sold as First Flush or Second Flush. But Autumnal Flush Darjeelings can often be bargain-priced because the German and Japan buyers are not interested.
Darjeeling teas demand attention and can be easily over brewed. Steep your tea for three minutes and taste. Increase the steeping time in 15-second intervals until you find the right strength and flavor notes for your enjoyment.
Darjeelings have long held the distinction of being the Champagne of teas; however, I prefer to compare them to Pinot Noirs because of their delicately complex flavors and mouthfeel. And like Pinots, they can – depending on the temperature, teacup, or who you’re drinking with – either thrill or disappoint you at great expense!
Text and photos Copyrighted 2012 by Bruce Richardson. This article first appeared in TeaTime magazine.