Assam tea was the first variety found by the British in India. It proved more hardy than plants grown from imported Chinese seeds, but is essentially the same plant, grown and acclimatised to different conditions. When tea was discovered in the Assam region (in the east of modern India) in 1835, the government’s Tea Committee set about determining how best to grow it and if, unlike transplanted Chinese trees in other exotic locations like Brazil and Java, it would make a proper brew. The backdrop to this need to develop new sources of tea was rising East-Asian isolationism and the need for the East India Company to develop a source of tea which it controlled, after the government removed its trading monopoly. Tea was big business.
By 1838 Robert Bruce, a Scottish tea planter, produced a variety approved of by the Lord Auckland, Viceroy of India and proclaimed to be of ‘mercantile’ quality. Such was the fever about this new type of tea, that its price was quickly inflated, and Twinings and Co. of London (a name which should still be familiar) announced:
‘Upon the whole we think that the recent specimens are very favourable to the hope and expectation that Assam is capable of producing an article well suited to this market, and although at present the indications are chiefly in reference to teas adapted by their strong and useful flavour to general purposes, there seems no doubt but that an increased experience in the culture and manufacture of tea in Assam may eventually approximate a portion of tea in the finer descriptions which China has hitherto produced.’
This tea did indeed become successful, and is one of many types we can buy today.
Burdened by the heavy duty of tasting and reporting about our experience testing Assam tea, my fellow taster – Cutty Sarkastic – and I, purchased loose Assam tea from the reborn East India Company. Available from the British Museum, there are many other varieties available in more accessible places.
This product did not provide ground leaves, but simply dried, leaving a brown leaf with a rich, earthy smell and none of the tea ‘powder’ which often accompanies ground loose teas. It requires a medium to long brewing time in the pot of around 3-4 minutes, and produces a strong, full-bodied cup.
The tea was tasted with some of Mr Kipling’s Manor House Cake. Which was an excellent choice, as the fruityness of the cake complimented the slightly sharp spiciness of the brewed tea. This did raise a commundrum: Tea first or cake?
The answer is always tea.
The earthy smell mentioned before is not present when brewed, and the result is a strong, smooth tea. Not very bitter (I have my tea without sugar, Cutty with one spoon) but the aftertaste’s spiciness might be a bit overwhelming in the morning. Definitely a tea for late afternoon reclining.