If your core taste preference is for strong black teas, Assam is a good starting point for exploration. It is the largest single tea producing region in the world and a core of the British style of tea, which was never noted for subtlety or delicacy of flavor; Assams are best summarized as strong. The words that are most commonly used in ads and reviews are assertive, brisk, bold, eye-opening, rich, bitter, bracing, hearty and the like.
They are easy to find, alas, and most are inexpensive. The “alas” is that it is difficult for the average tea drinker to have a clear idea of what is special, ordinary and mediocre. Amazon provides a summary of how many teas are marketed as “Assam.” It lists 23 thousand tea bags and just over a thousand loose leaf ones. As a label, Assam is too generic to carry much information about its style and quality.
All the adjectives above have their positive associations but assertive can shade into harsh, brisk to bitter. Adding “too” to “strong” means “not for me.” If you’re unfamiliar with the range of Assams, it may be useful to think of them as English Breakfasts with attitude.
The English Breakfast is a reliable and robust tea, that is typically a blend of Assam to provide body, with added leaf from other regions to soften it (maybe some China Keemun), add color (Malawi), to provide a slight sweetness (Darjeeling ), to add some bite (Ceylon/ Sri Lanka), to make it inexpensive (Kenya).
So, take the standard better quality English Breakfast as a reference base. If you want extra attitude, then consider what you’d like more of in the flavor and aroma, or less or different. Pick the character of your Assam: its overall summary features.
Choosing between Orthodox and CTC
The term Orthodox relates to the traditional hand plucked harvesting and processing by artisan methods to make premium tea, by nursing the leaf to balance the hundreds of molecular chemical compounds that give it flavor, texture and aroma.
There are two basic Orthodox styles: Whole leaf and Broken leaf. They are termed “grades” but that implies a clear good/bad distinction. That applies to some degree, rather like the Prime/Choice grading of beef. The quality of the cooked steak still depends on the chef.
Indian tea grades are complex, with the very top one being SFTGFOP and intermediate ones including TGFOP and GTGFOP1. These refer to features of the leaf appearance: flowery, tippy, fine with golden with OP standing for orange pekoe. This has nothing to do with orange anything nor is it an indicator of a superior tea. It stands for real leaf, as contrasted to the bits and pieces that are graded as fannings (blow away if you sneeze) and dust (smaller than dinner salt).
In choosing an Assam, ignore the first codes and look at the ending FOP or BOP. F is Flowery whole leaf and B is Broken leaf, meaning smaller but still good quality. In general, the smaller the leaf, the quicker the tea releases its flavor and the harsher it will be. That is the essence of tea bags, or rather their lack of essence. It is the distinguishing difference between Orthodox and CTC Assams.
CTC teas are leaf pellet and dust. CTC is the machine-centered Cut, Tear and Curl harsher and faster method that forms the macerated leaf into pellets. The leftover fragments and ground up bits are termed fannings and dust. Almost all Assam tea is now CTC and is targeted to tea bags and blends: big, strong taste from small fast-brewing ingredients at the lowest practical production cost.
If you think of the nastiest tea you were served in a food joint, on an airplane, visiting an office or in other anterooms to hell, it is quite likely Assam dust.
There is no whole-leaf CTC. Technically, there are broken-leaf grades of CTC and dust may be the powder and particles left over from whole leaf processing, but in terms of characterizing Assams, whole-broken and CTC-dust is precise enough.
A broken leaf Assam is close to a good English Breakfast. It will be full and have plenty of body. It will also be plain with little extra aroma and flavor over and above the basic bite. If you enjoy this and also actively prefer to add milk and sugar to your tea, then a good quality loose leaf broken Assam is a more than satisfactory choice.
Which Assam is for you?
If you are a strong tea, milk-and-sugar habitué, the bigger the Assam the better. But perhaps you’d like a less aggressive taste and don’t want your tea snarling at you at dawn’s bleary wake. Or you’d like more character and less plainness: “English Breakfast gets boring – surprise me, show me something different.”
In these instances, there are several estate whole leaf Assams that are likely to become friends for life. Harmutty, Halmari, Mangalam, Doomni and Chota Tingrai make great companions. These are Orthodox teas. The estates embody the best of Assam tradition and expertise. That means that the same outstanding qualities of management, method and scientific knowledge that produce their best SFGFOP whole leaf makes for superior BOP.
What you gain from buying their top of the line Assams is differences in character. BOP teas will very much be defined by the basic adjectives: strong but plain.
The best whole leaf Assams are made to be more varied: mellow, malty or “tippy.” They are very good indeed, but there are fewer and fewer of them, because of the harsh economic conditions of Assam’ tea industry, caught in high cost/declining quality traps and facing strong international competitors.
The elite estates are still committed to high end teas, They add their hint of sweetness to the base malty flavor of Assams.
Harmutty is an example of a black that is not bitter but very smooth. It is a warm coppery-brown in the cup and the leaf is flecked with gold tips; these tips are a common feature of great Assams and help soften the astringency common to most.
Mangalam’s teas are lighter than most Assams, without losing their punch and robustness. It is investing heavily in clonal teas, ones developed in research to bring out specific nuances of flavor and to strengthen such characteristics as water use, root strength and resistance to pests. These are terrific buys. Mangalam is making teas that have unusual citrus and spicy overtones and is explicitly experimental in its focus.
Chota Tingrai represents the difference between a “better than” and “different from” approach to tea making. Chota Tingrai is producing a new style of Assam which relies heavily on Japanese methods, equipment and styles of flavor.
With these Assams, the adjectives shift. They become more nuanced and less macho. Here are just some random ones from reviews of teas from the five estates mentioned here: sweet and sour, honeyed, clean, fresh, mellow, and nectar-like. The phrase “a hint of…” is commonplace.
These are not “better” than broken leaf teas but different. The choice of whole or broken leaf Assams comes down to your character preference. Plain and strong: BOP is an excellent option. More complex or softer: whole leaf.
In each instance, choose the provider carefully. The brand is not Assam but either the estate or an online or specialty store that you have found reliable and selective in its offers. Among the 23,000 Amazon listings listings are some really poor teas.
The overall recommendation about Assam teas comes with a disclaimer – Choose it if your liking is for big teas. There are plenty of bargains on the market and the prices for Assam estate teas are surprisingly low; a Chota Tingrai or Harmutty costs as little as 25 cents a cup. BOPs are the price of slightly upmarket tea bags.
And should you choose an Assam, make sure you are shopping, whether online or in a store, somewhere where you will get quality, not just low price.
Featured banner by Gautam Virprashad. Inset images by Neha Bindal.