Assam originates from the Assam region of India. It was rediscovered by a Scottish explorer named Robert Bruce in 1823. Despite his desire to learn and understand the species from the locals, Bruce died before he could see his work fulfilled. In the 1830’s, his brother Charles would return to the Assam region, where he would harvest specimens and cultivate them back in Calcutta to further Robert’s work. Their work allowed for the discovery of several varieties of tea from the camellia sinensis plant.
Assamica Variety versus Sinensis Variety
While most common teas originate from the camellia genus, which contains a diverse series of species and subspecies. Of the series camellia sinesis, there are several species that are frequently referred to as varieties within the same series. The assamica variety involves a change to the shape of the leaf. The variety sinensis presents a more narrow, elongated leaf whereas the assamica variety presents a fuller, broader leaf. While this subtle change normally would not catch one’s eye, the result of this variety shifted the entire plant’s structure. One is commonly familiar with the shorter shrubs found in the Chinese landscape - they maintain their structure to provide cold resistance. The assamica variety, on the other hand, flourishes and can be grown into taller shrubs and even small trees. They are heat resistant and prefer warmer days under the full sun.
There are two schools of thought with regard to processing tea. One is the orthodox process, which involved plucking the leafs from the stem and drying them (either in strips or curled into pearls like Jasmine tea). The other is through a process called crush-tear-curl (CTC). In essence, the leaves are fed through a machine with dozens of cylinders and hundreds of sharp teeth to crush the leaves, cut them into fragments, and curl them into smaller bits. Not to be confused with fannings, which are the leftovers from this process, the CTC method provides the user with a grab-and-go option as it is known for providing the rich, bold flavor without the wait time that comes with most teas. The end result looks something between a Pu’er tea and a full bodied leaf tea.
Assam used in Blends
Assam tea is present in many common teas consumed around the globe. The flavor profile of many well-known varieties (ie. English breakfast, earl grey) contains a blend of different kinds of black teas in order to achieve a specific flavor profile. The unique feature within English Breakfast teas is that no two are the same. Brands use different proportions and processing techniques when creating English Breakfast blends to achieve a specific flavor profile, color and texture. Assam provides a milky, malty appearance to the tea, whereas the other two teas (usually Ceylon and Keemun and/or Kenyan) provide a translucent but full-bodied flavor.