Cream of AssamAssam! Tropical paradise, assuming you like 103 degree heat and 100% humidity, which tea plants do. Well, not all tea plants. Let’s go back to the beginning, by which I mean the beginning of Assam’s commercial tea production. Before the 1830s tea plants grew wild in Assam, a river valley in the northeastern part of India, and some locals would make a drink out of them, but it all seems to have been fairly low-key. But then the British noticed.

The British Tea Industry in India

At the time, Britain had a problem. They were swiftly developing a tea addiction like yours and mine, but Japan was closed off and uninterested in much trade, China was charging through the nose and not exporting much, and tea didn’t grow anywhere else, as far as they knew. Discovering that tea could grow in a newly conquered corner of India made the Brits flail and jump up and down and make high-pitched squealing noises. Well, maybe not that much, but they were very excited, and immediately started setting up for commercial tea production there.

At first they tried to grow Chinese plants, on the grounds that the domesticated and long cultivated plants would make better tea than the wild local variety. Unfortunately for them, those plants had been cultivated to thrive in a different climate, and the Chinese plants didn’t do well. After more than a decade of beating their heads against that particular brick wall the estate owners finally accepted the inevitable and started growing the local plants, called the Assamica varietal, and hybrids of the Chinese and Assamica plants. Production exploded, and by the 1850s they were making a profit and exporting massive amounts of tea.

The Tea ItselfAssam Halmari

The tea was more bitter than the Chinese teas, because the Assamica varietal has more caffeine than the Chinese plants do, and caffeine has a bitter flavor, but this worked out. Even though the prices were lower now that the British could grow their own tea and not pay the Chinese monopoly prices, it still cost a lot of money to get tea from Asia to Europe, so they lowered the cost per cup by cutting their tea with milk. The more bitter, robust Assam teas stand up much better to milk than the smooth Chinese styles, and everything worked out properly in the end. Back in India, since all the good tea was being exported, the locals put spices as well as milk in their tea, to mask the low quality flavor, and invented chai masala, the spiced tea drink that’s so popular now.

The Current State of Things

Fast forward to now, and life is pretty good for Assam tea growers. The British have gone home, people aren’t working in conditions quite as bad as they were back during the industrial revolution, and the machinery advances during and since said revolution have massively increased yields. Assam now exports more tea than any other region in the world, and is expanding beyond its traditional domain of black teas into green and white teas, although it doesn’t go for the complicated, more artisanal types of teas that come out of China. Assam’s roots as a major commercial exporter show strongly today. It’s the rare breakfast blend that doesn’t include Assam black tea, as well as your standard black blends, although Kenya is the new Assam, in that it exports massive amounts of black tea to feed the Western world’s caffeine habit. Assam is still making a third of the world’s tea, though, so it isn’t going to be replaced anytime soon.

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff