Text and Photography by Bruce Richardson
No matter where you travel in India, the common cup of hospitality is tea. In the workplace or a train station, you find inexpensive chai steeped with spices, milk, and sugar. In hotels, your teacup is more likely to contain a single-estate Darjeeling, Nilgiri, or Assam tea.
It was in the Assam region of India that 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 to transplant their agricultural model to other areas of India such as Darjeeling and Nilgiri. Once the steam power and industrialization of the late 19th 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 is located in the upper right corner of India near China’s vast tea-growing Yunnan province. Assam teas are noted for the rich malty flavor blenders look for when creating an Irish blend or an English Breakfast. With more than 800 gardens, it is the largest tea-growing region in the world. Much of the tea has traditionally been inexpensive CTC grade manufactured for tea bags. Now the demand for orthodox (full-leaf) teas has spurred a variety of exceptional single-estate offerings that savvy tea drinkers value.
A Second Flush (late spring) tea from a reputable estate is 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 for 4 to 5 minutes,
or it can be infused for 6 minutes if you want to add milk. Always look for an unblended offering from a named estate such as Harmutty, Satrupa, or Mokalbari.
Nilgiri is home to the Blue Mountains of southern India, and teas grown there are among the finest produced anywhere. Its proximity to the equator and the moisture-laden Indian Ocean winds make perfect tea-growing conditions. These medium-body teas are easy to drink, hard to overbrew, 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 long-leaf teas yield slightly nutty overtones with characteristics of a fine oolong.
Darjeelings are the perfect complement 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 the 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. 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 (early spring), Second Flush (late spring), or Autumnal teas.
Darjeeling teas can easily be overbrewed. Steep your tea for 3 minutes, then taste. Increase the steeping time by 15-second intervals until you find the right strength and flavor notes for your enjoyment. Autumnal Flush teas are more affordable, but do splurge on First or Second Flush examples from a few of the best-known estates, including Margaret’s Hope, Ambootia, Makaibari, Puttabong, or Poobong. After all, this is the true “Champagne of teas.”
Bruce Richardson is coauthor of The New Tea Companion. Read his blog at theteamaestro.com.