What Is Assam Tea?

Assam tea leaves

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If you're a fan of black tea, with its brisk flavor, full-body, and rich color, Assam tea might be the tea for you. It takes its name from the Assam region of India and is popular as a breakfast tea.

Fast Facts

  • Origin: Assam, India
  • Temperature: 180–212 F for brewing, served hot or cold

What Is Assam Tea?

Assam tea is a classic black tea grown in the Assam region of India that is used to make traditional breakfast teas such as English breakfast, Irish breakfast, and Earl Grey teas. Like all black teas, Assam tea is made from the leaves of the plant Camellia sinensis, but Assam tea comes from a variety of the plant grown in the Assam region of India in the far northeastern part of the country near Bangladesh, Myanmar, and China.

The flavor of Assam tea is most closely associated with breakfast teas, particularly Irish breakfast tea, which is most likely to be made of 100 percent Assam tea. Depending on the manufacturer, other breakfast teas can consist of pure Assam tea or a blend of Assam with teas from China, Ceylon, Africa, and Indonesia. Assam is also the tea often used in making boba teas as well as classic masala chai tea. When brewed, Assam tea has a ruby red to deep amber color, depending on when during the year it was harvested.

Assam tea is harvested two to three times per year in what are called "flushes." The first harvest or flush takes place in the spring and yields a lighter, fresher, more floral flavor. The second flush is the most desirable harvest and it takes place in the summer, between May and August. This second flush produces the highly prized (and high-priced) "tippy tea," which is so named because of the golden tips of the leaves. 

Loose Leaf Vs. Tea Bags

Assam tea is produced in two different forms, one for selling as loose leaf tea and one for tea bags. In general, loose-leaf teas, which are produced using the so-called "orthodox" method, are considered superior to teas produced via the CTC method, which is what tea bags usually contain.

In the orthodox method, the tea undergoes several steps, including plucking, withering, rolling, oxidation, and then drying. Each of these steps contributes some factor of Assam tea's flavor, producing a brisk, bright, full-bodied flavor profile. The oxidation step is particularly crucial in Assam tea. Oxidation takes place by using controlled heat and humidity to trigger an enzymatic reaction that produces a number of flavor compounds in a process sometimes referred to as "fermentation." (This isn't true fermentation, which is caused by microorganisms rather than enzymes and exposure to oxygen.)

The more oxidized a tea is the darker its color will be and the more robust its flavor. By way of comparison, green teas are considered non-oxidized, jasmine tea is light-oxidized, oolong tea is semi-oxidized, and black teas, including Assam tea, are fully oxidized. 

By comparison, the CTC method, which stands for "cut, tear, curl," is made by running the tea leaves through a series of rollers with sharp teeth which produce small, hard pellets of tea as opposed to the strips of tea that the orthodox method produces. CTC tea is most often used for making tea bags since the pellets possess intense flavor and infuse quickly. 

Unlike the orthodox method, where the degree of oxidation is carefully controlled, the CTC method produces tea that is always fully oxidized, owing to the way that the rollers rupture the cells of the tea leaves. Although this produces a full-flavored tea, it lacks the subtlety of oxidized teas using the orthodox method. 

What Does It Taste Like?

Assam tea has a deep, rich, full-bodied flavor with malty, earthy, and spicy notes. It's moderately bitter and astringent, both of which will vary based on how long the tea is steeped.

How to Drink Assam Tea

Brewing Assam tea is easy if you use a tea bag. Simply place the bag in your mug and pour freshly boiled water over it. Steep for two to five minutes, depending on how strong you like your tea, and then remove the tea bag without squeezing it. Two to three minutes will yield a lighter infusion, three to four a medium brew, and five minutes will be super robust. Beyond five minutes you'll encounter a good deal of bitterness.  

For loose-leaf tea, place three to four grams of tea in your mug or infuser, add around 200 milliliters of freshly boiled water, and steep for two to five minutes before straining. If brewing a pot, keep the same ratio of three to four grams of tea leaves per 200 ml of water. 

Some connoisseurs claim that Assam tea should not be drunk with milk, but that's a matter of personal taste. Breakfast teas, which are widely consumed with milk and sugar, are mostly if not all Assam.

Buying and Storing

Assam is the predominant tea in most breakfast teas, so it's available just about everywhere tea is served or sold. As for tea that is specifically labeled Assam, most specialty tea shops will carry it and you can buy it in bags or tins online sold by the ounce or gram. Many Assam teas will specify that they are "second flush," which means it's the highest quality.

Store Assam tea in an airtight container in a dark, cool place for up to a year. Use the tea within a few months for the best flavor.