We commit to providing the finest quality of black tea and green tea from North-East India, specifically from the tea estates of Assam and Darjeeling. They are characteristically different and known for their flavor and aroma profiles.Elaborating on the same, we thought of putting together an informational post for all the tea lovers who’d like to dig a little deeper into their hot (or cold!) cup of happiness. Let us break it down for you why Indian tea is so celebrated and why we won’t settle for anything less than that very tea grown thousands of miles away.

Assam Tea 

What is Assam Tea and why is it popular?

Assam Tea is a flavorful black tea, grown in the Indian state of Assam which is situated in the Brahmaputra valley, 120 miles east of Darjeeling and bordering with China, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. Assam accommodates approximately 2,000 tea gardens and produces over 400 million kg of tea annually. Even though the majority of the production takes place between July and September, Assam contributes 15.6% to global tea production and 55% to India’s total tea output.

The full-bodied Assam Tea contains the sought-after malty aroma, but also a slight honey fragrance. It is an excellent morning tea and is popularly consumed with milk and spices like cardamom and ginger. Ideal conditions in Assam like fertile and well-drained soil, warm and moist climate, temperature between 14° C to 27° C, annual rainfall measuring around 150 cm to 250 cm, and well-distributed showers throughout the year aid in excellent tea cultivation.

Tea production is the backbone of Assam’s economy and development. It is the largest industry of the state, providing employment to an estimated 12.5% of the total population. The industry has also been instrumental in the development of ancillary industries such as plywood, aluminum, fertilizers, pesticides, communication and transport, and warehouse. Further, tea gardens prevent soil erosion, add green cover to the state, and lower down humidity and temperature. Notably, Assam is India's largest black tea producing region.

The origin of Assam Tea

In 1823, an Englishman named Robert Bruce discovered tea plants in the forests of Assam, and later, his brother Charles Alexander started the first tea garden in the state. In 1828, Assam Tea was sent to England for the first time, was liked by the British, and in no time became very popular in the country.

This encouraged the East India Company, the company that began the British Empire’s rule in India, to start commercial tea cultivation on a large scale. In 1835, it established its first tea garden in Assam, and later sold it to the Assam Tea Company in 1844. Since then the number of tea gardens have only increased in the state.

In 1862, the Assam Tea industry comprised of 160 gardens, which were owned by the five public companies and 57 private companies. The government appointed the special commission to inquire about all the aspects and practices of these companies, which has led them to grow into major entities generating huge amounts of revenue for the state. 

Assam Tea Festival: 

Organized by the state government’s tourism department, the Assam Tea Festival is held every year in the month of November. It gives visitors the opportunity to explore the magnificent tea gardens of the region, enjoy the exciting river cruises and visit the Guwahati Tea Auction Center, the largest in India. The season is ripe for tourists and provides them with a unique experience of the state.

What is Darjeeling Tea?

According to the Tea Board of India, the tea which has been “cultivated, grown, produced, manufactured, and processed” in the Himalayan foothills of Darjeeling, a district located in North-East India, is known as Darjeeling Tea. There are 80 odd tea gardens in Darjeeling, sprawled over seven valleys or ‘tea districts’. A tea garden can be anywhere in size from around 300 acres to 1,300 acres, and resides about 800 employees and their families.

Darjeeling’s tea industry is the mainstay of the economy in the region—engaging about 50% of the district—and provides a steady livelihood and other facilities like housing, statutory benefits, allowances, children's education, and medical help to its workers. Notably, these estates produce over 10 million kg of tea annually.

The region is also known for growing some of the most exquisite black teas in the world since the early 1800s.

Why is Darjeeling Tea special?

Darjeeling Tea is grown at an altitude ranging from 600 meters to 2,000 meters above mean sea level and requires a minimum of 50" to 60" of rainfall in a year, which is later naturally drained out due to the hilly terrain. The cool and moist climate, the soil, the rainfall, and the slopping terrains all combine to give Darjeeling Tea its unique and undeniably distinctive muscatel flavor and a light but memorable floral aroma.

Because of this delicate fruity essence and the exclusive muscatel character, Darjeeling Tea is also known as the ‘champagne of teas’ for the past 150 years. Just as the word 'champagne' signifies sparkling wines that come from the Champagne region of France, Darjeeling Tea also sports a geographic indicator that identifies the product as originating from the specific territory of Darjeeling. This underlines the reputation Darjeeling Tea carries with regard to its place of origin.

The sub-tropical, high altitude conditions, the slightly acidic soils and the climate that alternates between sunny to frequent cloudy, all contribute to the novel taste of the tea in this area. Due to this combination of natural factors, it is considered neither feasible nor possible to replicate the unique flavored tea anywhere else in the world, making it the most sought after and highly valued by connoisseurs.

The production process too plays a critical role in making Darjeeling Tea top-notch. Around 45,000 workers begin plucking tea early in the morning when the leaves are still covered in dew. This exercise needs precision as only apical tender buds and the finest two leaves are picked to augment the unique muscatel flavor. Interestingly, all the plucking is done manually.

On the manufacturing side, Darjeeling Tea is still produced using the technology of 1800s, collectively referred to as ‘orthodox manufacture’, instead of adopting highly mechanized production techniques that focus on high yields and not so much on quality. The comparatively labor intensive procedure requires expertise and intuition and gives the planters greater control over the many variables that affect the chemistry of the leaves. It is these chemical changes that give each batch its own characteristic. These subtle variations create flavors such as berries and the famous muscatel. Aromas range from floral and fruity to smoky and chocolaty. Before it is sent to other parts of India and exported around the world, the tea is tested by experts who certify it for its distinct taste and aroma. Around 80% of the total produce is exported every year to the affluent Western and Japanese markets.

Planters understand that customers buy into their long-standing reputation of excellence and high tea manufacturing standards and work extremely hard to protect their brand. A matter of great pride for India, it is common knowledge that the aroma and taste of Darjeeling orthodox tea is unparalleled in the entire world.

The origin of Darjeeling Tea

Darjeeling’s tea industry was set up by the British in the mid 1800s. The tea grown was mainly transplants from Fujian in China, while later, bushes from Assam and other locally developed clones were added.

On the other hand, in January 1842, two young German missionary families, the Wernickes and the Stolkes, arrived in Darjeeling, a densely forested and sparsely populated remote region of the Himalayas at the time. Only seven years prior, the area had been taken on lease by British colonialists from the Kingdom of Sikkim. The Germans, and later their children, cleared forests, engaged the local workforce, and set up some of the best known tea gardens of Darjeeling. One of the missionary children eventually turned this experiment into a profitable tea plantation and consequently into a successful industry.

According to the book ‘Darjeeling Pioneers - The Wernicke-Stolke Story’ by late local historian Fred Pinn, a senior member of the Wernicke family, recounting her first impressions of Darjeeling, said: "We went across the mighty mountains where wild and dangerous animals have their caves, and where we could not use wheeled transport anymore. We want to farm here, but first we have to clear away trees, trunks and all has to be removed and burnt in order to prepare the fields...The soil is so rich that wheat could be sown everywhere."

For the pioneers, tea plantation was definitely an uphill battle. Apart from the monumental physical labor, the planters only had a rudimentary knowledge about the cultivation and manufacture of tea, and had to learn everything on the fly. Besides tending to the plants, they also had to know about machinery, construction, and management of a labor force that had no idea about organized work.

Simultaneously, British colonialists had launched a massive effort to grow tea in India. They desperately wanted to break the Chinese tea monopoly but the latter would not comply.  Ultimately the British resorted to stealing bushes and seeds from China to transplant in India. The Wernicke children recalled how the government in Darjeeling eagerly distributed 20 pounds of tea seeds to anyone willing to cultivate this new and greatly desired crop. The government was also giving land for tea gardens at nominal prices, and they acquired 550 acres of it for Rs 600 in 1866. The second generation of the Wernicke family had been managers in tea gardens for a few years and they felt they could take on the challenge of owning some estates themselves.

Lt Col L Hannagan, who worked as a manager for the Wernickes, said: “In 1876, the Wernickes had already discovered that the Darjeeling Tea possessed something which was very rare in the world of their time, and is by no means common today, and this is the intrinsic flavor of teas grown at high altitudes and in particular aspects. They were also beginning to find out for themselves how elusive flavor in tea can be, and how easily it is lost by damage to leaf in transport over long distances and in stuffy baskets... They were aware of differences in flavor between individual gardens and districts or sub-districts. They were already beginning to recognize the differing flavors by such terms as ‘lemon’, ‘strawberry’, ‘muscatel’.”

In other words, the Wernicke brothers were among the first to discover the unique character of Darjeeling Tea. Their contribution was indeed vital in creating one of the best teas known to mankind. By 1949, the third generation of both the German missionary families had left India, leaving the natives with something they can be proud of. With a product that tasted like heaven in a cup, The Wernickes and Stolkes put Darjeeling on the world map forever.

 

Page author- Bhavika Bhuwalka, avid writer, traveler and tea lover.