Assam teas (named for the north-eastern Indian state of their origin) are special for a number of reasons. Firstly, Assam is one of only two regions in the world with documented native tea plants (the other, more well-known area is Southern China). Interestingly, the tea plants found growing in Assam are actually an entirely different varietal of the camellia sinensis plant--camellia sinensis assamica, as opposed to the Chinese camellia sinensis sinensis. The Assamese tea plants generally produce large leaves with malty, earthier flavors than the more flowery Chinese variety. The other interesting thing about Assam teas is that they are best grown in the lowlands--unlike Nilgiris and Darjeelings, which are hill- and mountain-grown (not to mention most Chinese and Taiwanese teas, which are also ideally grown at higher elevation). Assam has a lot of floodplain terrain with rich soil that the Assamese tea plants seem to like the best.
In general, Assam teas are strong, robust, malty, and full-bodied. You may not know it, but there's a good chance you're already familiar with Assam tea--it's a staple ingredient in most English Breakfast tea blends. Because of their potent characteristics, Assam teas stand up well to milk and also often benefit from a little sugar.
The Assam I picked to taste is the Satrupa Marangi Estate Assam. We acquired this one fairly recently. One of our most discerning Assam fans recently told me that this tea "perfectly sums up all of the characteristics" he looks for in an Assam. Not bad! As you can sea in the picture above, the tea is mostly composed of dark brown leaves (usually about half a centimeter in length--at most). There are also a number of lighter leaves in the mix--these are leaf buds, and are usually referred to as "tips," when it comes to Indian black teas. Usually, the tippier a tea is, the sweeter it will taste, since the leaf buds are more tender, delicate, and younger.
I brewed 2.5 grams of Satrupa Marangi Assam in a 120 ml competition brewing set for 4 minutes with boiling water. A quick sniff of the wet leaves revealed a richly woody aroma with plenty of strength. As you can see in the photo on the right, the tips, which were obvious in the dry leaf photo have mostly disappeared and the wet leaves are a homogeneous dark brown, thanks to the complete oxidation they underwent during processing. The same woody aroma is present in the liquor, but it's less intense and is also accompanied with notes of caramel. It's also worth noting (especially in comparison with the two other teas I'll be writing about) that the liquor is a very dark amber.
Tasting this tea, the first sensations I felt were in the form of tingling in the top of my mouth and back of my throat. Yes, Assams are unquestionably powerful! After swallowing, the tingling eased off and my mouth filled with a malty, mildly astringent and simultaneously sweet-and-bitter aftertaste. Exhaling a little, I could taste some hints of another flavor, somewhat akin to the woodiness in the aroma--something leathery, or like fresh tobacco. This tea definitely packs a good deal of complexity with its rather large punch. The strength and bitterness may be a little overpowering for some (especially people used to hunting the complexities out of milder and subtler teas), but they do have a great upside--if you add milk or cream and sugar, the tea's character and complexity remain largely intact and are complemented rather than covered up. If you're a fan of milk and sugar in your tea, I can wholeheartedly recommend our Satrupa Marangi Assam as a great candidate for a creamy and delicious cup.
Next up we'll be moving on to the mountains not far from Assam and to some of black tea's most exquisite pleasures, Darjeeling blacks!