Brewing History: The Exquisite Journey of Assam Tea


In a world driven by hustle and chaos, there’s a soothing ritual that millions embrace daily. It brings the warmth of a cup in your hands, a fragrant aroma that dances in the air, and with it, a gentle comfort that wraps around you. Tea, the elixir of tranquillity, is an integral part of our lives. From early morning wake-up calls to leisurely afternoons and cosy evenings, tea is our silent companion.But what we now know as a global comfort beverage was once harboured as a remarkable secret known only to the distant lands of China. Join us on a journey that unveils the fascinating history of Assam tea, from its origins as an enigmatic Chinese treasure to the powerhouse drink it is today.

The Global Love Affair with Tea: A Contemporary Connection

Before we delve into the annals of history, let’s reflect on the present. Tea, in its myriad forms, is a source of daily solace for countless people around the world. . It’s a remedy for the sleep-deprived, a companion to chatty gatherings, and a balm for contemplative moments. From the bold Assam black teas to the delicate green teas, the world of tea is as diverse as it is enchanting. But how did this humble leaf become an international sensation?

China's Ancient Secret: The Birth of Tea

The history of tea, like the beverage itself, is steeped in tradition. It’s believed that tea was first discovered in China over 5,000 years ago, during the Shang dynasty. For centuries, the Chinese kept the art of tea-making and the knowledge of tea cultivation closely guarded secrets, regarding it as a medicinal beverage and one of the seven necessities of Chinese life. Tea was not just a drink; it was a symbol of culture, tradition, and harmony. The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, thrived in the lush hills and valleys of China, where it was cultivated, brewed, and savoured For generations, the Chinese mastered the art of tea-making, cultivating varieties with distinctive flavours and aromas.

The Spread of Tea

Robert Bruce

Soon after the Chinese, records show that the Japanese too started cultivating tea. It is believed that two Japanese monks had carried the seeds of the tea plant from their travels in China, to grow them in Japan. Over time, drinking tea became a popular custom in Japan, like it had been in China.

In the latter part of the sixteenth century, Europeans had their first encounters with tea, primarily noted by Portuguese traders and missionaries living in the East. However, it was the Dutch who initiated the commercial importation of tea. By challenging Portuguese trade routes and establishing a trading post in Java by the end of the century, the Dutch facilitated the first shipment of tea from China to Holland in 1610. Tea swiftly gained popularity among the Dutch and subsequently spread to other parts of Western Europe, yet its costly nature confined its consumption to the privileged elite.

Britain, however, was still not exposed much to this mystic brew. Yes, the British East India company did have a monopoly on importing goods from outside Europe since 1600 itself but there are no records of tea being a popular drink during the time.

Tea came into Britain with the help of coffeehouses and merchants who came across tea in their journeys. Tea was marketed through newspapers ads and pamphlets, but again, remained limited to the affluent aristocratic and mercantile classes. The pivotal moment in British tea history arrived with the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza. As a Portuguese princess and an ardent tea enthusiast, her fondness for the drink elevated tea’s status, beginning as a fashionable choice at court and spreading it as an acceptable social drink for both gentlemen and ladies. Leveraging this trend, the East India Company commenced importing tea into Britain, placing its inaugural order in 1664 for 100 pounds of Chinese tea from Java.

This spread of tea led to an increased demand, while supply remained limited. With tea marked as a ‘luxury’ commodity, it was heavily taxed, encouraging smuggling and even adulteration. Ultimately, the 1774 tax slash curbed smuggling of tea and made it widely available to the general British public.

The Assam Tea History : A Cup of Tea Offered by a Tai Chief

Our story takes a turn with the discovery of tea among the Tai Singpho community in the heart of Assam. The Tai Singpho people, an indigenous community, have a deep-rooted connection to tea. Their unique method of tea plucking, which involved trained elephants, was as remarkable as it was labour-intensive. Long before Assam’s tea industry was well-studied and formalised, the Tai communities of Assam embarked on a unique tea-harvesting journey. They plucked wild tea leaves from unpruned trees, utilising elephants as their partners in this labour of love. It was not only the plucking that was novel; the Tai Singphos had distinctive traditions of roasting, processing and storing their tea – each variety brewed in unique ways to enhance its flavour. These traditions are a testament to the deep-rooted connection between Assam and its tea, a connection that continues to define the rich tapestry of flavours and techniques that Assam offers to the world.

The British, in pursuit of new discoveries and commercial prospects, ventured into Assam in the early 19th century. Among them was Robert Bruce, the Scottish explorer, whose encounters with the Tai Singpho offered a tantalising taste of Assam’s hidden treasure. Bruce was reportedly directed by Maniram Dewan to Bessa Gam, the local Singpho chief, who showed Bruce how local tribesmen (known as the Singhpos) brewed tea from the leaves of this bush. Bruce made an arrangement with the tribal chief to obtain samples of these tea leaves with seeds, as he planned on having them scientifically examined.

Intriguingly, it was Bruce’s return from Assam with tea samples, leaves, and seeds in the year 1823 that marked the initial discovery of Assam tea. Little did the world know that this was just the beginning of a journey that would eventually change the global perception of tea. It would take nearly a decade for this newfound treasure to gain recognition, and by the 1830s, the world was on the brink of a new tea sensation.

Assam's Unveiling: The British Connection

The belief that tea was a secret known only to China was challenged when Robert Bruce made his groundbreaking discovery in Assam. Robert Bruce, unfortunately, passed away shortly thereafter, without having seen the plant properly classified. It was not until a decade later, in 1834, that Robert’s brother, Charles Alexander Bruce, arranged for a few leaves from the Assam tea bush to be sent to the botanical gardens in Calcutta for proper examination. There, the plant was finally identified as a variety of tea, or Camellia sinensis var assamica, distinct from the Chinese version (Camellia sinensis var. sinensis).
“We are perfectly confident that the tea plant which has been brought to light, will be found capable, under proper management, of being cultivated with complete success for commercial purposes.” – Nathaniel Wallich on the discovery of the tea shrub that was indigenous to Upper Assam. Laura C Martin, Tea: The Drink that changed the World (Tokyo, 2007), p. 155.
On Christmas Eve 1834, Nathaniel Wallich declared that the samples Charles Bruce had sent were indeed from a tea plant. Things moved quickly from there: In less than five years, London witnessed its first ever auction of Assam tea. Thus, changed the history of not only Assam, but of Britain, with tea contributing heavily to establishing the country as a global superpower.
First Share Certificate of Assam Company India Ltd., 1839

The Assam Tea Tapestry: Green, White, CTC, and Orthodox

What sets Assam apart is not just its rich history but also its remarkable diversity. From the same Camellia sinensis plant, Assam produces a spectrum of teas, including the bold black teas, delicate green teas and pristine white teas. Within the black tea that the state is known for, both CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl) and orthodox teas are made. The variation in flavour, aroma, and appearance is a testament to the ingenuity of Assam’s tea artisans

Conclusion: Sip into History

As we sip our favourite tea blends today, it’s worth pausing to acknowledge the remarkable journey of Assam tea. From an enigmatic Chinese treasure to a global delight, it’s a testament to the power of discovery, innovation, and the fusion of cultures. The next time you savour a cup of Assam tea, you’re not just experiencing a delightful brew; you’re participating in a story that transcends borders and centuries, a story that continues to evolve, sip by sip.

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