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Assam Tea and Darjeeling Tea

Key Differences Between Assam Tea and Darjeeling Tea you should know

India accounts for nearly 30% of global tea production. But just two regions – Assam and Darjeeling – harvest over 15% of the world’s tea supply. Their iconic black teas showcase how terroir transforms tea.

What is Assam Tea?

Assam tea comes from the Assam region in northeast India, which is the largest tea-growing region in the country. This area has nearly 800 tea estates that produce millions of kilograms of black tea each year.

Assam Chandighat Tea Estate photo

In fact, Assam accounts for over 50% of India’s total tea production, with annual yields of over 700 million kgs of tea, according to data Economic Times. The climate and terrain of Assam make it ideal for cultivating Camellia sinensis var. assamica, the tea plants used for Assam tea.

Assam black tea is known for its malty, robust, brisk taste and reddish-amber colour. The rich flavour comes from the larger leaves and higher concentrations of polyphenols produced by the Assamica bushes.

Some key benefits of Assam tea include:

  • High in antioxidants
  • May boost heart health
  • Contains caffeine for an energizing lift
  • Helps strengthen immunity

What is Darjeeling Tea?

Darjeeling tea is on the other hand produced in the Darjeeling district in the state of West Bengal in India. There are about 80 estates in this region where Darjeeling tea is grown.

Happy Valley Tea Estate Darjeeling

The geographic location of Darjeeling, the climate and the soil in this region are very special for growing Camellia sinensis var. sinensis which give Darjeeling tea its unique taste.

Darjeeling yields around 10 million kgs of tea per year, according to data, just a fraction of Assam’s production.

Darjeeling black tea is prized for its delicate, floral, fruity notes and light golden colour. The smaller tea leaves and minimal oxidation result in a milder, more aromatic cup.

Some potential health benefits of Darjeeling tea are:

  • Contains antioxidants
  • May boost immunity
  • Relaxing with less caffeine than other black teas

Key Differences Between the Teas

While Assam and Darjeeling are both Indian black teas, they have notable distinctions that impact the tea-drinking experience. Here are some of the main differences between Assam and Darjeeling tea:

Origins and Geography

Assam and Darjeeling tea hail from two very different regions of India, resulting in distinct terroirs that shape the flavour profile of each tea.

Assam tea comes from the lush, low-lying Brahmaputra Valley in the state of Assam in northeast India. The floodplains here are ideal for cultivation, with the Assam region home to over 300,000 hectares of tea plantations according to the Assam Government. The tropical climate brings heavy rainfall averaging 300 CM per year that helps the native Camellia sinensis var. assamica tea bushes thrive. Monsoons between March and October nourish the plants, while warm summer temperatures spur rapid growth.

In contrast, Darjeeling tea is grown across the hilly foothills of the Himalayas in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal. Estates are scattered across steep, rocky slopes at elevations between 600 to 2,000 meters above sea level. The region’s yearly rainfall averages 140 inches but falls primarily during the summer monsoon months between May and August. Average temperatures range from a high of 21°C in summer to a low of 5°C in winter. The cool mountain air helps produce Darjeeling’s delicate flavours. The area under tea cultivation in Darjeeling is just 19,000 hectares due to the challenging mountainous terrain.

The differences in climate, soil, elevation, and geography between the Assam and Darjeeling growing regions have a major impact on the tea plants cultivated in each area and the resulting characteristics of the teas.

Tea Varietals

The tea plants grown in Assam and Darjeeling belong to different varietals of the Camellia sinensis species especially suited to each region’s environment.

Assam tea comes from the Camellia sinensis var. assamica, a broad-leaf cultivar native to the Assam area. These plants can grow more than 30 feet and the leaves grow up to 20 inches long. Large leaves have high amounts of polyphenols and caffeine relative to small-leaf cultivars. Assamica is a fast-growing variety that can tolerate the tropical climate and the flood plains of Assam. Over 95% of India’s total tea area under cultivation uses this varietal.

Meanwhile, Darjeeling tea is made using the smaller-leaf Camellia sinensis var. sinensis. This Chinese varietal has leaves just 4-6 inches long and produces a more delicate, nuanced flavour. The shrub-like bushes grow to about 6 feet tall and do better in Darjeeling’s cooler mountain setting. Sinensis needs more care and maintenance to survive than Assamica. But the payoff is Darjeeling’s prized subtle notes. Approximately 19,000 hectares in Darjeeling are planted with sinensis bushes according to Tea Board of India statistics.

The Assamica and sinensis varietals have evolved over thousands of years to suit their native growing conditions. Their physical and chemical differences contribute greatly to what makes Assam and Darjeeling tea unique.

Flavor Profiles

The taste and aroma profiles of Assam and Darjeeling tea showcase distinct differences that tea enthusiasts prize.

Brew Cafe Assam Black Tea showing rich reddish brew

Assam black tea is valued for its brisk, bold character. The rich reddish brew has a full-bodied texture with malty, roasted notes up front. Hints of chocolate and dried fruit also come through, along with a lively astringency. Tasters often describe Assam tea as tasting nutty or woodsy. The large assamica leaves contain more polyphenols like catechins and theaflavins that contribute to the strong, intense flavour. Assam tea tends to have higher levels of these compounds compared to other black teas – often over 100 mg of total polyphenols per gram dried leaf according to studies.

On the other hand, black Darjeeling tea will have a very pleasant floral scent and mild fruit taste. The light golden liquor produces tastes of ripe peaches, apricots, and Muscat grapes. Darjeeling’s smooth, mellow character comes from the minimal oxidation during processing to preserve fruity volatile compounds.

Brew cafe Darjeeling  Tea

The smaller sinensis leaves contain lower concentrations of polyphenols and tannins. Catechin levels range from 13-42 mg per gram of Darjeeling tea. But the reduced astringency allows Darjeeling’s sweet, floral qualities to shine through brightly.

Every step of cultivation and production influences the taste outcome of the cup. Assam and Darjeeling teas showcase how terroir, cultivar, processing, and expertise combine to create two distinctly different flavour experiences.

Leaf Appearance

The visible differences between Assam and Darjeeling dry tea leaves provide early clues to the flavour characteristics of each tea.

Assam tea leaves are characterized by their dark appearance, from dark brownish-red to black. The leaves are broad, thick and tough with a leather feel. This is from the large-leafed assamica varietal bushes grown in the region.

Darjeeling and Assam Tea Leaves

The size of a mature Assam tea leaf is usually 5-6 inches in length and 3-4 inches in width. But for the production, the leaves that are plucked are often smaller since they contain more tender young leaves and unopened buds.

In contrast, Darjeeling tea leaves are noticeably thinner and lighter in colour. They range from light green to golden brown with a delicate papery feel. The smaller sinensis varietal has leaves just 4-6 inches long on average. In addition, Darjeeling tea features a higher ratio of young buds to mature leaves during plucking.

The buds are covered in fine downy hairs giving them a silver sheen. The leaves smaller size and more careful picking results in Darjeeling’s smoother liquor.

When brewed, Assam produces a dark reddish infusion reflecting the bold leaf composition. Darjeeling yields a pale golden cup with a light body, indicative of the dainty leaves. Examining the dry leaf is an easy first step in identifying these two teas from India.

Harvest Seasons

The tea plucking and harvest schedules for Assam and Darjeeling differ significantly due to each region’s climate patterns.

Assam tea estates can harvest leaves nearly year-round, though principal plucking periods are in the spring and summer. The first flush occurs from March to May. Then the important second flush happens from June through August during the monsoon rains.

Harvesting tea leaves

This second flush produces the highest quality leaves with more delicate new growth and floral notes. Assam yields peak in the summer, with over 190 million kg harvested just in July. Total annual production reaches over 600 million kg.

Meanwhile, in Darjeeling, cultivated bushes go through dormant winter months when no harvesting occurs. The first flush takes place in late February through March as the bushes reawaken. The second flush picks up as monsoon rains arrive in May and June. But Darjeeling is famous for its “muscatel” autumnal flush between October and November when clear skies after the rains concentrate flavours in the leaves.

Darjeeling estates harvest just 8-10 million kg of tea annually, according to livemint. Proper timing around these seasonal flushes is critical to achieving Darjeeling’s desired taste profile.

The weather patterns in Assam and Darjeeling dictate when plucking can happen. Adaptations in harvesting and production preserve the regional qualities that make each area’s teas unique.

Processing Methods

The techniques used to transform freshly plucked tea leaves into finished black tea differ between Assam and Darjeeling. These processing methods influence the ultimate flavour, aroma, and appearance of each tea.

Assam Tea CTC

Assam black tea is largely produced using the CTC (crush, tear, curl) method about 95% of the time based on Tea Board of India data. The leaves are run through rollers to crush and twist them, rupturing cell walls and enabling faster oxidation. This CTC style results in Assam’s strong, robust cup. However, some estates use traditional orthodox processing which involves longer oxidation and produces teas with more nuance.

Darjeeling Tea CTC

Darjeeling black tea relies exclusively on meticulous orthodox manufacturing. First, the withering, rolling, and oxidizing steps are done carefully to minimize damage to the delicate leaves. This preserves the flowery notes. Then the leaves are fired at lower temperatures to avoid roasting flavors. The finished leaves are graded by size with whole leaf teas most prized. Every stage focuses on retaining Darjeeling’s signature characteristics.

There are over 150 tea estates across Darjeeling, and each producer has their slight variations in technique. But the common orthodox process results in Darjeeling’s refined, elegant profile showcasing floral muscatel, fruit, and spice notes in the cup. Assam’s mainly CTC production yields the bold, brisk character expected from that region.

Availability and Pricing

The vast differences in production volumes between Assam and Darjeeling greatly impact the availability and pricing of these two teas.

Assam dominates Indian black tea production, with over 600 – 700 million kg harvested annually, according to Assam tea industry stats. The expansive tea estates in the Assam Valley have few geographic limitations allowing continuous expansion. Each year, enormous quantities are released into the marketplace, making Assam tea highly available to consumers. The large supply prevents prices from rising too high. Recent wholesale rates for Assam black tea average around ₹150-250 per kg.

Meanwhile, scarce Darjeeling tea commands a huge premium. Total output hovers around 10 million kg per year, less than 2% of Assam’s yield. The hilly terrain limits cultivation area to just 19,000 hectares according to Tea Board of India statistics. Harvesting and processing delicate leaves is labour-intensive. And demand constantly outstrips supply. As a result, Darjeeling fetches prices 15-20 times higher than Assam at wholesale. The average rate for Darjeeling black tea is ₹2,000-2,500 per kg.

Those who like to have a cup of regular Assam tea can be assured that there is a lot of supply and hence it is not going to be expensive. But for those wanting the refined experience of Darjeeling, the small amounts mean a much higher price for the tea. The price and availability indicate the uniqueness of these iconic Indian teas.

Culinary Uses

Assam and Darjeeling teas are used differently in the kitchen and paired with complementary foods that enhance their distinctive flavours.

The bold, brisk character of Assam tea makes it extremely versatile for cooking. It stands up well to dairy and sweeteners. Assam is ideal for mixing into chai masala tea blends along with spices like cardamom, cinnamon, clove, and ginger. The strong Assam base helps balance the sweetness of added milk and sugar.

Assam also blends nicely with Ceylon and Keemun black teas for a robust breakfast English tea. Additionally, the malty Assam pairs excellently with chocolate desserts where cocoa notes mirror its nutty earthiness.

Meanwhile, Darjeeling’s delicate floral notes are easily overwhelmed. The tea is best enjoyed pure to fully savour its elegant aromas. A touch of lemon can highlight Darjeeling’s muscatel qualities. Foody pairings tend to complement rather than compete with the tea.

Fresh sweet fruits like peaches and plums allow Darjeeling’s fruity hints to shine. Mild cheeses like havarti also make an indulgent match. Since oxidation is minimal, Darjeeling retains healthful antioxidants, making it a refreshing iced tea on hot summer days as well.

From chai to cheese platters, each tea has ideal culinary applications allowing their distinct flavors to be fully appreciated when brewed.

When to Sip Assam vs Darjeeling Tea

Their numerous distinctions mean Assam and Darjeeling tea offers different tea-drinking experiences. So when should you choose one over the other?

If you are a fan of a strong cup of tea that can kick your day off, Assam tea can certainly be a great morning tea choice. Since it is a great drink with a strong malt flavour and a touch of astringency, it also goes well with a splash of milk and sugar according to your taste to help kick off the morning. Assam tea is an energizer and should be consumed when you want a stimulating drink to begin your day.

Assam is unmistakably a stronger brew than Darjeeling. Instead, its fragility and floral taste make Darjeeling tea perfect for an early afternoon tea break. Sipping Brew Cafe’s Darjeeling black tea is a quiet moment of reflection for those who take their time to drink it. Its mellowness won’t over-stimulate, making it easier to return to work tasks.

Of course, tea drinkers can enjoy both Assam and Darjeeling black teas any time of day. But keeping their different strengths in mind helps ensure you get the most satisfying sip.

The Takeaway on Assam and Darjeeling Tea

Well, Assam and Darjeeling teas both share quite a much in common with Indian black tea but differ significantly in terms of taste. However, Assam produces a more significant brew with a stronger astringency and maltiness to mix with milk and sugar. Darjeeling is a mild tea with a soft fruity taste and aroma that gives a light and soothing cup.

These key differences will help you decide which one of these highly sought-after teas might be the right drink for you. Thus, both Assam and Darjeeling teas are highly recommended to be consumed simultaneously to experience the diversity of the taste of the brews offered perfectly by Brew Cafe.

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