Handmade organic teas of Assam

Many people in the world perhaps know Assam for its tea – the tea that comes with bright colour and strong flavour. The famous Assam tea brand is the conventional machine made CTC  teas. Assam CTC tea is among the best teas in the world because it has unique full bodied, strong and bright liquor. That said, Assam had an age old tradition of tea manufacturing and drinking even much before the tea machines were invented.  Hence the handmade organic teas of Assam are unique in true sense. The new generation of small tea growers have been putting great efforts to popularize the organic teas of Assam. Though there is still a lot needs to be done, their efforts have not gone unnoticed among the tea lovers worldwide.

organic teas of Assam - green tea with chamomile flowerAssam – its place in the world of tea:

Many people throughout the globe knows the north-eastern Indian state of Assam as the ‘Land of the red river and blue hills‘. Here, the commercial tea plantation started about one hundred and eighty years ago. Since then the tea industry has become part of Assam’s way of life. It has a major contributions to the socioeconomic development of the state. Tea plants of Assam origin have also given birth to thriving tea industries all over the world.organic teas of Assam - handmade green tea

About the geography of Assam

Experts have divided the tea growing areas of Assam into two traditional areas. It is based on difference of physiography and quality of tea produced. The two areas are Assam Valley and Cachar. The state of Assam has an area of 78,438 square km.The mighty river Brahmaputra flows through the breadth of the state. The tea growing areas of the Assam Valley consists of the tea districts of Darrang, Goalpara, Kamrup, Lakhimpur, Dibrugarh, Nagaon, Sibsagar and the hills region of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills districts. Assam predominantly produces CTC (crush tear curl) type of tea. You will find other varieties of tea in Assam like  orthodox black, green, oolong teas too, though in a lesser quantity.

In 2017, Assam produced 653.53 million kg of tea which was about 51 per cent of India’s total tea production and 13 per cent of the world production. Growth of small tea growers sector since 1978 is a significant development in the tea industry of Assam and also in the socioeconomic sphere of the state. According to a recent estimate, there are more than 100,000 small tea growers in Assam. They are contributing about 40 per cent of the state’s total tea production.

organic teas of Assam - two cups of green tea

History of Assam tea

As early as in 1815, Colonel Latter first reported to have noticed tea drinking habit among the tribes of Assam. The Singpho tribe had a very important role in the early development of tea industry in the state. The Singphos discovered wild tea in Assam. They were aware of the medicinal values of tea. Thus they developed indigenous method of tea preparation and alongside, developed a habit of tea drinking. Singpho chief, Beesa Gaum, first showed a wild growing tea plant to Robert Bruce in 1823. And, this eventually led to the establishment of a robust tea industry in Assam.

William Robinson’s ‘Descriptive Account of Assam’ (1841):

The author wrote this book about 175 years back from today. This book took into account the history, geography, sociology and anthropology of then Assam. The author  presented a detailed account of tea drinking and method of preparation of tea among the tribes of Assam since early days.

Excerpt from the book ‘Descriptive Account of Assam’:

‘Tea has hitherto been the favourite beverage of these hill tribes in whose vicinity the wild plant has been found. The Singphos have long known and drank the tea, but their mode of preparing it is very different from that we have already described. The young and tender leaves are first plucked and dried in the sun; by some they are exposed alternately to the night dews, and the heat of the sun for three successive days; whilst by others they are put into flat hot fans and turned about till quite dry.

This done the leaves are placed in the hollow of a bamboo and driven firmly down by means of a stick, the bamboo being at the same time held in the heat of a fire, when full, the ends of the bamboos are tied up with leaves, and hung up in places where they may be exposed to the smoke of the fire. Thus prepared, the tea is said to keep good for years.

In other places, the natives have a different mode of manufacture. Holes are dug in the earth, the sides of which are lined with large leaves. The tea is then boiled, the decoction thrown away, and the leaves themselves are buried in the earth. This is done with the view of reducing the leaves to a state of fermentation; and when this has been effected, the leaves are put into hollow bamboos, and thus prepared are taken to market. When intended for use, the leaves are boiled and the infusion is drunk.’

Production and marketing of traditional and handmade organic teas of Assam:

The present generation of the Singphos have succeeded in popularising the original method of tea preparation to some extent. They make tea coins of organic tea (a mixture of oolong and green tea) which has some similarity with pu’erh tea. Singpho producers are selling such teas and coins made of ‘Phalap’ (the traditional Singpho tea), even to the buyers in export market.

The handmade (handcrafted) teas produced in this way are all organic. But many of the small growers producing them prefer to call them ‘natural tea’.  As most of them do not possess organic tea certification, they do not  use the ‘organic’ label.  Even without organic label, high quality organic production is the hallmark of these teas.

organic teas of Assam - handrolling in a dolaThese teas are mostly of black and green orthodox types. The manufacturers prefer to call the teas ‘handcrafted tea’. The tea makers usually hand roll or at best process the leaves with the help of some local indigenous tools. Though there are around one hundred thousand small tea growers in Assam, only a limited few have taken up both manufacturing and marketing of such handmade teas. These teas have huge marketing potential.

Production process of organic teas of Assam

The growers use locally available tea plants which possess inherent insecticidal properties. They use cow dung, vermi-compost, oil cake, etc. for providing nutrition to the plants and for controlling pest. The growers manufacture the tea by using locally available tools. They use dola (bamboo tray – as in the picture) for hand rolling. Sometime they also use dhenki (locally made foot operated wooden pounding tool used generally for paddy husking or grinding) for rolling. And, for the subsequent operations of drying, they commonly use iron pans. For other operations like grading etc., the growers use improvised locally fabricated machines. Producers take utmost care to maintain the organic nature of the tea. However, the growers manufacture the handmade teas in very small quantities. By this, they keep the quality distinctive, unique and liked by any tea drinker.

Support from overseas:

An international NGO of Canada is particularly active in extending support to such venture. They are currently purchasing teas at a premium for import to Canada. Though small in number, few of the tea growers have found buyers also in the US, France and Egypt for the organic teas of Assam, exclusively produced by them. Clients from several other countries, viz. Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Australia, Austria, Hungary and Kenya are also making inquiries on a regular basis.

Apart from the export market, in recent days, the handmade teas of Assam are gradually finding acceptability in metros as well as in non metros within the county. Again the encouraging fact that handmade teas command  much higher price than the conventional black orthodox tea and green tea sold through the auction centres. With increase in demand,The small tea growers have the know how to produce handmade specialty teas including purple tea. They have the potential to revolutionize the tea industry with tailor-made teas for special category of consumers. The prospect of production of purple tea may bring in a new era for the tea growers of Assam. tender leaves used to make organic teas of assam

Challenges and potentials of traditional and handmade teas: 

One of the major constraints the less organised small tea growers are facing  is proper marketing or better to say lack of it. Another problem they are facing is lack of sufficient capital and business skill and/or experience. They face problem in obtaining organic certification. They need to fight for getting international exposure, proper tools and machinery. Handmade teas have high potential for a niche future market. The tea enthusiasts are now more aware about the health benefits, special character and exclusive production processes associated with these teas. Hence,  with every passing day we can expect the demand to rise in the coming days.

Few ideas for tea growers:

There are people with greater purchase power who are looking for something exquisite with more value. For such people, the handmade and traditional teas of Assam which is produced with meticulous care, can be very attractive and appealing. Till now, the Chinese and Taiwanese are dominating the production scenario of Oolong tea. And, the tea growers of Assam making handmade tea can diversify to this area, as it has good demand in select markets. This type of tea has to be produced with fine plucking and gentle treatment of partial oxidization. This one area is easier for small-scale tea producers to handle and they can be an expert in this area. Till now many big companies are importing Oolong tea from China in substantial quantity to meet the demand in the local and the export market.organic teas of assam - a girl enjoying assam tea

The indigenous small tea growers are still far away from tapping the full potential of the traditional and handcrafted teas of Assam. There is an urgent need to lead them to the niche markets around the world with a proper marketing strategy. The small tea producers are mostly with inadequate finance and business experience. Hence they need constant help and support. They need patronage for international exposure from competent agencies at this stage.

Few vital areas where they need support:

Some of the specific areas that they can be supported may be

  1. Easier processing of application for organic certification,
  2. easy accessibility to technical support in production,
  3. training on skill development and product improvement, innovations from experts.

These points are vital for development of this very special segment of Assam tea.The producers of the specialty teas should also be proactive in their approach. Openness to innovative ideas and diversification to attractive product forms like floral, ball and early cashing on in purple teas would help them to flourish and establish a niche in the world tea market.

Article contributed by Dr. Pradip Baruah

For more details also read Best Assam Teas