BREAKFAST BREWS: ASSAM OR CEYLON?
We often reach for our breakfast teas without a second thought. As long as it packs a punch, any tea will do! But if you look closely, you’ll notice that Assam and Ceylon black teas are amongst the most popular choices at the breakfast table. Either tea goes well with milk or sugar, and adds a wonderful boost to your morning. However, Assam and Ceylon have some special qualities that set them apart from each other.
Assam tea is grown in north-eastern India, just south of the Himalayas. Ceylon tea, meanwhile, is the product of Sri Lanka. In both countries, commercial tea-growing began in the nineteenth century.
The tropical climates in Assam and Sri Lanka were ideally suited to the more robust tea plant variety, Camellia Sinensis Assamica. Whilst both areas offer some interesting green teas, they are best known for their brisk black teas. The processing can be fairly similar, so how do we go about distinguishing them?
WHERE ARE THEY GROWN?
When comparing teas, the ‘terroir’ is one of the best indicators of flavour. ‘Terroir’ refers to the environment in which a crop is grown. We often use this term when talking about wine, for example.
Shaped by the braided Brahmaputra River, the terroir of Assam is quite unique. This fairly flat region is enormous, about the size of Ireland in fact! It produces approximately half of all India’s tea. The high yield is also thanks to the plentiful rainfall in Assam. You can actually see the effect of the rain by looking at the colour of Assam tea - an enticing, dark-ruby liquor.
Assamese soil is rich in nutrients too, feeding golden rice paddies and lush tea gardens alike.
Here, the summers are mild, about 35-38 degrees, but the temperature plummets down to 6-8 degrees in the winter months. As a result, the tea plant goes into dormancy. This lends Assam significant seasonal variation. India categorises its tea according to seasons, or ‘flushes’.
In the UK, we’re probably most familiar with Second Flush Assam. Plucked around June, this flush gives the tea a chance to develop, before the monsoon season comes and washes away some of its beautiful flavours.
Sri Lanka, on the other hand, categorises its tea by altitude. 4,000 feet above sea level is considered ‘high grown’, but some Sri Lankan teas are grown as high as 6,000 feet! Tea-growing is mainly concentrated in the hilly centre of the island. The dramatic mountain landscape also influences the wind patterns, which can intensify certain tasting notes.
High altitudes and low temperatures can put the tea plant under stress, which is surprisingly quite desirable. A stressed tea plant grows more slowly, which produces some distinctive complexities of flavour in Sri Lankan tea.
HOW DO THEY TASTE?
Assam tea has an almost caramel sweetness to it. Undeniably strong, it can be both malty and spicy. Even the colour is a striking deep red. Its rich fruitiness makes Assam a truly comforting drink.
By contrast, Ceylon tea is best characterised as refreshing. Slightly brighter and crisper than Assam tea, it has a lovely smooth finish. Ceylon teas grown at particularly high altitudes might also be slightly subtler in flavour, with a lighter amber liquor. Some even have citrus or mentholated notes to them.
DO THEY WORK TOGETHER?
Of course, you don’t have to pick a side! Assam and Ceylon tea can actually work in harmony, to deliver a balanced, well-rounded brew.
You’ll find them side-by-side in blends like Twinings English Breakfast, for instance. The maltiness of the Assam, combined with the freshness of the Ceylon, create the ultimate, uplifting cuppa.