Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Reviewing Assamica Agro specialty Assam black teas

Assamica Agro Classic Morning Delight

Organic Assam Tea (mixed CTC and orthodox leaves)

Assam is a tea region and type I've never really done justice to, trying a few higher end relatively commercial versions, but never really doing much with better specialty tea versions.  Per my understanding Assamica Agro is moving away from only producing CTC teas, to shift consumer options range and produce higher value orthodox tea products.  We'll see how that worked out based on review.

Upon opening the box I noticed it was half green teas.  I suppose that is a development related to moving away from more uniform black tea range, but those not being a personal favorite--a personal least favorite, really--could be a challenge.  I can still try them and pass on thoughts, and even account for not liking grassy and vegetal range in teas to some degree, to judge them beyond that.

In a sense it makes personal preference less of a valid marker because surely some people tend to drink green tea based on being open to grassy or vegetal elements, so I might rate a tea higher for being atypical, but that may not necessarily relate only to overall quality or to others' judgments.  I'm on black teas for this post anyway.

Kind of different; they sent a few empty tea bags with this set of teas (described on their website here).  I could make tea bag tea out of them.  I won't, or maybe more to the point can't imagine doing it, and already have a pretty good idea where that would lead (the tea turns out about the same), but it seemed cool to me all the same.

I'll hang onto them, and eventually having them around will make sense in some way.  I could use them for adding spices to a stock, for example, if I wanted to take the herbs back out.  I asked them if they would recommend re-using them (they said sure), and that would avoid problems related to composting tea bags.  I would expect them to retain some flavor if re-used but there could be a fix for that.  It's been coming up enough lately it might be common knowledge that even some of the paper versions of tea bags contain some plastic, so it just depends which tea bag materials are used for them to have a chance of ever breaking down in composting.  The obvious fix:  use loose tea.

There is plenty on their website about organic farming practices and fair trade issues, summarized on this page, with a bit on the growers here.  I've got a lot of ground to cover related to this being a comparison review so I won't really get into all that, but it is a subject I've been discussing quite a bit with people in different places, in India and elsewhere.  The welfare of the tea growing and production staff is a real issue, obviously.  It's hard to fully evaluate any set of claims based only on the vendor's input but an expression of commitment in a mission statement is a good start.  I might get back to this subject in a later post.


The "Morning Delight" version looks like reasonably whole leaves (they refer to them as Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (FTGFOP); I would have accepted Broken Pekoe, but I don't keep up with those terms).  The "Organic Assam" version is a mix of more ground tea and broken leaves, described in the packaging as CTC mixed with orthodox tea; different.

They mention this is more or less designed for use in chai (not mentioning "masala chai," the actual name we accept in the West for the spice blend range, but I'd assume that's implied).  I have tended to use a mix of whatever CTC tea I have around (if any) with some orthodox tea for making masala chai, covered in a few other posts here.  I never thought to try drinking that mix of two teas alone, which I'm giving a go now.

As to brewing approach I'm preparing the tea Gongfu style, a version of that allowing for a moderate proportion of tea to water and a bit more infusion time than I use for some other types.  It might have made more sense to just use Western style brewing, since that's how these teas would typically be prepared, but I'm not on that page lately.  I want to compare them to my own impression of other tea types more than to as pass on some sort of standard, objective, complete, reviewer-removed review.  I tried the Morning Delight tea a second time (later) prepared Western style, just to check if there would be any surprises, if it would work out to be quite different.  It was similar enough I won't go into that here, sticking to the original taste comparison notes.

Whether it is even possible or not to achieve an objective review gets to be a bit of a philosophical issue.  Of course to some extent with proper training and background it surely is, but the discussion of how to get there might involve comparing the role, capability, and knowledge set of a hobby tea reviewer like myself versus a professional tea taster.  A person in such a dedicated taster role would typically not be attempting to judge teas from across a lot of tea regions, and varying types they try on a regular basis, and that's exactly what I do, mix it up.

Let's fill that in a little.  I started editing this the next day while drinking a nice Dan Cong (Chinese oolong), and the day before the tasting I tried a version of shou pu'er that arrived with an order of other hei cha and a Chinese black tea.  The day before that I had Wuyi Yancha with breakfast and aged shou mei cake tea in the afternoon, and I've drank Laos green tea and a compressed Yunnan black tea since.  This year I've been on teas from India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Taiwan (in addition to China; always mostly those), with more focus on Nepal and Indonesia in the recent past.  It does come at a cost, drinking teas from lots of places, giving up focus and familiarity related to a more narrow range.  More than anything my pu'er exposure suffers.  But for me the writing, research, and discussion is a function of enjoying drinking different teas, not the other way around.  On to reviewing these then, and I'll try to place them related to teas from lots of other places at the end.


I brewed both teas relatively quickly on the first infusion, using a 30 second or so steep time, thinking that might have prepared them on the lighter side in spite of the higher than average proportion (related to Western parameters).  That ended up resulting in a typical conventional Western brewing intensity, although stronger than a Gongfu approach usually results in for most tea types.  I'm expecting level of astringency to be one of the main factors to review, a main input to the effect of the tea, but we'll see how that goes.

Morning Delight left, Organic Assam right

The "Organic Assam Tea" version (the one with some CTC ground tea content) is strong, but in the normal range, and quite pleasant at first taste.  Astringency is significant, especially given that I'm used to drinking softer Chinese black teas, but it's well balanced as this particular infusion is prepared.  It's not harsh, dry, or overpowering, but balanced.  Beyond that the tea is nice.  Malt, mineral and earthy tones inform the rest of the experience.  I get the sense that in this review I'm going to be explaining the general Assam tea profile as much as describing this particular tea, even though at a guess this is a good version of it (exactly how good I'd have trouble judging; I don't really drink better Assam).

Malt stands out as the main flavor aspect.  From there it's really tempting to say something like "it tastes like Assam."  The astringency is the other main defining element for the experience, coming across as a lot of structure in this tea, but not harsh, so on a decent level.  It's hard to tease out the mineral and earthiness further; mineral is one of those ranges that's not easy to sort in general.  The earthiness is in the range of a dark wood, kind of common for how a more subdued darker tea element goes.  It is a little fruity but not so much that fruits come to mind too.  I suppose if someone pulled some fruits out of thin air, say raisin and peach, they could interpret them in this tea, but citrus and dried persimmon might be just as good a description.  Or there could be a lot of fruit, all four of those aspects, and another four, but all so subtle and integrated that the separation process gets tricky.  Someone less into rambling would say it's only a little fruity.

The "Classical Morning Delight" is a different kind of experience, with less astringency as baseline for that.  In that sense this tea is going to work better for me, just based on not normally experiencing or preferring "bold and brisk" teas, or in other words, a fair amount of astringency.  Mind you that first tea was nothing like ground up commercial Ceylon; it didn't have me thinking I should add milk and sugar to it.  The last time I tried a better Ceylon I actually tried that as an experiment, adding milk and sugar, and didn't end up liking it for those masking the experience of the tea.

The mineral element is different in this tea, and there is a specific range of mineral and fruit that I'm going to have trouble pinning down, which is interesting and positive.  It comes across as lightly brewed, made in exactly the same way as the other tea, while that one could have been slightly lighter, not brewed as strong.  In that Ceylon review I mentioned I also mentioned that another blogger described Ceylon as "tasting like blood," which I took to be a commentary on how the mineral elements combined together.  Or I suppose it could even relate to an effect from a trace of saltiness.  This is not exactly the same, the mineral aspects and combined effect, but it's not so far off.

There is something lighter and brighter going on with this second tea.  It almost starts towards a root-spice effect, off the dark wood / mineral / dark toffee / malt range into a lighter, different taste range.  I suppose that could be interpreted as a bit more citrus instead, in the range of dried orange peel, maybe, or maybe dried tangerine peel.  It's not really light and bright but it's not as close to earthiness as the rest of what is going on in the two teas.  Mind you the teas are pleasant; this is nothing like the experience of drinking a commercial blended tea bag tea (not that there is anything wrong with that; to each their own).

Morning Delight left, Assam Organic right

On the second infusion the "Organic Assam Tea" is nicer, more balanced, with more of a citrus element coming across.  Again I brewed both the same way, for a relatively short 30 second steep, so again this tea will be infused as stronger.  I'll probably need to adjust for that the next time or I'll be reviewing one version that's close to brewed out and another that's in the middle of its cycle.  Lots of pronounced mineral range underlies this flavor experience (not tasting that much like blood, but complex), but more fruit joins in.

One part of that fruit seems like tamarind to me, maybe even across the range of both dried and fresh tamarind; a nice effect given the overall range.  The dark wood element moves a little towards a spice tone, a darker, stronger spice range that isn't completely familiar, sort of like the stronger and less aromatic type of cinnamon effect in some Wuyishan (Fujian Chinese) Rou Gui.  It almost traces into the roast effect that comes in those tea types (roasted oolongs), in the form of the dark toffee sweetness and flavor, but surely this wasn't roasted.  It's nice, especially given there is CTC tea in this.  The astringency is a bit much by soft Chinese black tea standards but moderate and well balanced by Assamica based tea standards (versions I've tried, at least), so it works for me.  It seems conceivable that others could find it overpowering or too soft, depending on varying preferences.

The "Classical Morning Delight" is brewed slightly too weak to evaluate well, using the same parameters, and about the same weight of tea.  It looks like one and a half times more tea in the gaiwan but per weight it's actually not.  The tea is still nice, the aspects are fine, the diluted effect just doesn't present it well.  Instead of the fruit ramping up as in the other tea the woodiness increases just a little.  I think that's probably related to perception difference as a function of infusion strength.  With this brewed twice as strong the mineral and earthy elements would come across more as a baseline structure or context to the tea, even though they would still be pronounced, and fruit and sweeter tones, perhaps spice range, would seem to represent a "higher" range standing separate from the tea.  It will be easy to check that giving it a one minute steep time instead next round, or given how light this is maybe around one minute and twenty seconds.

This tea could be preferable to some based on being much softer; that astringency range just isn't there in the same sense.  If the fruit really does come across stronger in a more strongly infused version then that would help it compare as well or even more favorably as well.  I'll split the preparation styles in the next round, keeping the first version (Organic Assam Tea) on the lighter side, and double brewing time for the Classical Morning Delight, or just over that.

On the next infusion the caramel aspect picks up a little in the first tea (Organic).  This is probably a good time to mention some ideas I just raised in a comment on a group post about brewing green teas, related to someone offering one standard brewing methodology as a suggestion; it's a bit strange but I'll cite that:

It's common to vary temperature for making green tea by green tea type, much lower for some types of Japanese green teas, for example. This one temperature cited, 85 C (or 185 F) is probably a little higher than what is often advised, more typically 80 C instead, 175 F. It just depends on preference though, as also does the infusion proportion (amount of tea to water) and infusion time. Balancing all three in different ways will give different results, and it seems likely that any one person would like different kinds of green teas made according to slightly different parameters best. I didn't mention that re-brewing loose teas is standard, nor did the instructions, but the number of infusions depends on the other parameters as well. Some people really do advocate brewing leaves only one time but they would tend to be in a minority among tea enthusiasts.

The point here is that for some people there would be one standard way to brew Assam teas, with only slight variation required for adjusting for a specific tea turning out better.  But that's not a given.  It would be possible to change any of the factors, and to offset the others to compensate, resulting in a shift in final brewed tea aspects, and in some cases causing some aspects to all but drop out or others to seem to show up.  Using hotter water for black teas will draw out more of a dark caramel aspect, but it will also ramp up astringency too.

For some people all this I'm saying is only common sense, and for others complete nonsense.  For many there is one standard, traditional approach that is how to make tea (of a certain type, or I guess perhaps in general, although that does sound strange to me), but as I see it neither general perspective is necessarily right.  I did brew this orthodox-only version using a relatively standard Western approach that second time, using that lower proportion, with water temperature at 90 C.  Some people would go with full boiling point water instead, and it would just be slightly more "brisk" based on the slightly higher temperature.

Back to the tea.  The "Organic" version is dropping off a little in fruit and citrus, the wood-tone picking up; it's nearing the end of the infusion curve.  It will still brew a couple more good infusions made this way (based on using a high proportion of tea to water and short infusion times) but that aspect transition is standard.  It's still good but probably leveling off in terms of some of the nicer aspects being present.

The "Morning" version is nicer brewed twice as strong.  The astringency never does pick up as in the other tea but it adds a bit of structure and an unusual dryness to the tea that is not really positive or negative, just different, to me at least.  If that's some sort of chemical effect I'm picking up it might not be so negative to experience but there could be a health impact, but I'm guessing it's just the way the astringency in that tea type comes across.  I buy the organic production claims.

There is fruit present in this tea, perhaps not completely disconnected from the citrus / tamarind range in the other version, but definitely not the same.  It's doing something different with a root-spice type of effect, and the dark cinnamon aspect is also faintly present but it doesn't play the primary role that it did in that one "Organic" version infusion.  The brighter fruit tones that were in that other tea are mapping onto more a yam range here, closer in effect to how lots of Dian Hong come across (Yunnan black teas, a type I love, that everyone really should love, per my own preference for aspects).  It tastes nothing like a Dian Hong, to keep that clear, but one aspect seems common.

Kanoka Organic farm photo, borrowed from the Assamica Agro FB page


This went long.  I did try brewing these teas again using a couple of longer infusions to see what would happen and they picked up an unusual taste and feel that reminded me a lot of pine-needle tea.  Usually black teas being stretched to produce extra infusions will seem a bit woodier but these didn't; "piney" instead.  I liked that, and it seemed like it could work well as a contribution to a masala chai, but it would depend on someone's feelings about that taste range.

I meant to evaluate these teas against the range of other black teas out there, even though that's never how reviewing specific teas tends to work.  As with the review process of trying lots of any other tea types I could place them better related to quality, and to fitting into a range of other Assams, after lots more experience with versions of the type, so I'll summarize related to general impression instead.  They're nice.

I still love Chinese black teas the most, but then I've tried a lot of good Chinese black teas and that personal connection to the range of types and typical aspects developed over many years.  As for Indian teas I've drank the most Darjeeling, by far, and of course these don't seem anything like any flush version of those.  It really doesn't work well to say if these teas are "as good" as Chinese black teas, or Dian Hong (Yunnan-originated versions), or even a specific tea.  They're different in character but the quality level is fine, at least in the right general range.

out of tea pictures; here's one of my girl

In the sense of trying something different they worked well.  That CTC / orthodox blend worked much better than I expected, maybe even better than the orthodox only tea, for me.  I thought the flavors complexity and intensity in the orthodox version were ok but not a great match for my own preferences.  Trying it brewed Western style confirmed it; the tea was good, clean flavored and complex, but the overall effect didn't completely speak to me.  As with the last better Ceylon I reviewed these two teas would be nice to drink 100 grams or so of for a breakfast tea but beyond that I'd expect the novelty to wear off.

There's one thing I seem to be missing here; from the perspective of someone who likes conventional black teas prepared as tea bags, would this tea be a higher quality, more interesting, still cost-effective alternative?  Absolutely.  Evaluating them from the perspective of a tea enthusiast based on expectations related to better versions of Chinese black teas might be a little unfair.

Their "Queen of Assam" version is sold as a lower cost alternative but the flavors profiles are described differently, with that tea in a chocolate and molasses range versus this one described as floral and fruity.  It may just be that the aspects combination of this Morning Delight doesn't suit my tastes as well as it could, that those don't work as well combined with the dominant malt range for me.  I'll check back later about that version and the green teas they sent.


  1. i have tried their teas too, the queen Assam does have a slight chocolate flavor but nothing compared to a good golden Yunnan, but a good Assam all the same, i got a mild floral tone with the morning delight and a nice rounded malty flavor but as you said "it tastes of Assam" but its a good solid Assam for its price as is the queen Assam, as for the ctc blend i wasn't a fan but all my brews are western and it was too earthy, still better than African teas but a little too strong for me, overall i must agree if you want lots of different and interesting flavors drink great Chinese teas but if you want a good old familiar staple you could do much worse, otherwise i found the green interesting but we'll leave it for now

  2. I really appreciate seeing a comment that I don't have to delete due to being posted by a spam bot, and the informed second opinion on these teas. They seemed nice, not really different than I expected, but nice to mix things up. A friend mentioned his favorite estate in Assam, a guy that tends to try a lot of different teas, and I'll check back if anything more unusual turns up. Per the little I know about this source their teas will probably continue to improve in quality as they gain more production experience with better versions.