How is Assam Tea made?

This post details the manufacturing process for Assam Tea. It has been compiled from the notes of Dick Clifford, a veteran Tea Planter who worked for the Jorehaute Company from 1946 and passed away in November 2005 at the age of 83.  Davey Lamont and Roy Church added to it. Many thanks for this very useful information!

Tea pluckers in Assam wear the traditional Assamese sombrero called a "japi" to protect themselves from the harsh sun.

A note about Tea Gardens in Assam

Many people fondly imagine tea plantations in Assam to be a small “tea farm” manned by local farmers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tea plantations (often referred to as “tea gardens”–which is probably why the misconception started) are massive and complex entities autonomously run like mini townships, Each tea garden has its own tea growing area, processing factory, management and labor force, forest land, rice fields, housing, power, water supply and hospital. They are self-contained entities. In the hey days of Assam Tea there were over 1500 tea plantations dotting the Assam valley.


Tractor trailers such as these are used to bring in the green leaves daily from the tea plantation to the factory.

Every stage of tea processing from plucking to final shipment has to be very diligently monitored as this directly affects the quality of tea.

During the second flush (peak growing season in Assam- June to August) the factory runs non stop. The leaf plucked on the day has to be made into black tea within 24 hours and sorted into varying grades within 48.

STEP 1: WITHERING The green leaf comes into the factory twice a day (sometimes three times) and is immediately thinly spread on Hessian cloth placed over wire-mesh racks in what is called the Withering Shed where it stays until it loses some of its moisture content and become flaccid (only 4% moisture remains). During the hot weather this takes around twelve hours which means the factory has to start at midnight or soon thereafter.

Gas fired dryers used in tea garden factories (historical photo courtesy Roy Church)

STEP 2: ROLLING OR CTC The leaf is collected and either rolled in Sirocco machines or, alternatively, put through a CTC machine which simultaneously crushes, tears and curls the leaf it as the process implies.

Davey’s comment:  “The laborers were terrified of the CTC machine back in the days when it was first introduced. The grinding “teeth” were exposed and they could just as easily Cut, Tear and Curl a few fingers along with the tea leaves!”

STEP 3: FERMENTING The mashed up tea leaves are thinly spread at a one-inch depth on trays to ferment and become oxidized and let its own juices interact. This process has to be closely watched and it takes an experienced tea planter to decide the optimum time required which varies from an hour to two or more, depending on the ambient conditions prevailing.

Rolling tables (historical photo courtesy Roy Church)

STEP 3:DRYING Then the tea is taken to the drying machines and spread thinly on the trays through which hot air is blown so as to extract the remaining moisture in the leaf. The end result is the black tea which one buys in the supermarkets . If the tea still has too much moisture left, it goes through the drying process again but care has to be taken not to scorch the end product. The finished tea is sent to the sorting room.

STEP 4: SORTING This is a mechanical process where the tea is fed on conveyors and passed through vibrating wire-mesh trays of varying mesh, the dust coming  through to the bottom. After sorting, the tea is packed in tea chests made of plywood lined with aluminium foil (to preserve flavor) and shipped by train or river steamer to Calcutta and then onwards to London. Prices for teas from different tea gardens were published and carefully monitored and there was much rivalry among Assam tea planters to see who was heading the listing. Tea planters were also paid a commission on profits so the the incentive to produce more and better teas was certainly not absent. Their existence depended on it.

Virtually all tea was sold on the London Market, through the Mincing Lane Tea Auctions, till the end of the 1960s. Only second grade tea was sold in India up till then, but the Indian Govt saw the possibilities of a full-blown Calcutta tea market and consequent income of foreign exchange. Once they had the organisation going, with purely Indian run Auction Houses, any U.K. importer had to purchase his teas in Calcutta and pay in sterling. This pertains to this day and 95% of the industry is Indian owned, the old U.K. firms having sold out to Indians.

BUNGALOW TEA: Roy Church talks about the special perks of being a Tea Planter. In the 1960’s it was customary for each tea garden to make a small quantity of special tea each year and to distribute one chest each to the estate Manager, the garden Assistant Manager and the factory Engineer. When the day came to make the “bungalow tea”, the garden assistant would employ the most skilled women to pick leaf from the best sections or even individual bushes. The leaf would be plucked extraordinarily fine; either pure tip or ‘one and a bud’. The women were paid special rates as such fine plucking would have been impossible at normal piecework rates. Dependant upon the personal taste of the Manager the leaf would be manufactured either orthodox or CTC style. This batch of leaf was manufactured before all the remainder of the day’s plucking so that it received the optimum manufacturing conditions and also so it could be kept entirely separate from the remaining manufacture. A spotless area in the sorting room of the factory would be set aside for the tea where it was sorted entirely by hand – even to the extent of using woollen blankets to further separate the fine tip. Very often the tea was so ‘tippy’ as to more resemble tobacco than tea!

(If you spot and error or an omission please send me a private comment HERE. Thanks!)

Tea talk on Tea Buddy
What is Assam Tea?
Types of Assam tea: ORTHODOX & CTC
What is the difference between Green Tea and Black Tea?
Is global warming changing the flavor of Assam Tea?

Shona Patel’s debut novel Teatime for the Firefly is a love story set in a tea plantation in Assam. You can read more about it HERE.  She is represented by April Eberhardt Literary.

Types of Assam Tea

ASSAM TEA IS BLACK TEA. There are two  kinds: Orthodox and CTC, both named after the manufacturing process used to create them. (You can read more  about how tea is made HERE) The leaf used from the bush (Camelia Sinesis) is the same in both cases. Quality leaf makes quality tea.There is no way around that. Quality leaf is determined by the pedigree and health of the tea bush and by careful hand-plucking. But like wine, tea manufacture is a fine art involving years of experience, in-depth know-how and often closely guarded secrets. The crucial step in making black tea is to allow the juices in the rolled fresh leaves to darken from contact with the air. Tea makers call this process “fermentation,” although, technically, it is “oxidation.” A similar process occurs when a cut apple turns brown. The dark substances that form while the tea leaves are exposed to the air is produced by the chemical reactions of the tannins in the tea.  The leaf is spread out and left to wilt, losing some moisture, stiffness and much of its weight. Then it’s rolled, exposing essential oils to the air and starting the oxidation process.  When the leaves have transformed sufficiently, then they are “fired,” dried over heat to stop the oxidation process.

Tea tasting in the factory. Historic photo provided by Roy Church

In practice when a factory is running, samples are taken every hour and tasted which may indicate how the manufacturing process needs to be readjusted. Tea Planters judge determine the quality of tea by its bright color and taste. The liquor when left to cool should turn opaque.

Orthodox Assam Tea. Notice the lighter flecks like tobacco called "tips". This is what gives tea its strength and flavor. Tippier teas have higher caffeine content.

GRADES OF ASSAM TEA Tippy” teas have a higher percentage of buds which show up as golden flecks (like tobacco) in the finished tea. The more “tippy” the tea,  the higher the grade/quality. Very ‘tippy’ teas are expensive. Top grade Orthodox is sorted entirely by hand and woolen blankets are sometimes used to further separate the fine golden tips. Orthodox names often have the words “golden” or “flowery” in the description but some names are confusingly common to both methods (Orthodox & CTC) of manufacture.

The four grades of Orthodox black tea are: 1. Flowery Orange Pekoe (the small leaf next to the bud).  2. Orange Pekoe (the second leaf next to the bud).  3. Pekoe (the third leaf next to the bud). and 4.  Souchong (the fourth leaf next to the bud).

TGFOP (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) is the highest grade of Orthodox Assam, hand processed in small quantities at the finest plantations. It contains roughly one-quarter tips. The joke among tea aficionados is that TGFOB stands for “Too good for ordinary people.” TGFOB fetches top prices in the Arab world. It is drunk “pure” without milk. Bottom of the barrel are the Fannings and Dust. This is the tea that go into tea bags. Tea Dust is also what is boiled in milk and spices to create Indian street chai, which is a whole different cuppa altogether.

The word “pekoe,” used in grading black teas, comes from the Chinese word meaning “silver-haired.” This refers to the silvery down found on especially young tea-leaves. “Orange Pekoe” is neither flavored with oranges nor especially orange-colored.

“Orange” probably comes from the Dutch royal family, the House of Orange. (The Dutch played a major role in bringing tea to the West, and the Dutch East India Company was the first large tea trading company in Europe.) So Orange Pekoe tea is a fancy grade of black tea, as indicated by the reference to Dutch nobility and the fact that it contains particularly young tea-leaves

CTC tea: a dark fully oxidized tea that give a strong dark brew and has a rich malty taste.

CTC TEA: At the start of the 20th century when tea drinking caught on in the UK,  British tea companies started experiments in Assam and the CTC method invented and used to the increase volume of tea. CTC is the acronym for Crush, Tear & Curl. It describes the factory process used to make the tea which is similar to that of orthodox tea manufacture but instead of the leaves being rolled as a final stage, they are passed through a series of cylindrical rollers with hundreds of small sharp “teeth” that Crush, Tear, and Curl the leaf into tiny little balls.

CTC tea gives double the cuppage for the same weight as orthodox. For example one Kg. of CTC tea yields around 500 cups compared to 250 cups from Orthodox. The quality of Orthodox however is better than CTC as the coarse leaf is discarded at the time of manufacture by shifting.

Pekoe nowadays simply denotes the size of the tea particle. The smaller the particle size the quicker and stronger the brew. Large whole leaf teas tend to brew slower and lighter, and have more subtle flavours than small leaf teas.

Until the late 1960’s, 90% of Assam tea was sent to U.K. (to pay Sterling shareholders). Now it’s the other way round (90% sold in India). This also means that today’s tea standard is much lower than it was. This matter is further complicated by today’s practice of tea being grown on small private gardens who sell  their green leaf to other gardens which in practice means there is little control over quality.

(This post has been compiled from information collected from Larry Brown, Roy Church, Davey Lamont and Ali Zaman: all veteran Tea Planters. I have also used some excellent tea excerpts from Andy’s website Any errors/omissions are my own. Please drop me a line if there is anything amiss or if you would like to be credited differently. Thank you!)

Do you have other questions? Shoot me an email and I will ask the experts.

Tea talk on Tea Buddy
What is Assam Tea?
Types of Assam tea: ORTHODOX & CTC
How is Assam Tea Made?
Is global warming changing the flavor of Assam Tea?
What is the difference between Black Tea & Green Tea?