The state of Assam in northern India, located between Bangladesh and Myanmar, is the second most productive tea-growing area in the world. It has a very particular terroir which translates into a distinctive and highly regarded tea that is sold worldwide. Assam is known for heavy rainfall - particularly during the monsoon season - along with high levels of humidity and soaring temperatures owing to its low elevation. All of this produces a type of tea which is typically strong, dark, well flavored, and with a recognizable malty taste. While green and white Assam teas are growing in popularity, it is as an orthodox (black) tea producer that the area has become famous across the planet.
Assam teas are known for drinking alone, or as forming the basis of characterful blends such as the famous English Breakfast, where the confident and assertive flavors produce a drink that's invigorating and refreshing. As a comparison, other Indian varieties such as Darjeeling are grown in highland plantations and generally offer a more delicately perfumed infusion - it's all a matter of taste and preference of course, but Assam certainly appeals to those who value character in their tea.
This Tippy Golden loose leaf Assam tea is an excellent example of the orthodox black variety. Grown only on a small scale in Upper Assam, and hand-processed to retain its integrity and personality, Tippy Golden is ideally a second-flush picking which contains a high proportion of the golden tips of the tea plants. Ancient Indian tea lore has it that only the very newest shoots produce tea of the highest quality, with progressively lower pickings being suitable for lesser teas and blends, and so it's clear that this tea is aiming for the top. But does it achieve its aspirations?
First, it's important to talk about the various grades of Assam tea leaves. Tippy Golden is of a grade that goes under the snappy designation of FTGFOP - which is only slightly more memorable in its expanded form of Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe.
In essence, what this cumbersome name means is that the loose tea is made from leaves and tips of the highest quality plants, grown only on the most well respected plantations. Teas of this quality are usually processed by hand (as this one is), and boast a tip-to-leaf ratio of around one in four.
An alternative, unofficial rendering of FTGFOP is perhaps more descriptive: Far Too Good For Ordinary People. All humorous elitism aside, it's enough to say that teas of this grade are intended for serious tea aficionados, with lesser grades such as FOP producing teas of reduced refinement and complexity. The lowest grade categories of 'fannings' and 'dust' often find their way into teabags and blends of variable quality, and while they may produce perfectly pleasant infusions, a FTGFOP tea such as Tippy Golden loose leaf from the Prithvi Small Tea Growers association will have vastly more satisfying and reliable results.
This specific example of high grade Assam tea produces an end result which is particularly malty and well rounded. It has a deep copper color ideally suited to being served in glass, along with a good floral character and a strong, long-lasting aftertaste. It exhibits the classic signs of Assam in an assertive way, yet retains its essential depth and character without the overwhelming astringency that can blight some less elevated brews.
While many purists would always insist on taking their tea pure and unadulterated, this is a particularly good product for those who like milk in their brew. When infused for the recommended two to three minutes in a closed container, it creates a robust tea full of character that is well able to withstand the addition of milk or even cream, along with sweeteners from plain sugar through to jaggary or honey.
Quite apart from the superior taste, the high proportion of golden tips in this loose leaf product conveys health benefits. The young shoots of tea plants are packed full of antioxidants which can help prevent cell damage and ageing, along with reducing the risk of heart problems and strokes. While levels of these substances are somewhat lower in black tea than in green tea made from the same plants, like all high grade teas Tippy Golden contains appreciably higher amounts than those lower down the quality scale.
As an excellent example of the Assam variety, Tippy Golden FTGFOP is a tea to be taken seriously. While some tea connoisseurs may favor the lighter, more perfumed notes of milder teas, if you're a fan of Assam - and many millions are - then this is a great example of a high grade loose leaf tea, and well worth a place in your tea cupboard.