Assam’s fame in tea began with the discovery of the indigenous tea plant, Camellia Sinensis - variety Assamica.
There are two schools of thought of the origins of this variety. One school says that these were originally trees growing in the wild, and the other, the Singpho (Jingpho) tribes lay claim to it saying their forefathers brought these plants from Yunnan, China, sowing the seeds wherever they settled through their migration. This was along their nomadic route that extends from China through Burma, Manipur and on the northern reaches of Assam close to the Chinese border.
Whichever of these origin stories is true, what resulted was the discovery of a new variety of tea, and the establishment of one of the world’s largest tea producing states or provinces.
The Assamica plant differs from the Chinary variety (orig. China) significantly, and sufficiently to command its own sub-species. When the British discovered it in the early 19th century, tea plantations began to come up. Assam got its first plantation in 1836, much before Darjeeling, in fact. The plantations were created from tea seeds that were obtained from the wild tea trees found growing indigenously.
In the beginning, the Assamica plants were almost entirely propagated through generative propagation or using seeds. As tea planting expanded rapidly, not just in Assam, but in other British colonies as well, many seed baries came up (‘barie’ is Assamese for estate or garden). These seed baries were the source of seeds/plants not only for the tea estates of Assam but for all British colonies where tea cultivation had begun, thanks to tea’s growing popularity in Europe. These included Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Java, Fiji, the African continent, and even the USA where tea planting was attempted. The fore-fathers of the founder of Rujani Tea (our great-grandparents) were seed traders first before we started tea planting in Assam.
In present times, it’s near impossible to narrow down on a plant or cultivar, as purely of the Assamica or Chinary variety. In commercial tea populations, there are innumerable intermediate types, as natural crossing during pollination over decades has produced a mixed population of tea varieties.
The introduction of clones or cultivars
A tea clone is a type of plant that has been vegetatively propagated through graft cuttings, as opposed to generative propagation or using seeds. A cultivar is a 'cultivated variety' and in theory could be either a clone, or a plant produced through seed, but is a term used from a human-use standpoint, not a biological one. A cultivar is an assemblage of plants selected for desirable characteristics that are maintained during propagation. More generally, a cultivar is the most basic classification category of cultivated plants in the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP) (source Wikipedia).
In the 1950s, clonal varieties and vegetative propagation became the buzzwords. Beginning 1949, the Tocklai Tea Research Association (TRA), located In Assam, has been releasing tea clones and seed varieties that we have been using in Assam. These clones have been designed to work through factors like yield, quality, tolerance to adverse climate, rooting of the cuttings etc. In the 1960s it was a fad for tea gardens to produce their own clones.
Not every clone met the standards, but there are exceptional clones such as the Panitola 126 (P-126) clone, that was released by the Panitola Tea Estate, and was considered exceptionally suitable for tippy whole leaf teas, that Assam is famous for.
A clone is an indefinite extension of a single plant. Which means that the population of the tea plantation is uniform if it is developed from a clone. The Tocklai clones are identified by the name TV (Tocklai Variety) and follow a sequence that began at 1 (TV-1).
Garden-release clones can be recognised by the name of the garden attached to the clone, like the P-126, or the Nokhroy 426 (N-426).
In the late 1980s and early 90s, the Indian government policy was to encourage an increase in production volume. The goal was one billion kilos by the turn of the century. The industry and the research oriented itself towards clones that would help achieve this target. Quality was sacrificed for quantity. Every clone after TV-20 that was released by Tocklai was with this brief.
Assam also continued the commodity model that the British had begun, with CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl) being the preferred type of tea produced commercially. This commoditised model meant that the tea produced is not clone or cultivar specific. The resulting quality is therefore affected as it does not harness the best characteristics of a clone. This has led to the need for blending, which is almost a requisite to produce a palatable tea.
Take the example of TV-1 and TV-2, two Tocklai Variety clones that are known for a robust and strong Assam character. But they make an astringent tea that they cannot be drunk as is. In gardens where only CTC tea is produced, the harvest is mixed/blended in the factory, but usually without much thought on the final quality of the product.
Experiments at Aideobarie
At Aideobarie, where Rujani sources the majority of its tea from, we have had a quality focus for over a couple of decades, beginning with the quality of the tea plant. Among the many experiments on the garden is an ongoing one to bring back the old Assam seed varieties. You can read more about it in one of our earlier blogs here.
Another experiment has been to develop a clone exclusively suited for green tea manufacturing. The experiment, in conjunction with the TRA and funded by the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), New Delhi, is underway at Aideobarie Tea Estate and the experimental fields of TRA. We have seen that tea clones developed for the manufacture of black tea can never be expected to work as well for a green tea. The manufacturing protocols for our green tea making therefore include unique agronomic practices as well as processing technology.
We have also been making clone-specific teas for the discerning tea drinker. There is a lot of work taking place in the field, with attention to the plant, the varieties we select and propagate, all in an attempt to return the famed Assam tea to its rightful place among the world’s best teas.
It’s hard work, demanding patience and continuous experiments. But when it produces a tea that is flavourful, that finds its audience and is enjoyed, it makes our work worth it.
With inputs from Dr. Devajit Borthakur, tea breeder, Principal Investigator at TRA, PhD Zhejiang University, Hangzhou China.