All teas from the Assam region of India are not made alike. More correctly, they are not processed alike. They all grow in this wonderful region where the Brahmaputra River flows, but how they end up after that is like a tale of reaching a fork in the road and deciding which to take.
The plant varietal for teas from Assam is the Camellia Sinensis assamica, known to the natives there for hundreds of years. It was cultivated in plantations by the British after they came across it while seeking an alternative to tea grown in China. Harvesting is mainly by hand, since the tea is grown in hilly terrain. Then, the leaves follow either the Orthodox or the “CTC” road to your teacup. For this article, I’m addressing only the latter.
Basically, CTC is machine processed tea. There is some conflict, though, on what “CTC” stands for.
Some definitions I’ve seen:
- Cut, Tear, Curl
- Cut, Tear, Crush
- Curl, Tear, Crush
- Crush, Tear, Curl (Harney & Sons Guide to Tea)
- Crush, Curl, Twined – yes, I noticed the words are in a different order than the acronym
I’m not sure which is standard, but the Harney & Sons option seems most common. I do know that crushing is part of the processing of this type of Assam tea. So is cutting and tearing. I’m not sure how curling fits in. These teas tend to look like tiny nuggets, similar to Grape Nuts (which contains no grapes and no nuts, just double-toasted bread crumbs).
Regardless, CTC Assam tends to be less expensive and lesser quality than what is called “orthodox” Assam. It’s not only machine processed but is usually fully oxidized (black). It steeps up an amber-colored liquid with a rich malty flavor tending toward the bitter side. It takes milk well and can usually use a bit of sugar or other sweetener, too, serving as a great tea to use in chai (spiced tea).
CTC Assams tend to be blends of tea leaves harvested from more than one plantation during the first “flush” (harvest). This makes their flavor fairly consistent from one batch to another. Generally, they are consumed by the local populations in India, where they are prepared a traditional way (boiled in a combination of milk, water, and sugar) since they are considered lower quality tea. However, if the tea at the start of the process is good quality, the CTC tea at the end of the process will be good quality.
You can find pure CTC Assam tea in local markets that carry foods from India. I’m fortunate to have a few of these in my local area. It’s also in teas called “Irish Breakfast” and available from a variety of sources.
I tend to steep my CTC Assam tea in straight water in a teapot, as I do with other black teas. Then, I add my milk and sweetener to the cup, and then pour in the tea. It’s not traditional, but it’s very tasty. If you’re the kind of tea drinker that doesn’t like milk in your tea, and possibly no sweetener either, this type of Assam may not be a good choice. Steeped to a good, strong liquid, CTC Assam can really make you pucker. Of course, you can always try to steep up a weak version by reducing the amount of tea used and/or shortening the steeping time. In tea drinking, there are no hard and fast rules except one: your tastebuds rule. Make the tea the way it tastes good to you.
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