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Opinion I A muscatel from the land of CTC

A 122-year-old estate in Assam offers a muscatel to shine the spotlight on Brahmaputra valley’s loose leaf teas

When I began writing this column last year, I chose the Darjeeling muscatel, a tea that’s special for many reasons, to begin with. Today’s column is the 50th in the series. Serendipitously, I came across another muscatel, the unusual sounding Assam muscatel, and it seemed fitting that I write about it. Unusual, because the muscatel is a Darjeeling summer speciality tea. And because Darjeeling and Assam are very different terroirs, it seemed like an improbable combination. But it was also exciting because it meant someone was trying something new. 

This tea is made and sold by Rujani Tea, the speciality brand from the 122-year-old Aideobarie estate. The dry leaves looked and smelt like an Assam loose leaf black tea but when I steeped it, the wet leaves gave off a familiar aroma, that muscatel fruitiness. Its colours are a touch darker than a Darjeeling muscatel but lighter than an Assam black. The tea smelt like a classic Assam but carried very different flavours. Where the former is brisk, strong and malty, this muscatel is milder but bright and fruity. My first thoughts were that here is a cup of Assam perfect for those who prefer it plain; there’s a lovely lightness to it. 

The maker of this innovative tea is Amarnath Jha, manager at Aideobarie. After 23 years as a planter in Darjeeling, he arrived in Assam in 2018 to work at Aideobarie. Assam is quite the land of CTC tea,while Darjeeling is about orthodox teas. Assam has humid, river-soaked valleys, while Darjeeling is all about cooler, high mountains. The Assamica tea bushes have bigger leaves that make stronger cups. The tea varietal that grows in Darjeeling, Camellia sinensis var.sinensis, is small-leaved, with the flavours being their most prized attribute. 

Jha, steeped in the tradition of making whole-leaf orthodox tea, decided to introduce the same tea-making styles to Assam. And one of his experiments was with the muscatel. 

The Darjeeling muscatel comes with a story of the green jassids, tiny insects that arrive in summer and identify tea leaves that hold higher-than-usual moisture content. They don’t harm the leaves. Instead, they suck out the moisture and that, it is said, leads to a concentration of flavours. The jassids set off natural oxidation in the leaves, producing the unique flavours that make them especially suited for the muscatel. 

At Aideobarie, the task of identifying the right leaves fell on Jha. Sections had been planted with old Assamica plants, alongside high-yielding, pest-resistant clonal tea bushes. Jha chose the clonal bushes that have origins in the china variety. Without giving away everything about what goes into its making, he says the leaves are plucked only in April and May, on a rain-free day, early in the morning, before it gets too warm. 

The Rujani muscatel, available on Rujanitea.com, offers another great way to enjoy the flavourful Assam tea, shining the spotlight on Assam’s wonderful whole-leaf teas.

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.

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