Climate shift threatens the taste of UK's favourite tea

THE distinctive flavour of Assam tea from India has been a popular part of the British breakfast since the Assam tea bush was discovered by Scottish adven-turer Robert Bruce in 1823.

The black tea, named after a region in Northern India, has been used for almost two centuries as part of the blend of leaves to brew traditional breakfast teas.

However, it was revealed yesterday that the popular beverage may be under threat from global warming. Rising temperatures are being blamed for changing Assam's distinctive flavour while climate change is reducing yields in the India's main tea producing region.

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The high hills and abundant rainfall make the north-eastern state of Assam an ideal place to grow tea, and 850 tea plantations spread over 320,000 hectares produce most of the country's harvest. However, in the past 60 years rainfall has fallen by more than a fifth and the minimum temperature has risen by a degree to 19.5C.

The Tea Board of India revealed the organisation had recorded a steady decline in tea production in recent years. In 2007, Assam produced 512,000 tonnes of tea. By 2008 this had declined to 487,000 tonnes, and estimated production in 2009 is down again to 445,000. A further decrease is expected this year.

The changing taste of Assam tea is a serious concern for growers. Sudipta Nayan Goswami, an Assam planter, admitted subtle alterations had been observed. "The flavour has changed from what it was before," he said. "The creamy and strong flavour is no more. The changes will sharply hamper the demand for this variety of tea abroad."

Scientists at the Tea Research Association are analysing statistics to determine whether there is a link between the rise in temperature, consequent fluctuations in rainfall and their effect on tea yields. Dhiraj Kakaty, who heads the Assam Branch of the Indian Tea Association, an umbrella group of some 400 plantations, said: "Days with sunshine were far fewer during the (monsoon] rains this year, leading to a shortfall in production and damp weather, unfavourable for tea."


SCOTSMAN Robert Bruce is said to have noticed Assam tribesmen brewing leaves and arranged for tribal chiefs to provide him with samples of the leaves and seeds. He died before the plant could be classified but his brother, Charles, had leaves from the Assam tea bush sent to the botanical gardens in Calcutta for examination. A hybrid of Chinese and Indian tea plants was developed to be grown in vast tea plantations carved out of the Assam jungle.