Tea and Assam go hand-in-hand. It’s a drink that spreads smiles, solves problems, and accompanies every life event. There’s a tea to fit any mood and agenda.
The tea leaf may look ordinary, but it is an amazing thing. It is the realisation of so many different factors, coming together to create a beautiful sensory experience in a cup of tea. Just like wine and chocolate, to appreciate the character and aroma of tea, you have to trust your instincts, train your taste buds and sense of smell – in short, it requires immense training and patience to identify and appreciate the complex flavours of different teas. It’s a skill that comes in handy when you want to buy a specific kind of tea – to sell or to drink. For there are limitless varieties of teas, and it’s not easy to tell one apart from the other without elaborate tasting notes to convey their individual qualities.
Many tea-lovers find tea-tasting inaccessible and its jargon off-putting. They recognise its utility, but only faintly understand the details. So, what should one look for when tasting tea?
A long time back, before a tea tasting event organised at a hotel in Delhi, we were told to not wear fragrance as it interferes with the sense of smell when trying to separate different aromas. Now if you’re wondering what could be the importance of our nose when we drink with our mouth, well, the sensitivity of taste buds on the tongue and oral tissues is limited. They can distinguish only five “pure” tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and savoury (umami). They cannot sense complex flavour; e.g., they know “bitter-sweet,” but not chocolate. For that level of discrimination, we need the nose.
It’s no surprise that Guwahati, with an avid tea-drinking population, is full of amazing tea shops, cafes and bars to while away the hours in. However, if you’re a tea connoisseur and love to taste fine, rare, and no-gimmick tea types, while learning about its history, process, and more from the masters, there’s a spot right in the heart of the city you might want to visit when things get back to the normal.
The tale of Locàl-è-tea
Locàl-è-tea, sited on the third floor at City Centre Mall, is a haven for tea enthusiasts. Owned by Vikas Jain, the cosy café is a plush room combining elegant, traditional features with a contemporary touch; such as bamboo basket ceiling lights, solid wood tables and cane sofas with styled fabric cushions representing the North-East states, framed watercolour and ink paintings on the wall, travel and tea books artfully arranged on bookcases, and the floor is done with reusable materials.
While Jain needs no introduction, but for the uninitiated, he is a popular name in the Guwahati food circuit. His debut venture was ‘Naga Food Konspiracy’ and then he opened ‘Local Foods’ – a café offering authentic soul food from the eight regions of North East India. Locàl-è-tea is his passion project, alongside his daughter Akanksha – currently involved with film production in Mumbai. The thought behind this venture is to not just promote tea and tea growers but also showcase art by known and emerging artists from the region.
“Both of us, my daughter and I, love art and indigenous food, especially the local seasonal produce. We want to make Locàl-è-tea a platform for featuring curated local boutique products that have artisanal value and are worth promoting, along with arts and crafts from the region. Everyone knows Assam is a land of tea, but how many can name the tea types? Also, it’s not just Assam, other states in the North East region are equally growing fine teas. There is a need to highlight them. We’ve got the back of renowned tea sommelier Parag Hatibaruah; he helps us with the selection of teas,” says Jain.
The perfect cup
As would be expected, the tea menu was extensive and took some reading. Service is attentive and informative but not intrusive.
We decided on Whole Leaf Orthodox from Temi, Sikkim. Served in a beautiful teapot with strainer, it looked spectacular. Coming to the taste; think muscatel, caramel, and sweet floral notes.
Next came Phalap; Assam’s Singpho-tribe special tea. The smoky and earthy flavours with notes of petrichor and wet tobacco teased our senses like the cool breeze after rains.
Sewali Tea was another highlight – highland whole leaf black tea infused with local aromatic sewali (night jasmine) flowers. We’ve heard of fritters made of sewali flower but tea? It came as a pleasant surprise.
We cannot miss mentioning the teapots. Jain has used elements of the eight North-East states on the teapots to represent the teas; say a hornbill bird for Nagaland, japi for Assam (traditional conical hat from Assam), Huyen Langlon (a traditional form of martial arts) for Manipur.
When hunger strikes
The food menu echoes nostalgia. From Shillong Mini Mutton Samosa to Nongpoh Scotch Eggs; English Afternoon Tea Sandwiches to Assamese Jolpan (laru-pitha); Goja-Labanga-Khaja Platter to Tea Cake Platter and more, there’s so much to choose from!
“The inspiration for our sandwiches comes from the Colonial era when tea plantations were set up by the British in Assam. They had brought back these bready delights with them. It stayed on around and some of you may also know this as picnic sandwiches. For Scotch Eggs, we just swapped the potatoes with ground meat which only makes it tastier. We serve it alongside our zingy Bengali Mustard dip on the side,” informs Jain.
We tried out the English Afternoon Tea Sandwich (veg) – soft bread stuffed with thinly sliced crisp cucumber, tomato, and lettuce, paired with Kasundi Dip hit the right spot.
We saw several visitors enjoying the light, warm and buttery Scones that came with thick clotted Hajo cream, delicate homemade roselle jam and zingy lemon curd. The server tells us that the Scones are a huge hit, especially amongst the youth.
The fizzy wizard
Locàl-è-tea is also one of the very few cafes that do authentic kombuchas. Kanishka Dutta, the head kombucha brewer, is a certified mixologist and has been associated with reputed hospitality chains like The Oberoi Trident, Mumbai, the Radisson Blu, Guwahati, Taj Palace, New Delhi, and Chit Chat Chai – a high-end tea bar & boutique in Hyderabad.
For the uninitiated, kombucha is a fermented, lightly effervescent, sweetened black or green tea drink. It is largely classified as a functional beverage, meaning that it is a non-alcoholic drink that contains vitamins, amino acids or other nutrients associated with health benefits.
“Our kombuchas are unique because they are brewed using the best suitable tea, sourced locally from the North East region. My understanding of tea and brewing comes from my father (Parag Hatibarua). I’m very grateful to have been able to continue this art of tea appreciation. Currently, we’ve four variants but we plan to add more. We’re experimenting with a huge variety of exotic and local flavours to create a signature taste, worthy of our patrons,” says Dutta.
We, being kombucha fans, couldn’t help but request a sampler. There were Classic Black, Classic Green, Apple Ginger, Kordoi (starfruit), and Pomegranate. Classic Black became an instant favourite – mildly sweet, fizzy, and refreshing! Kordoi is an acquired taste because of its pungent flavour but it sure gives a very summery feeling, leaving you rejuvenated at the end.
So, what are the factors that make or break the taste of kombucha? Dutta tells us that a kombucha brewer has to be knowledgeable and patient; right from the fermentation to bottling everything is science. We follow the double fermentation process wherein a SCOBY (a pancake-shaped symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) is placed in the tea mixture and left to ferment at room temperature for 1-3 weeks, and then bottled for 1-2 weeks to contain released CO2 and encourage carbonation. From there, bottled kombucha is placed in a refrigerated environment to slow down the carbonation and fermentation processes. Lack of awareness around this second fermentation cycle can create trouble,” he explains.
“As far as choosing the right tea leaves is concerned, we need to keep in mind several factors – how clean is a growing region? How much rainfall did the tea receive? What season was it picked in? Everything from elevation and soil composition to that season’s temperature and nearby local flora will ultimately affect the final brew in your teacup. On top of that, the craftsmanship and knowledge of the tea farmers and tea masters: how was the tea picked? How carefully was it processed? Was it picked at just the right time of day?” Dutta adds.
Change is brewing in Assam, and it’s being brewed carefully by tea experts and enthusiasts like Parag Hatibarua, Kanishka Dutta and Vikas Jain.
Locàl-è-tea recently hosted a watercolour painting exhibition-cum-sale by Dr Sanjeev Handique and we’ve been told that there’re many more art and music shows in the pipeline.
Environment-conscious Jain is also involved in river cleaning projects and dedicates most of the proceeds from Locàl-è-tea to such projects in India.
From products to aesthetics to addressing causes, Locàl-è-tea is a class act!