Elephant Friendly Assam

by Ari LeVaux

Photo by Anshuma Basumatary, courtesy of Certified Elephant FriendlyTM
Photo by Anshuma Basumatary, courtesy of Certified Elephant FriendlyTM

Tea is the second most popular beverage in the world, behind water. This time of year, when hydration is so important and enjoyable, we often take our tea chilled. That’s why every food writer in the Northern Hemisphere is writing about iced tea these days. I’m no different, but I at least have something different to offer: elephants.

 Much of the world’s tea is grown where elephants rumble through the forest. And while they don’t eat the tea plants, that most mega of charismatic megafauna often finds itself at odds with the tea growers. In the Himalayan foothills of Assam, in northeast India, loss of prime elephant habitat to agriculture and development means elephants now travel along their historic migration routes through tea plantations, where they too often get tripped up in irrigation ditches, risk electrocution from improperly installed fences or electricity lines, or ingest toxic levels of chemicals commonly used for growing tea.  Human stressors can make elephants aggressive and dangerous, and this can lead to retaliation towards elephants.

 Against this backdrop, an Assamese tea farmer named Tenzing Bodosa found an elephant conservationist named Lisa Mills on Facebook, with questions of how to best deal with elephants on his 20 cultivated acres. Two years later, the world’s first Certified Elephant FriendlyTM tea is available to drink, thanks to a partnership between the University of Montana Broader Impacts Group and the nonprofit Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network aimed at certifying and marketing Elephant Friendly Tea from Bodosa and other farmers that care about the future of elephants.

 Certification is strict, with a long list of stipulations that a prospective farm must meet. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the tea is funneled into programs aimed at improving relations between elephants and people. “From farm to cup, we are doing things that feed back into the mission of the project,” Mills told me.

 I recently sampled this elephant-friendly Black Assam tea in a tea shop in Missoula, Montana. I’m hardly an authority on tea, but I do know my Assam from my Oolong, and this was really smooth, with a distinct, nutty flavor that was decidedly more sweet than bitter. So sweet, in fact, that I had to confirm  it was indeed unsweetened.

 The proprietor, a gravelly, mustachioed rugby player named Jake Kreilick, assured me there were no added sweeteners. His establishment, the Lake Missoula Tea  Company, is currently the only distributor of Bodo tea, though it is available in select restaurants and tea houses around Montana. Another distributor is slated to open in Boulder. The rest of us have to order it online, at elephantfriendlytea.com. 

 Mills told me that she brought samples of Bodo elephant friendly tea to the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas this past June. Her intention was to generate interest by playing the elephant card, but various “tea sommeliers” (yes, there is such a thing) told her that they pushed her to enter it next year in the competition, based solely on the basis of its flavor. Some of the words we heard repeatedly were “Earthy, smooth, sweet, and distinctly Assam,” Mills says.

 Is it possible, I wondered, that practices which improve the well being of elephants also improve conditions for growing exceptional tea?
 “Elephants are an umbrella species, and if their environment is protected then the entire ecosystem benefits,” Mills says. “Clean water, soils rich with microorganisms, native trees planted amongst the tea shrubs, natural pest control as birds and spiders inhabit the trees, and human-elephant coexistence as the tea pickers and planters accept the presence of elephants.  Tigers, leopards, hornbills and other endangered species now have a chance to survive too.” 

In other words, an elephant friendly ecosystem is a healthier ecosystem, so why not?
 Of course, when iced tea is enjoyed for thirst quenching purposes, quantity can be nearly as important as quality. Kreilick prepares several flavors of tea in three-gallon batches. First he steeps the tea in a gallon of boiling water, and lets it sit overnight. In the morning he strains it, dilutes it with two more gallons of cold water, and sets it to chill. He uses 40 grams (1.4 oz) of tea per gallon of iced tea-or 120g/4.2oz for a three-gallon batch. Kreilick serves his chilled tea sans ice cubes.

 Kreilick poured me samples of the chilled teas in his fridge that day, and tried to give me some things to think about. Black tea has more caffeine, while green tea has more antioxidants, he explained, as if I cared. It was 99 degrees and smoky outside the tea house window. Then he gave me a drink of something that took my mouth to a chill, and delicious place. 

 “This is the Creamsicle Crush. It’s got Chinese black, with orange peel and coconut.” The flavors seemed to go in multiple directions at once, but harmoniously so. I was crushed.
 Alas, not every great tea will be great cold, he cautions. So before you jump in with a full 120 grams, you should experiment with small batches.
 And if you want to attack your mouth with a whole different elephant ride through the jungle, consider blending Assam tea with alcohol. To get you started, just in case an elephant friendly Assam cocktail is up your alley, here is a recipe for Golden Tippy Assam Concentrate. The recipe was developed by mixologist Gates Otsuji of The Standard High Line NYC Hotel, and was meant to be used in a drink called the Moonwalk, which itself was developed in commemoration of the 45th anniversary of the first human walk on the moon. It’s a smooth name, befitting that smooth elephant friendly Assam. 

Brew an extra-strong batch of tea, 120 grams in one gallon, total, and let it steep overnight, following Kreilick’s directions. While waiting, cube and muddle two cups of pineapple with three cups of sugar. In the morning, rather than diluting it with water as one would for chilled tea, mix it with the pineapple, add two cups pineapple juice, and let it sit another day, refrigerated.

To moonwalk like an elephant in your own home, mix 2.5 oz Assam concentrate with 2 oz Bourbon, with an ounce of fresh lemon juice and a dash of Angostura bitters. Shake, stain, and serve.