Every tea drinking country seems to have an interesting history with tea. As the recent Olympics and Sochi fade from view, it is worth remembering that few countries have traveled a more interesting path to tea than Russia. The geography, the cultural differences, politics, and economics made it particularly challenging for Russia to adopt tea as their national temperate drink. Ultimately, tea prevailed.
The awareness of tea and trading in general between Russia and China began in fits and starts in the early 17th century. Cossack Ivan Petlin was the first envoy to make direct contact with Bejing, yet the letter he carried with him on the return journey – from the Chinese emperor offering trade between the two regions – went unanswered for over 50 years because there was nobody in Russia who could read Chinese. A subsequent official who traveled to China, c.1658, stole the imperial gift of tea that was offered and sold it before leaving Bejing – for jewelry. Indeed, the first Russian caravans in the early 18th century that traveled to Bejing for trade did not return with tea as one of the prized goods from China. Finally, by the 1727 Treaty of Kyakhta – which formalized trading outposts and other arrangements – Russia had developed a taste for black tea. By mid-century, large volumes of tea were crossing the border from China into Russia. If disagreements between the two countries erupted, tea stocks were filled by trading with Dutch and English merchants.
While trading or beginning to produce tea within a country establishes the supply, it is the layering of local customs and tea drinking habits that create the demand. In Russia, the creation of the samovar was critical to the embracing of tea in every level of society from Russian royalty to modest peasant homes. Many times the samovar became a symbol of the relative wealth of a family by enhancing the samovar with ostentatious ornamentation and a variety of metals, jewels, engravings and decorative enamelwork. Functionally, the samovar held heated water in the larger lower body of the vessel while on the top a small teapot contained concentrated brewed tea. Tea was drunk by adding a small amount of tea concentrate to the cup and then using the spigot below to dilute the tea with hot water to the preferred strength.
In the 1890’s Russia took steps to change from being just an importer of teas to becoming a tea producing country. In 1893 the first tea garden was established in Georgia and from there tea cultivation spread southeast into Turkey. The preference for a strong black tea and the use of a samovar type of device spread from Russia to Turkey and other Persian countries of the Middle East.
This snapshot of the history of tea drinking in Russia is barely an introduction. For those with an interest in tea, culture, and history there are many sources available in print and online. One of our favorites – which inspired this post – is The True History of Tea.
Main image provided by contributor. IMAGE 1:
You can find lots of samovar-ready teas here.
I hadn’t known how the samovar functions but it does seem suited for black tea. What impact does the concentrate have on the actual flavor profile of the tea? I suspect getting an exact blend with hot water takes considerable skill.
Where do the Russians stand with green tea?
Guy – you’ve peaked my interest in samovars. Is it possible to simply use them as an electric hotpot – without making a concentrate? I regularly use a Zojirushi – the classic electric dispensing hot pot – but would prefer a machine that is made of metal. I’ve tried to determine exactly what the Zojirushi is made of without any success. Thanks.
Michelle, honestly our experience with Samovars is rather limited although I know a couple of other tChing readers and contributors are afficionados. We had a woman from Turkey who was a regular customer at the shop who loved using a Samovar and shared some of her black tea from the Georgia region with us. While you brew it strong as a concentrate, my understanding is that you do not allow the leaves to continuously steep. Some black teas are probably better than others brewed this way, can’t imagine a Darjeeling or Nepal tea would work very well. We looked into getting a contemporary samovar for the shop but never went through with it. More functional than artistic they were in the $125 to $200 range.
Can’t speak to the current preferences in Russia although they have a long tradition of black teas and pu-erhs, green teas wouldn’t match their predilection for a strong brew.
Great article! Just a few notes: Just a few minor notes, namely that Turkey is southwest, not southeast, of Georgia, and also Turkey is not a Persian country (neither is any country in the Middle East except Iran). I was in that region last summer and drank a lot of Turkish tea, and also visited the tea farms. I actually picked tea on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, processed it in Batumi, Georgia, by pounding it between beach stones, then roasted it in a kitchen in Çayeli, Turkey (pronounced chai-elly – it means “tea land”). A lot of our wc茶c friends are Turkish and I know they would not let it go without mention… Thanks so much for the wonderful tea knowledge!
Russia also tried growing its own tea during the USSR days in the Dagomys region of Krasnodar Krai. Do you know what Dagomys is a microdistrict of?
And yet that was never mentioned ONCE during the Olympics!!!
The tea from there is…okay. Good if brewed at a lighter temp.
Funny thing, though, the Sochi cultivar of tea plant is often sold in nurseries around the U.S.
Geoff, it sounds like you’ve had this Dagomys tea. Are they still producing tea there?