In the US, the term “Russian tea” really only refers to one thing, and one thing only: the “Russian Caravan” blend that is usually some combination of Keemun and other smoky black teas. It’s an excellent blend, and I find myself drinking it quite often, but until recently I had no idea there was much more to Russian teas than just this blend.
Maxim Kirpichev over at his site tea.rus-bay.com has a lot more than that, and I got to try just about all of them. Here are just a few highlights:
Traditional Russian Tea: Ivan Chai
This is a tisane, not a tea, and comes from wild willowherb (epilobium angustifolium, for our scientists out there). The nature of the preparation process (which is very similar to that of other teas) produces leaves that look not unlike a rolled dark oolong. Give the leafs a whiff and you’ll know immediately this is a different kind of “tea”.
When brewed they have a comforting, almost piney smell, and the color of the liquor reminded me very much of whiskey. The taste is surprisingly sweet and had tart notes of prune. Something I would not expect from a grass. Since it’s a tisane, I can heartily recommend this tea to anyone living the decaf lifestyle. It’s sweeter than most black teas, so sugar is not needed–the flavor is almost too sweet for me personally, although I was born without a sweet tooth, so your milage may vary on this point.
Out of all the teas I tried, this is the one I can see myself drinking daily, especially at the end of the day.
Russian Green Tea
This green tea is simply the untreated Ivan Chai. It has a completely different profile than the processed Ivan Chai, and when I took the leaves out of the packaging I saw that they appeared very dry and almost fragile. They looked almost like the leaves you might find crunching under your feet in the autumn.
Brewing produces a lighter infusion with a color akin to pear juice. The aroma is much sharper and almost piney, and the flavor is very leafy. Not like a Japanese green tea, mind you–this is more like having a tea made from tree leaves. It’s actually quite refreshing. There is a very dry and sharp sensation on the aftertaste, so fair warning: I foresee this tea being very polarizing. But if you’re up to trying something a bit more unique, and are looking for a tea that reminds you of the crisp, autumn air, this is one to try.
I was looking forward to trying this one as soon as I saw it. The leaves in this Russian puer are rolled into snails for fermenting, and come out looking like licorice pinwheels. I brewed this one gongfu style, and let me tell you–this is a tea that packs a punch!
When I traveled to Poland this summer, I got to try what was referred to as “Electric Tea”: a combination of black tea and Polish vodka that I suspect was mostly vodka. This is the first thing I thought of as I tried this tea.
To be sure, I think this is a tea that needs to be prepared Western style. Concentrated tea like you get brewing in a gaiwan produces a flavor that is very sharp, very sour, and very mushroomy. On third and fourth infusions I found the flavor to be much better, and the pruney notes came through excellently. But if you’re used to the comforting warmth of an English Breakfast prepare for a much stronger brew! This is one I am more hesitant to recommend, but if you’re frustrated that tea is just “hot leaf water”, this one is sure to change your mind.
The plant that makes up these Russian teas has much more variety in its flavor than I would have expected from an herb that hasn’t seen a lot of play outside its native country, and it surprises me. The traditional Ivan Chai is a tea that I could easily see replacing other, more customary evening teas. If you feel stuck in a tea rut and are looking for something a little more out of the ordinary than your average English Breakfast, give this Ivan Chai a try!