Russian culture has a deep connection with tea, which has become the country’s de facto national beverage, owing to its cold northern climate. It is an integral part of traditional Russian culture and one of the most popular beverages in the country. Russian tea is typically brewed and can be served hot or cold, with sugar, and is commonly consumed during afternoon tea and after meals, often paired with dessert. The traditional brewing method for Russian tea is the use of a samovar.
The legend that Russian people first came into contact with tea in 1567 is widely popularized in Tales of the Russian People by Ivan Sakharov. However, modern historians consider the manuscript to be a fake, and the embassy of Petrov and Yalyshev itself to be fictional. Tea culture gained momentum in 1638 when a Mongolian ruler donated four poods of tea to Tsar Michael I, and in 1679, Russia signed a treaty for regular tea supplies from China via camel caravan in exchange for furs. However, the difficult trade route made tea very expensive, and it was only accessible to the wealthy and royalty in Russia.
Between the Treaty of Nerchinsk and the Treaty of Kyakhta, Russia increased its caravans going to China for tea, but only through state dealers. In 1706, Peter the Great prohibited merchants from trading in Beijing. In 1786, Catherine the Great re-established regular imports of tea. By the time of Catherine’s death in 1796, Russia was importing more than 3 million pounds of loose tea and tea bricks via camel caravan, enough to lower the price so that middle and lower-class Russians could afford the beverage.
The peak year for the tea trade via Kiakhta was in 1824, and for the tea caravans, it was in 1860. However, the first leg of the Trans-Siberian Railway was completed in 1880, and the decline in the trade began when faster train services reduced the time it took for tea to arrive in Russia from 16 months to seven weeks. By 1925, the caravan was the sole means of transport for tea that had ended. In 2002, Russia imported 162,000 metric tons of tea.
By the late 19th century, Wissotzky Tea became the largest tea firm in the Russian Empire, and by the early 20th century, it was the largest tea manufacturer globally. By the end of the 18th century, tea prices had moderately declined, and the first local tea plant was set in Nikitsk botanical gardens in 1814, while the first industrial tea plantation was established in 1885. Tea production in Russia greatly expanded following World War II, but by the mid-1990s, it came to a standstill. Today, the primary area in Russia for tea production is in the vicinity of Sochi.
Black tea is the customary tea in Russia, but green tea is gaining popularity. Among the traditional teas in Russia, there is one known as Russian Caravan, which was initially imported from China by camel caravan, and it is black. Due to the long trip that took up to eighteen months, the tea developed a distinct smoky taste from the campfires. Nowadays, this flavor is added after oxidation or by mixing it with keemun, black or oolong teas from southern China or Formosa, and a hint of smoky Lapsang Souchong or Tarry Souchong.
Russian Tea Brewing Process
Russian tea culture is distinguished by its two-step brewing process. Firstly, a tea concentrate called zavarka (Russian: заварка) is prepared by brewing a sufficient amount of dry tea in a small teapot. Then, each person adds some quantity of this concentrate into their cup and mixes it with hot water, enabling them to customize the strength of their tea according to their liking. After this, sugar, lemon, honey or jam can be added as per personal preference.
The Cultural Significance of Tea in Russia
Tea in Russia has a long and storied cultural history. William Pokhlyobkin notes that tea was not considered a self-sufficient beverage in Russia, and it was often served with sweets, cakes, and jams. Tea memes, such as “some tea?” and “chase the teas,” were also prevalent in the language. By the mid-19th century, tea had become popular among the town class, merchants, and petty bourgeoisie. Even Alexander Pushkin wrote about the role of tea in establishing romantic relations.
During the Soviet period, tea-drinking was extremely popular, especially among office workers. Traditional tea ware includes the samovar, Lomonosov tea sets, and Russian tea glass holders. Tea sachets are now widely popular, but Russians still prefer a strong brew, adding lemon, sugar, or jam. In Russian prisons, tea is a substitute for mind-altering substances such as alcohol, and high concentrations called chifir are used.
Tea has been an essential element of Russian culture for centuries and is likely to remain so for many more.
Variations Around the World
Russian Tea in the United States
In the United States, there is a popular beverage known as “Russian Tea” that likely originated in America. This drink is especially popular in the Southeastern region during Advent and Christmastide social events. The recipe varies, but it commonly includes loose black tea, orange juice (or orange peel), cinnamon, and cloves. Some recipes even use instant tea powder. Lemon and pineapple juices are occasionally added, and cream can also be served with it. A homemade “instant” variety, which often uses Tang, has become a popular stocking stuffer in recent decades. It is typically served hot in the evening or after meals, but iced versions are also available at cafés. Despite the name, “Russian Tea” likely has no link to its namesake. References to this beverage and instructions have been found in American newspapers and cookbooks dating back to the 1880s.
Russian Tea in Japan
In Japan, the term “Russian Tea” is used to refer specifically to the act of having black tea with a spoonful of jam, whether added into the cup or placed on the tongue before drinking. Strawberry jam is the typical choice, although other flavors may be used.