Russian Tea Traditions

If you read my short bio on the about us page, you know that I was born in the Soviet Union and began my love affair with tea straight from the teat. Why was my love for tea so instant and innate? The answer is that tea and tea culture is as Russian as communism, funny hats, and vodka.

Did you know that tea is the official beverage of Russia? It is, but if you ask any Russian he’ll be too drunk on vodka to know the answer. Always open with a joke or funny anecdote.

Russian Tea History

The first time a Russian’s lips tasted this magical beverage was 1638 when a Mongolian Khan presented Czar Michael I four poods (~280 kg) of tea. Tea instantly became a hit sensation (like terrible techno music) amongst the Russian nobility. Consumption increased year over year and culminated in 1679, when Czar Alexis I concluded a treaty with the Chinese and formalized the tea trade between the two countries. In 1689, the treaty of Newchinsk was signed by the two empires which established a trade route resulting in more regular trade. However, the journey required 11,000 miles of travel, 16 months to complete, and 200-300 camels. The costs to merchants were astronomical and this was reflected in the selling price of tea, which of course meant that only the rich could afford it. As the 19th century rolled around, Russia’s tea consumption had grown to over 3 million pounds per year. Economies of scale kicked in and tea became affordable Russia’s middle class.

Tea in Russia was traditionally brewed in a samovar, a heated metal container with a spout. These stood in many Russian living rooms and produced as many as 40 cups of tea at a time. In fact, a popular 19th century activity was an activity called “chaivat,” or “to tea.” This was your typical British-style tea party, except it involved gross over-consumption of tea into the wee hours of the night. I have no evidence but I suspect alcohol was somehow involved. Leave it to the Russians to take anything to a level of excess and absurdity.

As the 19th century drew to a close, the caravans were phased out in favor of trains. The first wing of the Trans-Siberian rail road had been completed and what used to take over a year now took about a week. By this time, Chinese-grown tea had also acquired some competition as the Russians began importing more from England or growing it themselves.

Tea in Modern Russian Culture

Black tea is the tea of choice for true Russians. My parents did not let me try green tea until I proved my loyalty to black tea first. Now I enjoy both, but I never forget my roots. This is what I and J. Lo have in common.

Anyway, some 82% of Russians drink tea on daily basis. Brits always get the credit but I think Vladimir could demolish Nigel in a tea drinking contest any day. For Russians, it is common to consume tea after every meal: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and bedtime. They generally like it sweet and use anything from several teaspoons of sugar, to honey, to jam, to sweeten their tea. Lemon and milk are also common additives. Hey, I’m not advocating it; I’m merely delivering the facts.

Lastly, I want to quickly share something. If you ever see someone drinking tea with one eye closed, chances are you are witnessing Russo-tea consumption. Why? Russians generally do not remove the spoon from their tea so when they swoon in for the sip, they must wink hardily to avoid poking an eye out. However, this is considered bad manners. Now you know about Russian tea history and traditions. If you liked what you read, please comment or e-mail us. Steep on.

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One Response

  • I don’t think Russians get enough credit for their tea obsession. I remember seeing a large glass Russian cups with the silver ornaments in a museum and thought undoubtedly it was a beer glass (or vodka), I looked down at the description and it said it was for tea.

    I enjoyed your post.

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