A History of Tea Drinking in Russia, Part 1

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With the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games under way, there is much to be said about Russia. Many don’t realise, however, that Russia has a long history of drinking tea – even longer than Britain, believe it or not – and the country itself still greatly appreciates a good cup of tea to this very day.

A good 100 years before Britain got its first taste of steeped heaven, Russia was importing tea from China. The rest of Europe would have to wait as Russia developed a bustling and thriving culture of serving tea.

During the 19th century, tea had become so strongly associated with the people of Russia that despite the fact tea was produced in China, certain types of black tea were known as “Russian” teas anyway. Russian Caravan is a traditional black tea and is known for its smoky character. It received its name due to its method of importation; generally via caravans led by camels. Black tea is still the most popular tea in Russia, however many residents are now drinking green tea as well.

Perhaps the biggest reason for Russia’s rich culture in tea is its climate; cold days high up in the Northern Hemisphere chill to the bone, but tea is one of the best and tastiest ways to warm up from the inside. Tea has had a profound affect on the Russian way of life since it was introduced in 1638; the Chinese Emperor from West Mongolia first presented the Russian Czar with tea as a gift, however it was refused. The Czar saw no apparent use for “a load of dead leaves”, however eventually accepted upon the Emperor’s insistence. And thus Russia’s tea culture began.

Getting to Russia from China, however, was no simple matter. It was a difficult slog from start to finish, and the harsh conditions importers faced meant that many turned down the offer despite demand. Russian aristocrats were therefore the first to serve the drink and make it acceptable within Russian culture, as its limited supply resulted in skyrocketing prices that few could afford.

When Russia marked sovereignty over Siberia in 1689, however, a tea trade route was created which made it easier for traders. Catherine the Great was the real pioneer in tea importation, however; by the time she had died in 1796, she had ordered the importation of so much tea that class and expense was no longer an issue. Even low-class workers could afford and enjoy the serenity that came with a good cup of loose-leaf tea.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this post on tea in Russia! Throughout the Olympic Games we will be creating a number of other Russia-themed posts, including more Russian tea history and all about the samovar.

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