Learn about the History and Traditions of Tea Drinking in Russia
Russian tea has been an integral part of the
country’s culture since the 17th century. Introduced by the Mongolians
as a gift to Tsar Michael I, tea soon became a major
staple in the Russian diet and tradition.
At the time, Russia was trying to colonize the rugged Siberian region, where explorers had to endure a harsh, cold climate and poor access to nutritious foods and beverages. Tea quickly became a welcome addition to daily meals with its warm, satisfying properties and robust flavors.
Today, more than 80 percent of Russians drink tea every day. Despite the early connection to Asia, Russian tea has developed into its own culture, complete with unique flavors, preparation methods, and traditions.
Perhaps the most interesting type of tea associated with the country is the Russian Caravan, a strong, dark and smoky tea with malt undertones. Today, the blend is made by combining fermented lapsang souchong, oolong and keemun teas.
Historically, the tea wasn’t supposed to be smoky but it got that way during the time it took to transport it from China to Russia. Because the voyage took up to six months, caravans would stop along the way to camp and rest.
The bonfires the campers used to keep warm caused so much smoke that the flavor of the tea –packed on camels that rested near the fire-- was actually affected. Or so the legend goes anyway.
Just as Americans drink coffee while sitting at their desks, Russians drink tea. For convenience’s sake, most people buy tea sachets when they’re out of the house. However, traditional tea preparation still goes on in many households.
Traditionally, tea has been brewed in Russia using a samovar. This is a barrel- or urn-shaped container usually made of copper, nickel or brass (expensive silver or gold versions are also available but rare).
In the past, samovars had a hollow pipe running vertically down the middle, where charcoal or wood chips were placed to heat up the water.
Today, many samovars have been fitted with an electric heating element, although they retain the traditional look. A small teapot called zavarnik is placed on top of the samovar and used to brew a very strong tea, while the body of the samovar contains only water.
When it’s time to serve, guests can place a very small amount of tea, followed by hot water from inside the samovar, into a cup or a thick drinking glass placed inside a metallic glass-holder.
Tea in Russia is usually served with a small cup containing sugar cubes, condensed sweet milk or honey, so each guest can sweeten to taste. When small side dishes are served, they usually consist of bread and a mix of sweet and salty snacks, such as butter, jam, cold cuts and sliced sausages, cheese and pies or pastries.
Tea is usually served to guests as a welcome gesture. As with all cultures, it's a lovely way to get to know your host family members and their traditions.