Brief History of Russian Tea

russian_tea_1

Tea has been the most popular drink in Russia for nearly five centuries now. Due in part to Russia’s cold northern climate, it is today considered the de facto national beverage, and is closely associated with traditional Russian culture. Centuries ago, it was drunk at afternoon tea, but has since spread as an all day drink, especially at the end of meals served with dessert. An important aspect of the Russian tea culture is the ubiquitous Russian tea brewing device known as a samovar, which has become a symbol of hospitality and comfort.

Tea in Russia was introduced in 1638, when a Mongolian ruler donated to Tsar Michael I four poods (65–70kg) of tea. Around 1636, Russian merchant Vassili Starkov was sent as envoy to Altyn Khan. The Khan offered him a to take 250 pounds of tea as a gift for the Russian tsar. Seeing no use for a load of dead leaves, Starkov was about to refuse, but the Khan insisted. Thus was tea introduced to Russia.

samovar

In 1679, Russia concluded a treaty on regular tea supplies from China via camel caravan in exchange for furs. The Chinese ambassador to Moscow made a gift of several chests of tea to Alexis I. However, the difficult trade route made the cost of tea extremely high, so that the beverage became available only to royalty and the very wealthy of Russia.

In 1689, the Treaty of Nerchinsk was signed that formalized Russia’s sovereignty over Siberia, and also marked the creation of the Tea Road that traders used between Russia and China.

tea-route

Between the Treaty of Nerchinsk and the Treaty of Kyakhta (1727), Russia would increase its caravans going to China for tea, but only through state dealers. In 1706, Peter the Great made it illegal for any merchants to trade in Beijing. Only by 1736, Catherine the Great established regular imports of tea. By the time of Catherine’s death in 1796, Russia was importing more than 3 million pounds by camel caravan in the form of loose tea and tea bricks, enough tea to considerably lower the price so that middle and lower class Russians could afford the beverage.

The peak year for the Kiakhta tea trade was in 1824, and the peak year for the tea caravans was 1860. From then, they started to decline when the first leg of the Trans-Siberian Railway was completed in 1880. Faster train service allowed for tea to be imported from nearly a year and a half to eventually just over a week.

pressed-tea-brick

In the mid 19th century the decline in Chinese tea production made it difficult to satisfy Russia’s demand in tea, so it began to import more tea from Odessa, and London. By 1905, horse drawn tea transport had ended, and by 1925 caravan as the sole means of transport for tea had ended, too.

In 2002, Russia imported some 162,000 metric tons of tea.

ru_tea-party

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