May 17, 2021

The Teas of Russia


The Teas of Russia
With all this variety, there's bound to be a cup of tea for everyone.  Photo by Alice Pasqual via Unsplash

The idea of “Russian tea” conjures up a lot of distinctive images. For New Yorkers, the visual that may come to mind is of a certain overpriced tea-themed Russian restaurant in the city. For those from the American South, the image of a bright orange-colored liquid (so-called “Russian Tea”) may seem more appropriate (which, to set the record straight, certainly is not Russian and really shouldn’t even be called “tea” in the first place). Others probably think of what they’ve read about from Dostoyevsky and imagine Russian aristocrats dining from samovars.

Regardless of what you imagine, it’s safe to say that tea is an eponymous part of Russian culture. This is sort of strange if you think about it though, given that, unlike the nation’s other beverage of choice (vodka), it’s almost impossible to grow tea (made from the plant Camellia Sinensis) in a large portion of Russia. Tea (as in the black variety that we typically imagine) was only introduced to Russia via the Chinese during the seventeenth century.  And, even then, real tea was quite expensive and only available to the rich.

A clear mug of foamy brown liquid.
This particular mug of sbiten is
made from rye bread too, sort
of like warm kvass. |
Photo by Schekinov A.V.
through Wikimedia Commons
 

But of course, this wasn’t the beginning of Russian tea culture. Russians have been drinking their own kinds of tea since long before the Chinese varieties gained popularity. For a while, the warm drink of choice for most Russians was sbiten. You can still buy a version of this today in Russia, either with alcohol or not. When served plain (no alcohol) it is a sweet and heavily spiced concoction made from mainly boiled water, herbs, honey, or jam. While it isn’t technically considered a tea, it closely resembles a very sweet tisane (a tea made from fruit or herbs). Russians would also commonly drink specific herbal teas that were available to them in nature, not just for their flavor, but for medicinal purposes as well.

Ivan-Tea

Popular legend has it that, in the twelfth century, after Alexander Nevsky fought a battle in the village of Koporye, some local monks offered him a sip of Ivan-tea. The drink made him feel so relaxed and reinvigorated that he ordered the village to collect and produce the tea for his army. This is how the tea got its other popular name, Koporye-tea. The plant the tea is made from is called Fireweed, and it grows in abundance in the Koporye region outside St. Petersburg. 

Unlike a lot of herbal teas that need simply be dried, tea producers actually process the leaves for Ivan-tea. This gives it a really rich flavor that is earthy in its own way but also resembles black tea quite a lot (without the added caffeine). In fact, it so closely resembles black tea that it was frequently used to adulterate the more expensive Chinese black tea in order to sell it at a lower price to Europe and beyond. Eventually, foreign powers discovered this scheme and the tea earned a less-than-desirable reputation. 

A beautiful fields of fireweed set against blue mountains.
Fireweed also happens to be a very popular herb in America's very own Alaska.
Photo by Gillfoto via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Following this, the tea was relatively unheard-of, except for during the Seige of Leningrad, when people began to use the same fermentation process of black tea to produce tea from the Fireweed plant. More recently, with the advent of social media, Ivan-tea has become very popular, especially among those who appreciate its numerous health benefits. Studies have shown that it contains high amounts of vitamin C and can help strengthen the immune system. 

Chaga

It wasn't only ethnic Russians who used the land to create unique herbal drinks, but also those who live in what are currently the Russian lands. Although Chaga (Inonotus Obliquus) tea is having a big moment in the United States and elsewhere, it actually had its beginnings in Siberia. Chaga isn’t tea at all, but a variety of mushroom that grows exclusively on white birch trees. So it comes as no surprise that the tea was first developed in this birch-filled, mushroom-loving country.

Little brown nuggets of chaga sit against a white background.
Looks weird, tastes pretty good. |
Photo by Bluebird Provisions via unsplash.com

The Khanty people of western Siberia appear to be the first group of people to consume Chaga. Not only would they drink it as an infusion to aid digestion, but they would also smoke it for lung health (not recommended) or turn it into soap. Since then, numerous institutes have done studies on the numerous benefits of Chaga, including its cancer-fighting properties, its effects on metabolism and endurance, as well as its antiviral/antibacterial properties (to name a few). And it is tasty too! As a tea, it has an intense flavor, similar to a strong black tea or even slightly like coffee (depending on how you prepare it).  

Sagaan Dali

Another medicinal tea hailing from Siberia, Sagaan Dali is endemic to the alpine region near Lake Baikal. The plant itself is but a small shrub, but its leaves and flowers pack a huge punch. Not only does the tea have a strong fruity flavor, but if one places more than 3-5 leaves in a pot of tea, it may actually cause an overdose. This is because the herb has a strong effect on the circulatory and nervous systems, so much so that many often compare it to caffeine.

A brown pile of tea leaves and branches sits on a slate rock.
Sometimes herbal tea just looks like a pile of sticks... 
| Photo by Alexandra Curtis

The Buryat people use the tea for these specific qualities, and as a cure for heart and stomach issues, sweating, and fever. It can even be a cure for a hangover! Unfortunately, unlike Chaga tea that has become popular abroad, Sagaan Dali is rather difficult to find outside of the Baikal region. As if we needed another excuse to plan a trip to Baikal! 

And this is only the tip of the iceberg of herbal teas one can find in Russia. For such a large country, so full of natural resources, there could be as many herbs and tea-steeping techniques as there are onion-domed churches. One of the best things about traveling is trying different foods and drinks that can't be found elsewhere. And if you are a tea connoisseur, Russia certainly has plenty to offer in that regard. 

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