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Russian Caravan: the origins of a great tea blend

Russian Caravan
Russian Caravan: the origins of a great tea blend
Nizhny Novgorod, today a UNESCO heritage site

Russian Caravan is a long-established and popular, aromatic blended tea. It is largely a black tea often drunk without milk.

Russian Caravan tea is traditionally prepared in a samovar and it became a national drink for all sections of Russian society. There was considerable demand for this tea which was imported by land from China. It was frequently served in a glass and sweetened with sugar. To enjoy tea was long considered synonymous with Russian fire-side hospitality.

In the 18th and 19th centuries hundreds of thousands of camel caravans, ox carts and sleighs weighed down with tea made their weary way across the Mongolian steppes from China to the Russian Imperial market town of Nizhny Novgorod, located 250 miles to the east of Moscow, on the banks of the River Volga. As they crossed southern Siberia and the Ural Mountains they endured snow storms and much hardship.

Russians drink their first tea

The first Russians to have tasted tea were the Cossacks Vasili Tumenets and Ivan Petrov who were envoys of the Tsar sent to seek an alliance with Altin Khan, a Mongol prince from Lake Ubsa Nor in north-west Mongolia. This area controlled the only possible route to China as hostile Kalmyks controlled the more southerly route. After travelling for three weeks, traversing rocky terrain they entered the territory of Altin Khan who received the Tsar’s gifts with gratitude and entertained the envoys to an extensive banquet of game and a hot beverage containing boiled cows’ milk and “leaves of some sort”.

The first tea by caravan

Russian Caravan
A camel caravan crossing the Russian Steppes from China.

In 1638 the Altin Khan presented envoys of the Tsar 600 lbs of tea. At that time tea was unknown in Russia and therefore the envoys protested, preferring sables. 1699 marked the first of Russian caravan which travelled to Beijing, trading furs for gold, silver, cotton, silk and porcelain but only limited quantities of tea. Caravans reached Beijing every three years – the time it took for a return trip from Moscow.

In 1727, following the treaty of Kyakhta a trading outpost was established by the Russians in this border town to the south of Lake Baikal. Soon black tea was imported 1500 miles from the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian Province via Jiangxi to the north-west of Beijing. Over one thousand camels were used to carry cargos, each camel carrying around 280 lbs tea in hemp or bamboo baskets. At night camps would be set in an oval formation, complete with dogs to guard against robbers. In 1750 215,000 lbs pekoe tea was imported through Kyakhta as well as 250,000 of lower quality brick tea. By 1810 this trade had expanded six-fold. Over the 3,800 mile route, taking from one to two hundred days, depending upon the seasons. During this journey the tea was tested four times: at Irkutsk, Tomsk, Tiumen, and Perm. By 1829 Kyakhta was one of the wealthiest towns in Russia. Tea was a major source of this bounty contributing to the construction of two churches. The shells of these fabulous buildings can be seen today.

Tea in Russia

Prepared in a samovar, men drank their tea in glasses with a towel around their shoulders to wipe away the perspiration from drinking such a hot beverage. Ladies drank their tea from porcelain cups. Samovars, featuring a tap and a vertical pipe in which burning charcoal is placed to heat the water, have a teapot at the top which can be diluted to taste. The first samovar was made in 1778 by a gunsmith in Tula, a famous metal-working town 110 miles south of Moscow.

One of the most famous samovars was in the household of Princess Odoevsky whose husband was a close friend of Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s national poet. In the 1830s the library featured an enormous silver samovar – the centre-piece of open salons where guests were not expected to arrive before 11.00 p.m.! On visiting the Caucasus Pushkin stated that the local peasants should benefit from Russian civilisation in the form of the Gospel and the samovar…

The Russian tea routes

A new treaty between Russia and China opened up a new trade route directly into western Russia via Tacheng and Ili on the border between present-day Kazakhstan and China’s Xinjiang Urghur Autonomous Region. Teas imported along this route was in fact mainly green tea destined for Western markets. In 1862 the first ‘canton tea’ reached Nizhny Novgorod. These teas were heavily fired to reduce the risk of deterioration whilst in the damp holds of ships. This tea was well suited to mass markets but for the affluent with more refined tastes there was a preference for the more lightly fired teas transported by caravan via Kyakhta.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 was another nail in the coffin for Kyakhta as tea was brought via Lake Baikal to Nizhny Novgorod. Shortly after, Russian companies based in Fujian produced tea bricks from previously discarded tea dust. By 1875 almost 4 million lbs of brick tea was imported to Russia to feed its samovars.

The end for Kyakhta came in 1891 when the feat of construction in the form of the Trans-Siberian Railway was opened. In 1893, determined to end their reliance on China for tea – like the English and Dutch, the Russians established their own tea gardens in the Caucasus mountains of Georgia.

How Russians drink their tea

In Russia tea is taken strong and black, sometimes with the addition of slices of lemon or orange. It may be accompanied bread with honey or jam. The traditional sugar cube held in the mouth whilst drinking tea is however uncommon today.

Russian Caravan tea blends may contain a proportion of oolong tea, such as ours, which add a lightness and herbaceous complexity. They may also contain a little smoky lapsang souchong tea. Originally this smokiness may have arisen due to the close proximity of the tea to countless wood camp fires whilst the caravans were en-route to Russia.

Russian caravan tea is medium to full bodied, aromatic and slightly smoky. Its complexity is an enduring attraction. See our Russian Caravan tea blend.