What Is a Samovar? With Tea, a Russian Tradition

samovar-webHallmarks of a Russian novel: (1) a maddening fluidity of names (I mean, really, how many nicknames does one person need?), and (2) the samovar.

Because when tea came into Russia, not only did the Russians embrace this new beverage, but they made it completely their own. Today, the samovar continues to evoke Russian culture and hearty, smoke-tinged tea, hauled thousands of miles by caravan.

But what exactly is this contraption, and why did the Russians end up using it?

After all, the Chinese were using stoneware teapots, and the Europeans were importing both stoneware and porcelain pots from China (see earlier post on early export ware from China).

In the first decades of trade, Chinese teaware did accompany the tea. But those caravans were traveling through Mongolia, where metal kettles were used, so in the 1770s the Russians used the Mongolian design to develop the samovar: sam (self) + varit (to boil), or self-boiler (Nordbye 2013). Or, according to another source, they derived the samovar from Tibetan hot pots (Delaine 2015).

Either way, they quickly caught on.

The Lisitsyn brothers—who lived in Tula, renown for its metalwork—made their first copper samovar in 1778. Less than a century later, Tula was producing 120,000 samovars annually (Master Russian), and by 1900, 630,000. Made of various metals (including copper, iron, brass, nickel, silver, even gold) or porcelain, samovars combined functionality and prestige.

samovar-drawing-web

So how does this really-scary-looking thing work?

Fuel (such as charcoal or wood chips) was stuffed into the pipe that runs through the middle of the samovar. As the fuel burned, it heated the water held in the urn-shaped portion of the samovar.

Meanwhile, tea concentrate, zavarka, was made in a small teapot, which was generally set atop the samovar so that it stayed warm.

To make a cup of tea, a small amount of concentrate was poured into a teacup and diluted with hot water from the samovar (hence the faucet, as seen in the drawing). Sometimes more than one concentrate was made, using different teas. The various concentrates were then combined in the cup and diluted with water.

And the tea itself?

The tea used for the concentrate must be a blend that was very strong yet didn’t become bitter when kept hot for long periods of time. Blends today are often made from black loose leaf tea from India and/or China, and often are slightly smoky, reminiscent of caravan campfires. (See my previous posts on when tea first arrived in Russia and about that first imported tea.)

Traditionally the tea was served black but the drinkers would hold a sugar cube in their teeth as they sipped their tea (Nordbye 2013). Tea nowadays may be sweetened with honey or jam as well.

Now if you don’t have a samovar at home, no worries. You can simply brew strong, hearty Russian Caravan or Russian Samovar loose leaf tea in your own cup or pot, perhaps adding a dab of your favorite jam. Ideally accompanied by your favorite Russian novel.


Sources:
–Delaine, L. “Tea time in Russia,” Russian Life, russianlife.com/blog/tea-time-in-russia, accessed October 2015.
–Master Russian. “Russian samovars,” masterrussian.com/russianculture/samovars.htm, accessed July 2017.
–Nordbye, N. “The great Siberian tea road,” Russian Life May/June 2013.

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7 thoughts on “What Is a Samovar? With Tea, a Russian Tradition

  1. I like the Russian tea you sell at the Teahaus. But, is it possible to buy a Samovar that is not too big? I have a couple of teapots, but, Russian tea, I would like to make in my own Samovar at home!!!:)

    1. According to Delaine’s article, there are smaller samovars available (she says as small as 3 liters), but she doesn’t suggest any vendors. Amazon.com (of course!) has a 3-liter one, so that does seems to be the smallest. I think it would be fun to have one for large gatherings—but I’d want one that uses fuel because that just seems to make it more of a ceremony. Plugging the pot in just doesn’t seem the same!

  2. Hello there! I know this is kinda off topic however , I’d figured I’d ask. Would you be interested in trading links or maybe guest authoring a blog post or vice-versa? My site discusses a lot of the same topics as yours and I think we could greatly benefit from each other. If you happen to be interested feel free to send me an e-mail. I look forward to hearing from you! Wonderful blog by the way!

  3. I’ll visit Russia next week, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and then Murmansk, and I was looking around online related to tea there. I write a blog about tea (Tea in the Ancient World), and started looking into all that back in October, but since the trip is more about sightseeing I never did get far with it, beyond turning up shop recommendations. Any thoughts, or references?

    1. My thoughts: I wish I was coming along on your trip! I’m afraid I know only what I’ve dug up from sources available in the U.S. and online. I guess I would try to find out how Russians currently drink tea (a friend visited Kazakhstan and told me that they often stir fruit jam into hot tea); are samovars common, or has the country resorted to teabags? And it would be interesting to know if tea is held in the same regard as previously (they are still among the top consumers worldwide). Plus I personally would love to see what tea ware museums might hold. I look forward to seeing your coming blogs to find out what you discovered!

      1. I researched some of that, but of course I’ll know a bit more in three weeks, or should. I wrote a post about prior findings but I’ll mention a couple things. Jam in tea does happen there. There is Russian tea but not that many Russians seem to know about it. Samovars must still be around but I’d expect tea bags to be more common now, and better loose tea to be coming along. I’m in contact with a loose tea vendor there I mention in that post and there are others on instagram. Pu’er seems to be catching on, and I’ve seen mention that Chinese and Indian teas are popular.

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