The Turks Drink the Most Tea—How That Came About

Who drinks the most tea in the world?sept-2018-brew-webPer person? That would be the Turks, at some 7.7 pounds of tea per person per year (Ahul News 9/29/18).

I calculate that’s around 2,300 teabags. Per person per year. That seems like a lot.

Yet—if I use a teaspoon of loose tea per 8-oz cup and I drink a bit at least three cups daily, then I’ll easily reach 7.7 pounds per year. And after all, what is a mere three cups to an avid tea drinker?!

bag-of-tea-web
Turkish Black Tea, Tea Flower

But to hit that number per capita, it means that most people in Turkey drink a lot of tea!

And to facilitate all that tea-drinking, Turkey grows a lot of tea, ranking fifth in the world for production.

So how did the Turks come to so passionately embrace tea?

Although it may have been consumed in Turkey even earlier, tea would have come into the country along the Silk Road; indeed, the Turkish word for tea, çay, is based on Chinese chá.

However, tea didn’t catch on in a big way until centuries later.

A Rough Beginning

The first documented attempt to grow tea in Turkey was in the late 1800s, when the Department of Agriculture imported seedlings from Japan and China and planted them in Bursa. Apparently no one did their homework . . . that region wasn’t at all conducive to tea.

In 1918, botanist Ali Riza Erten studied neighboring Batum (Republic of Georgia)—an area in which the Russians had successfully introduced tea plants—to identify similar regions in Turkey. One promising area was Rize, near the Black Sea.

Camellia_sinensis-web
Camellia sinensis

In the following years, the government encouraged farmers to grow tea—but because there was no established infrastructure for processing the leaves, efforts languished, in spite of tax incentives and free tea seedlings.

To the Beginning of Success

Renewed efforts in the late 1930s, along with a 1940 act that protected farmer’s rights and set up the state as sole buyer of tea, finally boosted production.

And economics and promotion helped.

As coffee grew more expensive, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder and president (1923–1938) of the Republic of Turkey, championed tea.

When World War II disrupted tea imports, Turkish tea producers jumped on the opportunity:

  • in 1939, 1,324 farmers produced 181 kg of tea
  • in 1946, 11,092 farmers produced 93,067 kg

More land was devoted to tea, irrigation systems and processing facilities were improved, tax credits were given—and by 1962 Turkey was self-sufficient and actually able to export tea.

But by 1965, the tea industry once again couldn’t keep up with domestic market demands, necessitating more investments and improvements. Finally, the state established Çaykur (Tea Board) in 1971, and by the following year, 137,388 farmers were growing tea.

Çaykur is thus the country’s oldest tea-producing company, holding a monopoly until 1985. Even now, Çaykur accounts for well over half of the country’s output.

leaves-web
Çay Çiçegi black tea, produced by Çaykur

Most of the tea grown in Turkey is domestically consumed as black tea, with production still barely keeping up with demand.

The tea that is exported is mainly green tea, and there isn’t a lot of it. For example, in 2015 Çaykur sold around 5,000 tons of tea to over 50 countries. For perspective, Turkey produced 225,000 tons of tea in 2013, so 5,000 is just slightly over 2% of total production.

Woven into Society

The hold that tea took upon Turkey may have wildly surpassed anyone’s expectations—and this all happened within a very short time period.

Today, Turkey’s tea industry remains centered in Rize, which is also home to Çay Enstitüsü (Tea Institute), and tea has become integral to Turkish life:

it is a social experience and a sign of hospitality and is offered as a sign of friendship. (Yell Ali 2015)

Further,

The host is supposed to supply tea as long as the guests desire. In Turkish culture you just cannot say, “Sorry we don’t have any tea left!” This is simply not done, at all. (Istanbul Insider)

And it doesn’t hurt that tea is still less expensive than coffee.

Especially if that guest has no plans on leaving anytime soon.


Be sure to join me for my next post, a look at how Turks brew and serve their tea—and why tulips play a part.


Sources:
–”History of tea production and marketing in Turkey,” by M. A. Klasra et al., International Journal of Agriculture & Biology 1560–8530 (2007): 523–529.
–”History of Turkish tea,” Yell Ali, April 6, 2015, https://yellali.com/blogs/article/244/history-of-turkish-tea.
Rough Guide to Turkey, Rough Guides, 2016, p. 9.
–”The tea of Turkey,” Turkey Homes, June 28, 2016, https://www.turkeyhomes.com/blog/post/the-tea-of-turkey.
–”Turkish Tea, an Offer You Can’t Refuse,” The Instanbul Insider, accessed Oct. 4, 2018, https://www.theistanbulinsider.com/turkish-tea-an-offer-you-cant-refuse/.
–”Turks world’s biggest tea drinkers, says report,” Ahul News, Sept. 29, 2018, https://ahvalnews.com/tea/turks-worlds-biggest-tea-drinkers-says-report.

One thought on “The Turks Drink the Most Tea—How That Came About

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s