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.


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.

–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.

Greet the Morning with Russian Breakfast Tea

russ-sam-leaves-webWhen Russia first imported tea from China—back in the late 1600s and early 1700s—the journey by caravan took over a year. (See previous post for more.)

So what kind of tea would taste good after 16 months of being hauled by a camel?

Well, for tea to survive the arduous journey, it had to be durable. There are stories of tea picking up a smoky taste from the campfires of the caravan, but the tea would have already been dried so that it would travel well. Early black loose leaf tea was probably dried over pine smoke in Fujian, as lapsang souchong is still today.

Russia imported both loose leaf and bricks of tea, although the bricks were more common at first. The bricks were durable and held their flavor—although about that flavor. . . .

According to Nordbye (2013), tea bricks were composed of:

both the better and coarser [tea] leaves, as well as twigs from the shrub (and often binding agents such as flour and manure)

Yep, just the flavor nuances I want in my tea.

Siberians also infused the tea bricks with mutton fat and salt (Nordbye 2013), perhaps because they needed the extra nutrition in their harsh environment (similar to the practice of adding high-fat-content yak butter to tea in the Himalayas). That at least is a bit more palatable.

Anyway, the blend of tea and binding agents were pressed into molds and dried, yielding a brick that weighed about 22 pounds. These bricks were then cut into smaller chunks and “were tightly sewn up in animal hides” before being transported by camel (Nordbye 2013).

Tea was valuable, and the bricks were used as money, even as recently as a hundred years ago in Siberia. By the late 1700s, nearly three million pounds of tea made their way into Russia each year. And by then, tea prices had fallen enough so that the lower-quality bricks were accessible to those lower on the economic spectrum while the upper echelon was sipping the higher-quality loose leaf tea.

Today Russian tea blends continue to have a smoky note. The Russian Samovar shown here is a blend of Ceylon, Chinese, and Indian teas, yielding a robust brew that has a slightly smoky, spicy flavor. (And absolutely no binding agents, palatable or otherwise!)

But you undoubtedly noticed that the “Russian Samovar” tea was not brewed in a samovar. More about the samovar up next!


Source: Nordbye, N. “The great Siberian tea road,” Russian Life May/June 2013.
Note:  Russian Samovar tea shown here is available at TeaHaus.com.

Begin the Day with Irish Breakfast Tea


Night owl? Then a bracing cup of Irish breakfast tea is in order for those way-too-early-it-can’t-be-morning-already mornings!

As with English breakfast teas (see my previous post), the Irish counterpart was not intended simply to deliver caffeine to the sleep-deprived. (Though that undoubtedly was a welcome perk for the overworked.)

Rather, back in 1784, when those in the lower economic classes could finally afford to buy inexpensive tea, they quickly found that said tea was pretty bad. But ever resourceful, they masked the inferior quality by making a very strong brew and then generously adding milk.

Voilà, tradition was born!

And the custom of drinking tea became hugely popular. And the Irish drank a LOT of it. And they drank the “best available tea” (Murphy 2002).

Then came World War II. As Conor Pope (2014) explains:

With the war came much greater export controls in the UK, and, when its ministry of food took over the tea trade, Ireland lost 75 per cent of its supply almost overnight.

Since the Irish were the world’s third-highest per capita tea drinkers by this time, the Irish minister for supplies took matters into his own hands and set up an importing agency.

Initially, tea was purchased directly from tea growers in India. Production took place for only 5 to 6 months of the year, so tea leaves were stored for the rest of the year. However, by the 1960s, tea was available from Africa, where tea could be produced year-round. Processed by the then-new mechanized CTC (crush/cut-tear-curl) method, this fresh—and heartier—tea was mixed with the lighter Indian tea in storage.

And voilà once again! The rich tradition of blends unique to Ireland was well on its way!


Today, very strong tea—commonly with milk—continues to be part of Irish culture. Irish breakfast teas may contain Assam, which gives a malty note and red color, but unique black tea blends abound. Darjeeling balances intensity, whereas robust teas from Africa lend heft. The strong and spicy O’Sullivan’s Favorite pictured above comes from a tea garden in Burundi.

Whatever breakfast blend you choose, chances are good that it’ll jumpstart your day!

–Pope, C. “Why we get a better cup in Ireland than all the tea in China,” The Irish Times, October 6, 2014.
–Murphy, M. “Review of Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500–1920,” by L. A. Clarkson and E. M. Crawford. Reviews in History, October 2002.
Note:  O’Sullivan’s Favorite is available at TeaHaus.com.

Wake Up with English Breakfast Teas

all-3-brew-webAnyone else take extra days off for the Fourth of July “weekend”? This morning’s de facto Monday necessitated a stiff breakfast tea. Really stiff. Sort of a jolt back to reality.

But this isn’t really why “breakfast teas” exist.

Rather, these tea blends were designed to accompany the heavy breakfasts of late-1800s-England—a meal perhaps more akin to our idea of brunch. Because you would definitely need a robust tea blend to hold up against the “beef, pork and bread (and often beer)”* served up first thing in the morning!

But even though “English Breakfast Tea” springs immediately to mind, the morning tea idea first began in Scotland, when tea master Mr. Drysdale marketed his own blend as “Breakfast Tea.”*

This strong brew may actually have been due to the soft water in Scotland. According to Frank Sanchez of Upton Tea Imports,†

back in the day teas were blended specifically for the water conditions in the areas in which they were marketed and consumed. . . . It’s conjecture, but perhaps the water in Scotland demanded a stronger tea.

Regardless, the English jumped on the idea and made it their own with “English Breakfast Tea.” And because the strong black tea blends hold up well to milk, these teas were—and still are—traditionally drunk with milk.

The blend of teas used was flexible, and heavily depended on what teas were available at the time. The first versions would have used Chinese black tea. However, during the Opium Wars in the 1800s, the Brits looked to Assam, India, where they had begun growing tea, and they started adding Assam to the Chinese tea. When tea from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) became available, they tossed that into the mix.

eng-br-webToday, English breakfast teas may include robust black teas from Kenya and/or Indonesia as well, and every vendor will have their own particular blend.

Pictured here is the English Breakfast Tea sold at TeaHaus, a combination of Ceylon, Assam, Java, and Darjeeling teas. The Assam contributes maltiness, the Ceylon brightness.

When the Darjeeling is omitted, you get a version that is yet more stiff and brisk, i.e, TeaHaus’ English Westminster. Shades of Keep Calm and Carry On are found in its crisp, bold brew.

Next up: Irish and Russian breakfast teas. Because the English don’t corner the market on breakfast blends!

*Chavey, E. “All breakfast all the time,” mrbreakfast.com, accessed 7/5/17.
†Han, E. “What’s the difference between English, Irish, and Scottish breakfast teas?” The Kitchn, April 7, 2014.
Note: English Breakfast and English Westminster teas shown here are available at TeaHaus.com.

What Is Honeybush Tea? A Treat!

Honeybush. The name itself sounds sweet and pleasant.


Honeybush (Cyclopia sp.)—also known as mountain or cape tea—probably takes its name from its yellow, honey-scented flowers. Native to South Africa, there are 23 documented species of honeybush, each thriving in a specific environment, from coastal to mountainous.

Today, 70% of the honeybush produced comes from these wild shrubs, according to the South African Honeybush Tea Association (SAHTA), although the annual harvest is small (only about 200 tons).

However, farmers—encouraged by the honeybush industry that hopes to “relieve the pressure on wild honey bush populations . . . [and] control and protect wild honeybush, thereby ensuring sustainable harvesting” (SAHTA)— have started to cultivate several species.

Indeed, as more people learn about this delicious tisane and its multiple health benefits, demand is likely to grow.

From shrub to cup

Thoneybush-brew-webo harvest honeybush, twigs bearing needle-like leaves are cut from the shrubs. The processing stages are similar to those of rooibos, with the twigs and leaves first chopped; then moistened and layered (sweated), and sometimes heated, to develop the flavor; and then finally dried.

Because there are so many honeybush species—each with its very own flavor—several varieties may be combined during production.

And you do want to drink this elixir!

This tea is low in tannins, high in antioxidants, and considered to be caffeine free. According to the SAHTA, there is preliminary evidence that it has an effect on cancer,  works similarly to human estrogen, and may protect “postmenopausal women against cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.”

But even if all that isn’t enough, consider that brewed honeybush yields an earthy flavor that is subtly sweet. Yummm.

Source : South African Honeybush Tea Association.
Honeybush shown here is available from TeaHaus. For brewing, I used boiling water, with a 10-minute steep.

How To Have an Informal Do-It-Yourself Tea Tasting

Surprise packages are the best!

And those containing a tin of tea—a blend created by friends—even better!!

tea leavesMy dear friend Susan and her son David recently visited TeaPort, “Home of the Original Nanaimo Bar Tea Blend,” and sent me the results of their personal experiment in tea blending.

Gather the troops and break out the teapot—

My family promptly agreed to taste test this intriguing—and very pretty—blend of black tea from Sri Lanka, calendula, jasmine and sunflower petals, coconut flakes, real maple syrup, butterscotch pieces, and natural flavors.

and first consider the leaves and make some speculations

We wondered how on earth Susan and David came up with this combination! When we read the ingredient list, we didn’t think any of us would really care for this tea. I thought the blend smelled too much of butterscotch (not a favorite flavor of mine) while others picked up fruity and caramel. The choice of both butterscotch and maple syrup was a bit baffling.

And all of us believed that the tea would be very sweet!

On to brewing—

susan-wet-leaves-webWe measured out 5 teaspoons of the tea into a one-quart teapot, added boiling water, and brewed for 2 minutes (no specific directions were provided by TeaPort so we used standard brewing for black aroma teas).

and then tasting—and describing—the brew

First off, we nailed the amount of tea and brew time!

However, predictions of flavor don’t make something true. We all agreed that we could taste a sweetness but the tea was not sweet! Rather, it was smooth.

And with five of us, we came up with different descriptions of the same tea:

  1. No one flavor dominates; more astringent, like a second flush, than full bodied. A bit of floral with creaminess behind the floral.
  2. Smooth, creamy, balanced.
  3. Fruity, toasty, and creamy.
  4. Caramel and smoky.
  5. Caramel with very smooth aftertaste.

Well, we learned several things:

  • our predictions were very unreliable
  • each of us picked up different flavor nuances
  • this is FUN!!!
  • and we love the tea!


What Is Rooibos Tea?

ROOIBOS: Truly a Red Tea!

If you haven’t had rooibos yet, now is the time—especially if you are looking for a delicious tea that doesn’t have caffeine.

Well, actually it’s a tisane

Although rooibos is commonly called “tea,” it is really an herbal tisane. While true tea is produced with Camellia senensis, rooibos (Aspalathus linearis) is a legume, the same family of plants to which peas and clover belong.

roobios-brew-alt-webFrom a red bush

Rooibos is native only to the Western Cape of South Africa, where is it a popular drink; translated from Afrikaans, rooibos means “red bush.”

Still produced only in South Africa, young branches are cut from the shrub once a year, from December to April. These cuttings are finely chopped and bruised to promote oxidation, are then moistened and layered (a “sweating” step), and finally are dried. During this processing, the green leaves turn red, yielding a flavor that is somewhat woody, sweet, and creamy.

And then there’s GREEN ROOIBOS

gr-rooibos-web  gr-roo-brew-web

This variety is less known.

Still from a red bush

—but by skipping the oxidation step, the rooibos retains its green color and results in a fresh, slightly tangy flavor, somewhat akin to green tea.

And with loads of health benefits

Both rooibos varieties are low in tannins, high in antioxidants, and naturally caffeine free (in Japan, rooibos is called “Long Life Tea” due to its health benefits).

However, according to the South Africa Rooibos Council,

green Rooibos has higher levels of antioxidants than traditional fermented Rooibos and demonstrates even higher antioxidant and—in some cases—antimutagenic (cancer-fighting) activities.


Around 12,000 metric tons of rooibos are produced each year. About 7,000 tons of that are exported to over 30 countries, particularly to Germany, The Netherlands, Japan, the UK, and the US.

Rooibos’ natural sweetness and creaminess complement all sorts of things—tea, spices, herbals, fruits, caramel and chocolate, nuts—so rooibos blends abound!

To brew rooibos, use boiling water and a brew time of 5–10 minutes (you can’t overbrew it). Enjoy it hot or iced!

Source: South Africa Rooibos Council.
Rooibos and Green Rooibos shown here are available from TeaHaus.