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How New Infusions Are Stirring Turkey’s Tea Heaven

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(CNN) — Atop a terrifying mountain in northeast Turkey, the village of Haremtepe resembles an island surrounded by a vast ocean of greenery: leafy, leafy rows of tea plantations stretch as far as the hazy sky fleetingly allows.

Dozens of local tea pickers, almost entirely hidden in the dark green hillside vegetation, quickly and efficiently pluck the glistening leaves and deposit them in large, slung cloth bags before the next deluge begins.

“This place is special,” says Kenan Çiftçi, owner of a tea plantation and a cafe in the dizzyingly placed village. “Normally, tea can only be grown in equatorial areas. But the region’s microclimate, lots of sun and rain, means tea can thrive.”

Here and everywhere in Rize – a fertile province bordering the Black Sea that is known for its humid climate, monsoon rains and breathtaking vistas – is where the majority of tea is grown in what is most largest nation of tea drinkers in the world. .

The British and Chinese, steeped in tea history, may attract more attention, but Turkey (or Türkiye as it is now called) has, by some estimates, the highest per capita consumption in the world – – the average Turk consumes four kilograms of the leaf per year, according to the International Tea Committee, the equivalent of its 85 million people drinking four glasses a day.

‘Culinary pleasure’

Much of Turkish tea comes from the lush plantations of Rize province.

Ruslan Kalnitsky/Adobe Stock

Brewed in a samovar-style utensil called caydanlik, the powerful loose black tea is usually drunk very regularly in small tulip-shaped glasses. At the same time, the traditional technique of infusing Turkish tea – using a particular “double boiling” system of two kettles stacked on top of each other – can take a long time to prepare, and therefore goes hand in hand with the technique often slower. rhythm of Turkish life.

“Tea drinking is as much a social activity as it is a culinary pleasure,” says Hüseyin Karaman, rector of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan University in Rize, which launched a tea library earlier this year that contains 938 books devoted to tea. beverage. “It’s the glue that unites all the people in our society.”

From the bucolic grounds of the Black Sea to the laid-back Kurdish tea gardens of eastern Turkey and the ultra-hip cafes of Istanbul, tea is used for everything from welcoming strangers to meeting friends. ; start the day to relax after a meal; or to sip languidly during a game of backgammon.

Çay consumption is deeply tied to Turkish culture, according to Karaman, dating back to the days of the Silk Road – the centuries-old roadside inns known as caravanserais would often have teahouses to accommodate weary traders – and evidence of tea leaves dates back to the 16th century in the Ottoman Empire.
During the reign of Abdul Hamid II, who served as Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1876 to 1909, tea was planted throughout the empire, Karaman explains, but yields were generally poor due to many locations having an unsuitable climate. However, it was soon discovered that the Black Sea region was better suited to growing tea, and in 1947 the country’s first tea factory was established in Rize.

“Large-scale tea production here is a relatively modern phenomenon,” adds Karaman. “But it grew and spread quickly and became deeply embedded in the culture. Now it feels like tea has been around for thousands of years.”

stir it up

How New Infusions Are Stirring Turkey’s Tea Heaven

Turkey processed 275,000 tons of tea in 2021.

Emre Ercin

Yet, while by some estimates Turkey produces up to 10% of the world’s tea (275,000 tons were processed last year), most of it is consumed domestically and much of it is still the age-old variety of black tea which is grown on Rize’s 767 million square kilometers of tea plantations, which is then harvested over a six-month period from May to October, before being withered, rolled, fermented and then dried.
However, change is brewing for Turkish tea, as producers like Lazika, a Rize-based startup founded in 2016, are beginning to break with tradition.

The company, which works only with small farmers, produces organic green and white teas, often using local ingredients such as yayla flowers from the nearby Kaçkar mountains, sweetening the taste and, according to some locals, providing health benefits. medicinal.

“Turkish tea is focused on people’s old habits,” says founder Emre Ercin. “There is no variation. It’s always the same flavor. We want to change that.”

There is clearly an appetite to turn over a new leaf: in 2021, Lazika processed around seven tonnes of hand-picked tea, but production has increased significantly and this year it is expected to process 25 tonnes.

The company has also opened a cafe in Istanbul to sell its products, with more planned soon. “Our consumers have a new taste. It just takes a little effort,” says Ercin. “Their eyes are opening.”

Others take different approaches to production. Aytul Turan, who co-runs the women-run Tea Chef company based in Rize, started making artisanal tea after visiting China in 2017.

“I try to make the best tea by processing fresh tea leaves, which are harvested by hand without damaging the tea plant with great care and precision, while preserving the structure of the product,” she says.

‘Deep love’

How New Infusions Are Stirring Turkey’s Tea Heaven

Scientist of ÇAYKUR, the Turkish state-owned tea production company.

Pierre Yeung

Together with her friend Yasemin Yazıcı, the duo now harvests high-quality white tea leaves by hand and processes them themselves, as well as artisanal production of green tea, black tea and even Japanese-style matcha.

“I have a very deep love for tea production,” adds Turan. “We left with the awareness that we young people have the responsibility to know, develop and innovate the history of Turkish tea.”

But even at Çaykur, Türkiye’s state-owned tea company, which employs more than 10,000 people in 45 factories, innovation is the order of the day.

At Çaykur’s labs, white-coated scientists are constantly testing new technologies and techniques to improve product flavor and consistency, monitoring everything from pH levels to color tone. For some blends, a “2.5 leaf” process is used to take only the bud and the two youngest leaves from the tea plant – considered by some to be the finest result.

“We are always trying to create new levels of quality,” says Muhammet Çomoğlu, who works for the state-run Rize Tea Research and Application Center (ÇAYMER). “For the Turks, tea is one of the most important elements of the daily diet.”

But as Turkish tea continues to grow and evolve in new directions, its ability to bring people together remains. To toast Turkey’s national drink, a 30-meter-tall building shaped like a giant Turkish tea glass – featuring a bazaar, viewing terrace and, in the future, a museum – was inaugurated in the city ​​of Rize this year.

“Living without tea is no life at all,” says Hasan Önder, the bazaar’s manager. “We need to celebrate this important part of Turkish life, both among ourselves and by sharing the delicious history with visitors.”


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