of the Lazy Literatus

Tag: Russian tea

Ivan Chai through Time

If there is one prediction I never would have made for this blog in 2020, it’s that I would spend at least five articles talking about one plant. Okay . . . true, there are four hundred articles here that talk about Camellia sinensis, but this year, I started a saga on Chamerion angustifolium. Also known by the more common name: fireweed. Or in its Russian “tea” form: Ivan Chai.

Image owned by Rus-Bay

Since March, I’ve catalogued numerous ways in which this herb is grown and processed, done terroir analyses, and even commented on how well it blends with actual tea. Through it all, there were a couple of question I hadn’t answered. How did it taste un-processed? How well did it taste young? And how well did it taste aged? Well . . . I found a small company in Moscow that—quite handily—answered all three.

Rus-Bay is a small online shop based in Moscow that specializes in just products made from fireweed. The shop is run by a web developer, Max Kirpichev, whom I had a delightful e-mail correspondence with when I asked about his vendor outfit. Max was already a fan of Chinese tea, but decided to branch out his exploration toward the national drink from his childhood. Around 2014(-ish), he pondered the idea of starting a shop that specialized in Ivan Chai, but for selling it to international consumers.

Since the shop was small, he tried many different varieties of Ivan Chai before settling on six that exemplified the diverse profiles the herb could take on. Of the ones he sent me, there were three I really wanted to feature. Not only because they were each processed (or in one case, not processed) in different ways, but they were also produced in three different years. One was produced in the spring of 2019, one from 2018, and the last was made in 2017.

For the sake of time travel, I’m going to start with the youngest.

Maisky Fireweed “Tea”

As the name implies, this was plucked and processed in May of 2019. It was cultivated from the new leaf sprouts. So, for all intents and purposes, this was very similar in processing to a bud-heavy black tea. The difference, though? The leaf germs were cut. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing here; fireweed leaves are quite large, so (probably?) the sprouts were of comparable size.

In appearance, this looked like any other black tea made from Camellia sinensis. Even stranger, it smelled like it, too. The aroma was sweet, floral, slightly woody, and gave off Ceylon vibes.

The liquor didn’t brew up crimson like a black tea, but sure did taste like one. Those Ceylon vibes translated to the liquor perfectly. When infused like a black tea—Western style—sweetness took point, followed by a honey-ish middle (a fireweed staple), and ended on an alternating floral and gentle malt note.  Many a summer afternoons were spent with this one.

Green Fireweed “Tea”

The second one on the docket was plucked in July of 2018 . . . and that was it. Okay, not entirely. There was one step in processing before being cut to a BOP-ish standard. The leaves were sun-dried almost like a white tea. This resulted in a dry leaf aroma that reminded me of green honeybush by way of lemon verbena. Citrus and honey aromatics played with my nostrils, but there was also an added depth to it—probably due to age.

I brewed it up like I would any old assamica white tea; 3 to 4 grams of leaf per 4oz. of boiled water, and a steep for three-to-five minutes. This resulted in a gold-to-amber liquor with a deep honey profile. Not deep as in, full-bodied, deep as in . . . wise?

The taste reminded me of a three-year-aged Bai Mu Dan, a white tea just gaining that honey profile as it ages in cold storage. Except, I know that the honey lean comes from the natural taste of the leaves. Even when oxidized that profile shows through. It was just less refined, yet more vibrant, in the unfettered form. It even worked well iced.

Fireweed Snails “Tea”

This one was . . . nuts. In the best way possible. Brace yourselves.

I actually had to contact Max again to get the full story on this sucker. The pressed snails of fireweed leaf were plucked-‘n-processed in July of 2017. And unlike other forms of Ivan Chai, these were not just oxidized, they were fermented. Not in the puerh “microbial ripening” way, either; actual fermentation occurred here.

The leaves were handled in the traditional Russian way. What did that mean exactly? Well, that meant the leaves were bruised by hand before withering. Granted this is always done, even with your run-o’-the-mill oxidized Ivan Chai, but there was a difference here. Instead of automatically withering after bruising, the fresh leaves were left to stew in their own juices before withering. This allowed the natural yeast on the leaves to eat the sugars present within the leaves.

Now, hold on, my brain said. Yeast? Sugars? This sounds like ethanol fermentation.

Yeah, that’s exactly what this is. The leaves were left to legit ferment and create alcohol. After that stage occurred, the leaves were spread out in a thin layer (sorta on top of each other), so that they created a consistent sheet, and then they were wrapped with a thin cloth to retain shape. For a few days, these leaf-roll-ups were left in the sun. Finally, they were cut in to individual, snail-like sections, and given a final drying. This resulted in . . . a tea experience I’ve never had before in my life.

The site recommended using one snail and a 500ml teapot. I did exactly that and infused the leaf-snail until the liquor darkened.

Basically, I followed Max’s YouTube video on how to brew it.

Following a five-minute steep, the finished brew was . . .

Insanely good. Beyond any herbal infusion experience I’d ever—well—experienced. The craziest thing about it was the taste. It reminded me of a Spanish or Irish coffee. The full body was like coffee, the bite was like whiskey. I even had to ask Max if this had been aged in a liquor barrel or something. He said all that was done to it was the fermentation. Somehow, after the drying phrase, it still kept the liquor lean in the aromatics.

No alcohol, but some of the lovely kick. No side-effects. Seriously, it doesn’t. I had to consult with my tea scientist comrade—Eric Scott—just to be on the safe side. He explained how all that worked and assuaged my fears.

No wonder Russians fell in love with this damn plant.

With some of the smaller snail chunks, I tried to gong fu it a bit.

Not quite as successful as the potting method, but still delicious. At shorter infusions, it reminded me of an aged oolong, due to a distinct plum-to-prune note. Not nearly as strong on the liquor bite. Both methods worked splendidly. So much so . . . that I ordered two more bags of the stuff prior to this write-up. (Just in case.)

Over the last six months, Ivan Chai has replaced regular, caffeinated tea as my morning cuppa. I read somewhere that caffeine in the morning was a bad idea; that it messed with a person’s cortisol levels if consumed shortly after waking. It was best to wait a couple of hours before partaking. With Ivan Chai, that wasn’t a problem. It gave me my tea fix, and—somehow—I felt energized after imbibing it.

It truly is a weird, wonderful herb. I know I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. And I guess, for now, my Ivan Chai saga draws to a close. That is, unless I find another unusual way it’s made. Maybe there’s an Ivan Chai oolong look-alike out there?

Oh wait . . .

Granulated Fireweed, also available at Rus-Bay.

To buy the Maisky Fireweed, go HERE.

To buy the Green Fireweed, go HERE.

To buy the Fireweed “Snails”, go HERE.

Revisiting Russian Tea Gardens

I’ve written a lot about Russian tea gardens over the last couple of years.

Image owned by Tea in the City

But I didn’t think, for one second (at the time), that I was one of the only English language sources on the subject. That is, until I got a message from Thomas Tomporowski of Tea in the City, a vendor op located in the United Kingdom. He was looking to research the possibility of carrying Russian teas for his new company, but when he went to research the gardens in Sochi region . . . I was pretty much it. And, granted, that ain’t much.

Luckily, for the tea community at large, he took that leaf journey a step further . . . and actually went to some of these gardens himself. He even blogged about the experience HEREYou should read it. I’ll wait.

All caught up? Great!

Russian Dark Tea

Russians love tea. Like . . . really love tea. Even the British and Irish look at the Russian love affair with tea and say, “Would you kindly tone it down?”

I learned of this secondhand when I was doing research a couple of years ago on tea grown in Russia. Not exactly sure how it happened, but Russians took a rather strong liking to low-altitude Ceylon. Brewed as a concentrate . . . from a giant brass water heater . . . that was stoked with a boot. Yes, a Samovar.

But in recent years, there’s been a shift in the Russian tea palate. One I learned of from – of all places – Instagram.

Photo used with permission from Electrogorilla

Photo used with permission from Electrogorilla

Young Russians love dark tea (or “heicha”). Like . . . really love dark tea. Puerh, to be precise.

Russian Tea Finds You

I can’t remember when this quest began, but it all started with a random Google search. It was probably in the Fall of 2010, and I ran across an article about Russian tea. What astounded me was that there was mention of Soviet-run tea plantations. That immediately got me digging.

Russia has a long-standing love affair with tea. The country’s rampant consumption of the brew almost rivals Engand, Ireland and Iran combined. I don’t have exact figures; the Russians drank them all. To cater to the demand, government-run plantations were set up in the Dagomys region, near Sochi City, in the Russian krai (federal subject) of Krasnodar. Often considered a tourist spot for the rich, the climate was near-ideal for tea growing – Caucasian sub-tropical.

The tea coming out of the region was dubbed Krasnodarskiy or “Krasnodar Tea”, for short. Or at the very least, that was the first “successful” brand.  For the life of me,  I couldn’t find the stuff anywhere. I found tea plants from the same cultivar from the region. (Seriously, any tea plant you can buy in the U.S. is probably a Sochi cultivar.) But finding the actual, Russian-grown stuff stateside was next to impossible.

I even hit up Russian delis to find out more. Every one of them gave me the same answer, “Oh, you don’t want that tea. Terrible tea. Russians only drink Ceylon.” Well, that was odd.

It was true, though. Russians did have a particular lean toward Sri Lankan-grown teas. I usually assumed all Ceylons were floral – like those from Nuwara Eliya – but it turns out the lower-altitude stuff was actually rather robust. Perfect for the Russian palate.

Another bit of knowledge that didn’t help my quest was hearing that tea production in Dagomys fell into neglect and disrepair after perestroika. Some independent gardens were getting back on their feet, but none were exporting in large quantities. As such, I considered it a futile quest.

Until Tea Trade Jackie happened upon a video about tea production, and how things were picking back up. The reason: The impending Winter Olympics in Sochi City. Yes, yes…I’m well aware of the controversy surrounding that at the moment – not even gonna begin to touch that subject. I was merely intrigued that interest in Russian-grown tea was back on the rise.

So, I put out my feelers again, pining for any leads on Krasnodarskiy. And I turned up…nothing. Flat nothing. Even after putting it at the top of my Tea WANT! List, there were no beads on the brew. I was back to square one.

Until a couple of years later, when I was in Josh “J-TEA” Chamberlain’s Eugene-based tea shop.

As I was downing mass quantities of his aged Baozhong, he asked me, “Hey, have you had any Russian-grown tea?”

My head snapped up, “No, why?”

“Oh, I have some,” he said as an afterthought. “It’s not very good.”

My jaw dropped. In three years of searching, I hadn’t found Russian-grown tea. In three minutes at a teashop, Russian tea found me. Yakov Smirnoff was probably pointing at me. Laughing inwardly.

Josh kindly gave me some to play around with. A few weeks later, I dug in.

The leaves looked like something in between fannings and broken orange pekoe. They were still noticeably…uh…leaf-like, but they were definitely cut small. There were some tippy pieces in the brown fray, as well as some red-tipped ones. On the nose, it smelled like a dusty black tea – similar to a low-altitude Ceylon…in a teabag. Actually, the aroma reminded me of a Shizuoakan kocha (Japanese black tea), which often had a similar leaf-cut.

I wasn’t sure how exactly I should handle this. So, I went with a typical black tea approach (for me) – 1 tsp. in a 6oz. steeper cup with boiled water for three minutes. I wasn’t expecting hearty nuance, but I didn’t want to scald it, either.

The liquor brewed to a deep copper – like, Assam deep – with a very astringent aroma. It smelled like a burly black tea through-and-through, without much in the way of subtlety. All tannins, no temptation. On taste, the first sensation I got was bitterness, followed by a dry underpinning , and finally a malty character peaked through the top note and finish. This was definitely a burly, barrel-chested Russian breakfast of a tea.

After trying it, I can safely say it’s not the worst black tea I’ve had. Nowhere near the best, but not the worst. It’s very middling in its approached. I think cutting the leaves to just shy of BOP standard probably did the final product an injustice, depriving it of some of its natural Caucasian flavor. (Mountains! Caucasian mountains!) A whole leaf approach would’ve given it a fighting chance against other teas from the region – such as the Georgians I’ve tried. All in all, not bad.

Although, next time…I’m doing it out of a samovar.

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