It is hard to imagine breakfasts, social gatherings, business meetings, negotiations for carpets in the Grand Bazaar, or ferry rides across the Bosphorus in Turkey without the presence of tea. With tea servers in streets, shopping malls, and parks shouting, “ÇAY!” (chai) the beverage is always within shouting distance. It is fundamental to Turkish social life and plays a large role in Turkey’s domestic economy. Tea in Turkish Social Life Although tea passed through Turkey as part of the Silk Road trade in the 1500s, it did not begin to become a part of daily life until nearly four centuries later. In 1878 Mehmet Izzet, the then governor of Adana, published the Çay Rişalesi (Tea Pamphlet), touting the health benefits of drinking tea. Although coffee was still the preferred hot beverage during this period, the consumption of tea began to spread as tea houses opened in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul. Also, tea became a cheaper alternative to coffee; one could purchase four glasses of tea for the price of one cup of coffee.
Today, Turks have one of the highest per capita consumption rates of tea, averaging about 1,000 cups per year. This high rate owes itself to the availability of places to consume tea, social customs and traditions, and domestic production along the Eastern Black Sea coast. Travel to any town in Turkey and you are sure to find a tea house or a tea garden. In smaller towns and rural areas, tea houses are the preferred social hub where news and gossip are exchanged. In the larger cities and touristy regions, tea houses welcome the young and old, as well as many foreigners. Tea gardens, another social venue for drinking tea, gained popularity in the 1950s, especially in Istanbul, and were the place where families went for their social outings. It is important to note that the Turkish tea garden is very different from a Japanese tea garden. Whereas the latter is quiet and serene and was developed in conjunction with the Japanese tea ceremony, Turkish tea gardens are hubs of social activity with kids running around, music playing, and lively conversation among various groups from students, to businessmen to retirees and foreigners. In the rural areas of Turkey, tea takes center stage at social events. A Turkish Bridal Shower, sometimes referred to as a gelin hamami because it is held in a Turkish bath, involves taking samovars of tea and pastries for all to enjoy. Five o’clock tea time is also observed in Turkey, particularly among house wives. Preparation and serving Turks prepare tea using a double tea pot. Water is boiled in the lower (larger) pot and the loose-leaf tea is steeped in the top (smaller) pot. This method allows each person to drink the tea as they desire: strong and steeped, or light with lots of water added. In central Anatolian towns such as Amasya, and in Eastern Turkey, tea is prepared in a samovar. Turks prefer to drink tea in small tulip-shaped glasses. Though the origins of this shape are not known, the clear glass allows the drinker to appreciate the crimson color of the tea. The tea glass is so important in Turkish life it is used as a measurement in recipes. As you pass tea gardens and tea houses you will hear the clinking of tiny tea spoons in the tea glasses. In large cities like Istanbul, and the capital Ankara, tea may be served in porcelain cups and mugs as in England and the United States, but the small tea-glass is by far the container of choice. Generally, two small sugar cubes will accompany tea that is served in public. In Erzurum and other towns in Eastern Turkey, tea is taken in the “KITLAMA” style, where a lump of sugar is placed between the tongue and cheek. Turks never add milk to their tea; sometimes lemon may be preferred Production Turkey’s serious attempts at cultivating tea began in 1917 in the Eastern Black Sea town of Rize. However, due the Turkish War for Independence, it was difficult for the Government-appointed agricultural engineers to gain the residents’ support, which was critical to the endeavor’s success. In 1924 the Government passed a law stating that tea, oranges, and filberts would be raised in Rize. However, it was not until the mid- to late-1930s that the Government placed a strong emphasis on cultivating tea. The first large scale cultivation occurred in 1937 when 20 tons of seeds were brought from Batum in the Georgian Republic, and planted at the central green house in Rize, yielding 30 kilos of tea.
Tea cultivation began to spread and become an inextricable part of economic life along the Eastern Black Sea Coast, so much so that towns began to change their names to have the word “Çay” in them: the town of Mapavri became Çayeli and Kadahor became Çaykara. By 1965, the production of tea had satisfied the domestic market and Turkey began to export its tea. Çay-Kur, the Directorate of Tea Establishments was founded in 1971 to coordinate both the cultivation and processing of tea, and in 1973 it went into active operation. Çay-Kur aimed to expand tea cultivation, stay abreast of innovations in tea processing technology, and import and export tea as necessary. Çay-Kur enjoyed a monopoly over Turkish tea until 1984, when tea processing and packaging were opened to private enterprise. Today, Turkey is the world’s fifth largest producer of tea, behind India, China, Kenya and Sri Lanka. Along Turkey’s Eastern Black Sea Coast tea bushes stretch from the border with the Georgian Republic to the town of Rize, Turkey’s ‘tea capital’, and extend farther westward toward Trabzon. Over 200,000 families are involved in the cultivation of tea either as owners of tea “plantations”, sharecroppers, or employees in the nearly 300 tea producing factories. All tea is produced from the same plant, Camellia Sinensis; it is the amount of fermentation that determines whether the tea turns out to be black, oolong (semi-fermented) or green (unfermented). A unique feature of Turkish tea is that no chemical substances or additives are used in the production process. Although black, loose-leaf tea is preferred in Turkey, green tea is slowly gaining in popularity due to its health benefits.