“Çaysız sohbet aysız gök yüzü gibidir” translated means “conversations without tea are like a night sky without the moon. This is an old Turkish proverb from the Sivas Province in central Turkey and in Turkish culture, it couldn’t be more true! Turkish tea, more familiarly known as ‘çay’ is the most commonly consumed hot drink in Turkey, despite the country’s association with coffee. In Turkey, tea drinking is like an addiction or an obsession. A day would simply not be complete without several glasses of the boiling hot, delicious, dark crimson liquid. Tea and Turkey have become synonymous with one another; if you have visited Turkey, you will have at least been offered a small glass of tea and it was probably several times a day.
A samovar of richly brewed çay is never far away in Turkey. Whether you are in a home, a restaurant or a place of work, such as an office, if you are in the company of a Turk, you will be offered tea. The subject of tea is a means of breaking the ice, it is often a way to start a conversation. The presentation of tea is a welcoming gesture and an extension of the great Turkish hospitality that visitors have come to know and love. The Turks themselves look for any excuse to enjoy a glass of tea. It is drunk before meals, during meals and after meals and is also a great excuse for a break from work. If you are a guest in their home or their office, you will always be served tea before anybody else there as a sign of friendship and acceptance. Just as the English believe that a cup of tea can solve any problem, clearly so do the Turks!
Çay has become an important element of Turkish culture. Not only has çay become an every day beverage in Turkey and representative of great hospitality and friendship as mentioned above, but the guzzling of tea has created social well being in villages and cities across the country. Çay is most often consumed in households, shops and restaurants, but it has also become a staple between social congregations of Turkish men and the centre point of family time. Most villages in Turkey will have a dedicated tea house or area where only the local men are allowed to socialise. Usually you will see them deep in great conversation, smoking, gambling over an intense game of backgammon and you guessed it, drinking tea! Close by you would be sure to find the village’s ‘Çay Bahçesi’, the local tea garden, where çay is available by the bucketload and is self service. These gardens are hubs of social activity with kids running around, music playing a lots of lively conversation between family members. In Turkey, you really can find a refreshing glass of çay anywhere and any time!
Actually the consumption of tea, particularly after a meal, is seen as a very healthy thing in Turkey. It is believed that after a good and hearty meal, a glass of hot tea can melt away any fat in your internal channels and arteries. If that is true, surely that is a good enough reason to drink several cups of tea a day? Ok, it may not actually melt away the unhealthy parts of your meal, but it does help the digestive system to do its job more efficiently by stimulating the production of saliva, bile and gastric juice. It should also be noted that Turkish tea is unique across the world for its organic properties; no chemicals are used in the production of Turkish tea. With no calories, no chemicals and very little caffeine, Turkish tea is one of the healthiest drinks you could have.
Tea in Turkey Today
Çay is Turkey’s favourite beverage and per capita, Turks consume more tea each year than any other country. Based on data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the average annual tea consumption per person worldwide is less than 1 kilogram. In Turkey, each person consumes an average of more than 3kg of tea per year. In weight, after China and India, Turkey is in third place when it comes to the number of tons consumed each year; China consumes 1.6 million tons, India 1 million and Turkey 240,000 tons.
Turkey is also the fifth country on the list of the highest tea producers at 220,000 tons per year. China produced almost 2 million tons, followed by India, Sri Lanka and Kenya. As previously mentioned, the Turkish tea production company Çaykur accounts for 60% of the Turkish tea sector and sold almost 5000 tons of tea to 54 countries last year, including Australia, Kosovo, Mongolia and Saudi Arabia. Herbal teas have also become increasingly popular as medication and as a treat for visitors. Elma çayı (apple tea) kuşburnu çayı (rose hip tea) and ıhlamur çayı (linden flower tea) are sold country wide but particularly in the tourist areas of the country and ada çayı (sage tea) is the most popular in the Mediterranean coastal region.
The Production of Turkish Tea
Tea in Turkey is mostly produced on the country’s Black Sea coast. Sometimes known as Rize Tea, çay thrives in the Rize Province on the eastern Black Sea coast thanks to its mild climate, high precipitation levels and fertile soil. Aside from Rize, tea plantations can be found from the Georgian border to Trabzon, Arakli, Rize, Karadere and Fatsa, reaching 30 km inland and to a height of around 1000m above sea level in some places. The production of Turkish tea is carried out between May and October each year, the 6 months which offer the perfect climate. Interestingly, all tea is produced from the same plant, ‘Camellia Sinensis’, It is simply the fermentation of the leaves which determines whether the tea turns out to be black semi-fermented or green.
After the leaves are harvested by hand, the leaves are sorted for uniformity and any stems, twigs or broken leaves are removed from the crop. The leaves are then laid out to wilt and wither for several hours, when the water content of the leaves is reduced from 70-80% to 50-55%. This process is known as withering. Without this process, the leaves would shatter and crumble when rolled and shaped. During withering, the leaves are very gently fluffed, rotated and monitored to ensure even exposure to the air.
The next step in cultivation is rolling. This is where the variety of teas are created and where çay comes into its own. The softened leaves are rolled, pressed or twisted to break the cell walls of the leaf, wringing out the juices inside. This exposes enzymes and essential oils in the leaf to the oxygen in the air. After rolling, the leaves are laid out to rest for several hours allowing oxidation to take place. The leaf’s exposure to oxygen is what turns it a reddish-brown colour, changing the chemical composition; the black tea acquires the desired colour, acridity, brightness, odour and aroma at this point. The final step is to dry the leaves in a process known as ‘firing’. The leaves are heated quickly to dry them to below 3% moisture content and stop the oxidation process, ensuring that the tea is storable and can be packaged.
Drinking Çay in Turkey
Turks use ‘çaydanlık’ to prepare their special tea, two kettles stacked on top of each other. Water is added to the bottom, larger kettle and is brought to the boil. Some of this water is then transferred to fill the top kettle and several spoonfuls of loose tea leaves is added to steep in the water, producing a very strong tea. The brewing of the tea in the top kettle takes around 15 minutes, using the steam from the bottom kettle to keep the water hot. By adding differing amounts of hot water to their glass of tea, consumers can choose the strength of their glass of çay, from ‘koyu’ (dark) or ‘tavşan kanı’ (rabbit’s blood - deep brownish red) to açık (light).
Turkish tea is traditionally served in small tulip shaped glasses; small to allow the drinker to enjoy the beverage hot and glass so that the deep colour of the tea can be seen. Tulips play an interesting role in the history and culture of Turkey. The ‘Tulip Era’ of 1718-1730 under the rile of Sultan Ahmed III is expressed as a period of peace and enjoyment and tulips, originally grown in Turkey, became an important part of Turkish life within the arts and folklore. You can find references to the tulip all over Turkey, in embroidery, clothing, carpets, tiles and of course the glasses that are made to contain çay. Four hundred million tulip tea glasses are sold in Turkey every year and have become so important in Turkish life, they are used as measurements in Turkish kitchens.
Traditionally çay is served with two cubes of beet sugar which you can add to your tea or you can place a cube inside your mouth and drink the tea through the sugar cubes. Of course you can go without sugar if you wish, but never ask for milk to be added, you won’t be thanked for ruining the special aroma of delicious Turkish tea!