From Russia with Leaf

by Thomas Tomporowski

You may be forgiven for not noticing tea in Sochi. This southernmost city of Russia’s Krasnodar Region, deftly nestled between the glistening waters of Black Sea and the majestic snow capped peaks of the Caucasus, has a lot of other things going for it. A centre for Russian health tourism, with multiple sanatoria peppered around the lush hills, it is also President Vladimir Putin’s favourite getaway. When we visited, we only missed him by a week. 

Perhaps for these reasons, Sochi is immaculately maintained. It is also quite charming architecturally – it somehow managed to eschew the 1970’s tower blocks, so prominent in many eastern European cities. It kept the holiday resorts in check, avoiding the overdevelopment of many similar locations. And let’s not forget sport. Displays of the last Winter Olympics abound throughout the city, and it only takes a half hour drive from the beach to a ski lift. Adding sub-tropical climate, an odd palm tree, and a decidedly relaxed attitude of the residents, creates a place that’s impressively pleasant to visit and live. Little wonder there is plenty in Sochi for tea to compete with.

Russian tea history

Tea producing farms in the area have been growing tea since the introduction of the plant in the late 1800s. They never quite matched the reputational strength of the teas coming from across the border in Georgia, instead settling for being an integral part of a larger tea production region, which stretched from the Black Sea on the west coast to Caspian Sea in the East. Ironically, it was in the Solokhaul village to the north of Sochi that the first tea farm was founded in 1901 by a hardy Ukrainian called Judas Koshman. The story goes that no one believed the farm would succeed in this location, being the northernmost tea growing outpost at the time, with often significant snowfall in the winter. What’s the most remarkable, is that Koshman took on the challenge at the age of 65, and lived for another 30 in order to see it through. Indeed it’s never too late to start something new.

Russian tea farms

Today the picture is different. Georgia decided to rebrand itself as a wine making nation, largely forgoing the reputation of the regional tea centre. Russian farms, no longer producing the volumes of tea of fifty years ago, have sought to focus on quality. Formerly marketed as “Krasnodar Chai”, Russian tea used to be more uniform in style, but such an assumption no longer holds today today. While exclusively catering to the discerning domestic tea drinker, the region is now at the forefront of innovation.

Six Russian tea producers

In the early 90s, the farms ceased to produce tea as a single unit. Due to the geographical spread of the erstwhile operation, six new companies emerged, each named after a township in Sochi’s vicinity. They began competing with one another, each vying for the title of becoming Russia’s foremost tea producer, investing in technology and products. Tea continued to be associated with Sochi, and a visit to one of the tea farms is today a part of a standard holiday itinerary. We visited four out of six tea factories and were pleased to discover that every one of them took a slightly different approach to tea production.

Dagomys Tea Plantation

Dagomys, on the north side of Sochi, is most probably the most recognisable face of Russian tea industry. They have a handful of retail shops in the area, as well as a rather impressive visitor centre at the plantation, the photos of which you can find on Trip Advisor. The vibe is distinctly relaxed, with horses roaming freely around the tea fields at the time of our visit. Dagomys could be considered the traditional black tea producer, offering several grades of fully oxidised tea, with summer months giving a classic malty taste to the crop. Those on a cruise ship calling at Sochi for a few days, are likely to leave with a gift box of Dagomys Tea.

Matsesta Tea Plantation

Half way between Sochi and the local airport at Adler, lies the town of Matsesta, home of Matsesta Tea Plantation. The visitor centre caters for an occasional tour bus, the more undecided buyers can still pick up Matsesta Tea at the airport. The plantation claims to be using modern Japanese machinery and to be following the Japanese production process for their black and green tea, but we could not taste the difference. Matsesta Tea also claim to be the only organic certified producer in the area. All others make the simple assertion that Russian winters take care of the bugs, so no pesticides are needed.

Solokhaul Tea Plantation

Reaching Solokhaul Tea Plantation requires a bit of skill, with the volume of the visitors dropping dramatically as a result. Solokhaul are the pioneers of tea farming - it is there in 1901 where Judas Koshman started the tea plantation, it is also there where he died and was buried. His modest house was transformed into a small museum, and we found the location to be the most charming of the four. Solokhaul highlight the seasonality of the flavour in the tea production cycle, saying that no tea season is superior to another. There is also a robust green tea showing and some dabbling in buds only white tea, which can be produced for a lot of money on special request. 

Khosta Tea Plantation

Equally of the beaten track, Khosta Tea Plantation are big fans of the Chinese approach to tea. They also have the biggest range, offering green, yellow, oolong and black tea.  Where Dagomys and Matsesta overbrewed their green teas during our tasting, owing to a traditional Russian approach to tea serving, Khosta were on the ball with the gaiwan, meaning our palates were able to appreciate the finer nuances in the flavour. Tried later in London, Khosta green tea comfortably won the comparative tasting with the other greens. However much we enjoy the samovar, it doesn’t seem to be particularly suitable for non-black tea.

Krasnodar Tea – final thoughts

While we have not had the time to visit the other two tea producers – Adlersky and Lazerevsky Tea Plantations, we have certainly appreciated the variety of tea experiences Russian producers can offer. Despite the sizes of the farms being in tens of hectares, some of the tea is still picked by hand. Russian winters keep the pests at bay, while the makers do not let their experience get in the way of innovation. Is Krasnodar Tea the tea world’s best kept secret?